Lucretia Coffin Mott’s record of leadership in the women’s movement and in transatlantic abolitionism make her an ideal figure to remember on International Women’s day, even though Mott has long been overlooked.
In the portrait on the cover of Lucretia Mott's Heresy by Carol Faulkner, the modestly dressed elder looks nothing like a heretic. Yet this uncompromising nineteenth-century activist would make many twenty-first century American radicals seem tame. One of the most famous women of her time, Lucretia Coffin Mott addressed issues of feminism, consumer activism, and interracial cooperation long before those terms entered political debates. Faulkner calls Mott “the foremost white female abolitionist in the United States” and places her at the vanguard of the antislavery movement.
"I am a worshipper after the way called heresy–a believer after the manner which many deem infidel," said Mott to an audience of medical students from Thomas Jefferson Medical College and the University of Pennsylvania. The all white, all male, and partially southern group had gathered in 1849 to hear a fifty-six-year old woman's views on the evils of plantation slavery. Mott prayed that the audience "receive that which conflicts with their education, their prejudices, and their preconceived notions."
Mott’s “demure appearance as a Quaker matron enabled her to preach her radical message of individual liberty and racial equality to a wide variety of audiences, including those hostile to her views,” writes Faulkner. Unfortunately, the gentle appearance may have also caused her to recede into history. Too many people have confused Mott’s faith and active interest in family life with political passivity. Early biographies emphasized her domestic, motherly side. Never-the-less, the pacifist was a fighter in one sense. Faulkner writes:
She told an audience of abolitionists that, “the early Friends were agitators; disturbers of the peace.” She advised them to be equally “obnoxious.” Lucretia followed her own council. She used her powerful feminine voice and her physical body to confront slavery and racial prejudice as well as sexual inequality, religious intolerance, and war.”
With the exception of slavery, the issues that inspired Mott’s activism remain among the most controversial in American politics. Looking back at her public life, it is tempting to wonder how she would like to be remembered. It’s easy to imagine contemporary leaders and pundits calling Mott “obnoxious,” to say the least, in spite of her grandmotherly looks. She would probably want it that way.