Monday, July 19, 2010

Lucretia Mott—One Obnoxious Dame

Finally off the Romania thing—not really, just not writing about it—here is my opinion column for today's edition of Small Town Newspaper. I love that Mott was so unashamed of her boldness that she called herself "obnoxious" and wasn't self deprecating. Go, Lucretia!


The Seneca Falls Convention held in New York on this day in 1848 was the first women’s rights gathering of its time—attended by both men and women—and it marked the beginning of the women’s rights movement in the United States. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the groundbreaking event; and while Stanton’s name is well known still today, Mott’s story is told less often.

Lucretia Mott’s narrative is no dusty, old biography. Hers is a story of courage and determination based on her guiding rule: “If our principles are right, why should we be cowards?” Fearless, Mott spent her life working to correct the wrongs she witnessed, despite harassment and danger, persecution and criticism.

Mott was a Quaker minister who, with her husband James, became an outspoken abolitionist in Philadelphia. In their business, she and James boycotted cotton cloth and sugarcane traded by slave owners, and their home became a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Women were not often permitted to speak publicly, but Mott took the podium anyway, preaching and speaking until her message was heard. She was often dismissed and called “promiscuous” for daring to speak to a mixed-gender audience no matter the message; and while she was delivering a speech in Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia, an angry mob set fire to the building and burned it to the ground. They marched on to attack the Motts’ home, but a sympathetic friend protected the couple.

Mott would not be deterred by danger and continued to speak out loud, and when she discovered abolitionist organizations were closed to women, she created the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. She was named a delegate to an abolitionist convention in London, and she took her fight all the way to President Tyler.

The issues of slavery and women’s rights were often related, especially in Quaker circles where correcting human rights violations was a priority. So, Mott also applied her fiery determination to the causes of women. During the convention in Seneca Falls, she helped write the Declaration of Sentiments that would be adopted by members of the convention, a document patterned after the Declaration of Independence but with some corrections: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal,” for example.

After the convention, she set out to correct the offenses she felt had been heaped on women, beginning with their exclusion from universities. With the help of others of like mind, Mott founded Swarthmore College, a coeducational school; and she founded the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, the first all-women’s medical school in the world.

The persistent and tireless Mott, once called “Lioness,” helped organize poor women in developing their own cottage industries, campaigned for prison reform and joined the early suffragettes in forming the National Woman Suffrage Association. A colleague called her “the most belligerent non-resistant he ever saw;” and she countered by saying that earlier Quakers were even more "obnoxious" than she was, and even as pacifists, they were agitators and disturbers of the peace. These descriptions were compliments in her eyes, as she and her predecessors were driven by the same “right principles.”

Stories of human rights activists like Lucretia Mott can easily be buried and forgotten in obscure books or websites, but it would be our loss to forget the work and courage of this woman. Though long past the evils of slavery and the systematic oppression of women, at least in this country, we still need courageous individuals to follow Mott’s example by stepping up and speaking out against injustice. Too often, we moan about having no heroes left to represent us—I’m not sure that’s true, but retelling the stories of past heroes like Mott as blueprints for brave leadership may bring some potential heroes out of the shadows and inspire them to boldness.

"We too often bind ourselves by authorities rather than by the truth,” Mott said. I believe we also bind ourselves by our own level of comfort, pressure from our peers and fear for our own well being above all else. Today, when I remember the Seneca Falls Convention that sparked a social revolution, I can only hope for an ounce of its founder’s courage.

1 comment:

dive said...

It never ceases to amaze me how relevant lessons from the past are today, Robyn.
I know that's probably because we are too dumb to learn those lessons when we are taught them and so they need to be taught over and over but it's good to be reminded of this one.