Patricia A. Nugent: Lucretia Mott — “The Lioness of the Convention”
“It’s the will of God,” the men argued, waving Bibles in her face.
But she knew better; she was a minister, after all.
Yet she was not allowed to speak. She was not even allowed to sit on the main convention floor. She was segregated in the balcony behind a screen—she and the scant few other women allowed to attend.
As women, they were not permitted to participate in the political discourse around the abolition of slavery. They were, after all, considered property themselves.
The irony was not lost on this feisty delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Outraged, she started a rant outside the convention hall about women’s equality, earning the title, “The Lioness of the Convention.”
The year was 1840, and Lucretia Mott had already earned a reputation as a social reformer in the United States. Of Quaker background, she had a strong grounding in social justice, witnessing women speaking their minds in that denomination. Becoming first a teacher, painfully aware of the disparity between her salary and that of male colleagues, she then became a Quaker minister. She preached against slavery and boycotted products of slave labor. She founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and then went to London as a delegate. Only to be humiliated.
She may have been ostracized from the business of the convention, but being in London that day changed the course of women’s history: Elizabeth Cady Stanton was also in attendance at the World Anti-Slavery Convention (though only to accompany her new husband who was a delegate; it was their honeymoon.) Elizabeth became outraged at the way her new acquaintance was being treated and, as she later wrote in The History of Woman Suffrage, “…Missionary work for the emancipation of woman…was then and there inaugurated.” As they strolled through the streets of London, these two women hatched a plan to hold a women’s rights convention when they returned to the United States.
The rest, as they say, is history—or would be if Lucretia Mott were in our history books. Sadly, few know about this firebrand for women’s rights.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who became arguably the leading strategist for the women’s rights movement in the United States, said of meeting Lucretia, “I felt at once a new-born sense of dignity and freedom.” It’s generally believed that without Lucretia’s mentoring and support from Lucretia’s sister, Martha, the Women’s Rights Convention that ignited the feminist movement in 1848 might never have been called. Three hundred women and men attended to consider the “social, civil and religious conditions and rights of women.” It was a mini-Woodstock type of event, with radical suffragists descending on the sleepy little village of Seneca Falls in upstate New York.
In addition to being one of the architects of the first Women’s Rights Convention, Lucretia also co-authored the Declaration of Sentiments presented there, modeled after the Declaration of Independence:
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her… In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to affect our object.
They got all they anticipated and then some. This married mother of five was called a “brazen infidel.” Remembering the Bible-waving men in London, she challenged those who cited God’s will as their basis for discrimination, saying it is not The Bible that “makes the wife subject to the husband as many have supposed. It has been done by law and public opinion since that time.” She challenged women to “not ask as favor, but demand as right, that every civil and ecclesiastical obstacle be removed out of the way.”
She was extremely eloquent, known for being both radical and serene in her oratory. In response to a male lecturer criticizing the suffrage movement, Lucretia published her 20-page Discourse on Women in 1850, advocating for equal economic, marital, social and political status. In 1864, she helped establish Swarthmore College, a highly-selective, private liberal arts college. Two years later, she was elected president of the American Equal Rights Association, which unfortunately splintered when they couldn’t agree on their main focus. Despite her reputation as a peacemaker, Lucretia could not broker a peace between Lucy Stone, whose priority was the vote, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who advocated women’s total equality.
Lucretia, like most of the founding suffragists, lived until her late 80s. Yet, only one signatory to the Declaration of Sentiments lived to see female suffrage become a reality in this country, 72 years after these brave women boldly demanded “immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.”
Lucretia Mott had refused to shut up and go away. Instead she roared about injustice. Another woman heard her story, and their synergy ignited a revolution. A revolution that’s still not finished. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, they were “only the stone that started the ripple…”
— Patricia A. Nugent is the author of the play, The Stone that Started the Ripple, about a modern-day reunion of the founding suffragists. She is also the author of They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad.
This essay first appeared in Ms Magazine blog. Reprinted by permission of the author.