Lucretia Mott’s Birthday Secret: No Woman Is an Island?

What “secret” am I talking about here? Lucretia Mott with a secret?

For her devotees, Lucretia Mott’s life is, or should be, an open book: born into a loving, encouraging family, married for 57 years to what one biographer called “the best husband ever”; she had a long public career of preaching and speaking, of which generous samplings have been preserved; and she wrote hundreds of letters which scholars have combed through. She endured sorrows: the loss of two of her six children, and then widowhood; and she overcame years of withering criticism of her ideas and “heresies.”

Lucretia! You really believed this stuff??

 None of that is new, or unexamined. And in her personal carriage she was a model of traditional Quaker propriety: she disdained novels as frivolous and vain; it was husband James who sat in a quiet corner, burning the midnight oil, unable to put down Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Then, while Hicksites all around were shedding the grey and the bonnet, she was plain til the very end.

Sure, she was wrong about some things: she thought, for instance, that war would soon be outmoded & obsolete. She believed, at least for awhile, in phrenology, a pseudoscience that taught one could discern intelligence and character by mapping bumps on the head.

But if there is any hidden scandal or shame, 137 years after her death in 1880, nothing has turned up or leaked out.

So that’s not the sort of secret I’ve been looking for. Yet she remains a conundrum: there were many other respectable matrons among American Quakers of her day who were also advocates of charity and reform; there were devoted Friendly mothers; and women ministers who traveled and spoke. And still, she’s one of a kind.

Further, to say she was “controversial” is correct but a serious understatement. For years they were gunning for her — “they” being most of the Hicksite Quaker Establishment, as not only a threat to conventional theology, but to the social/economic order that they sat atop of.

Isaac Hopper, friend of Lucretia and a victim of the Great Purge: disowned in 1842 for being an abolitionist; guilty as charged. He still came to meeting and sat on the same bench til his death ten years later.

Further, this Establishment was ready and able to exercise its power to stifle or expel its critics. Long and wrenching is the list of distinguished devoted Friends, such as Isaac Hopper, cast out or driven out from the supposedly “liberal” Hicksite fold in the decades leading up to the Civil War, casualties of what I have called the Great Purge.

In this purge effort, Lucretia Mott was notable as The One Who Got Away. In my researches I’ve turned up records of at least half a dozen attempts to  have her disowned. And these were not unknown at the time.

Indeed, one of her admirers, William Adams, a Friend of Philadelphia, kept a diary of his attendance at Lucretia’s Meeting, between the year 1841 and his death, in 1858. . . .  here are his notes from two of many occasions when he mentioned her and her ministry:

Twelfth month (December) 3d. [1843] After a short silence Lucretia Mott arose and delivered a very edifying discourse, wherein the slave was not forgotten. She plead for the truth with a zeal that I thought was according to knowledge, and which, it seemed to me, her adversaries could not gainsay or resist. And at her close I thought I saw the recording angel of truth fly to Heaven and record her testimony in the “Lamb’s book of life.”

First month (January) 21st, 1844. On sitting down in meeting it came into my heart to pray for Lucretia Mott, that she might be supported in all her trials and her discouragements. May the choicest of Heaven’s blessings rest upon her, and may her sun go down in brightness and her reward be sure. Before I was through my aspirations, she arose with, “In your patience possess ye your souls,” and gave us an edifying discourse. Near the close I thought I saw the Saviour descend and stand by her, or hover over her, with, “Be not discouraged, for I am thy God.”

Second month (February) 1845. Next [in describing the ministers of Cherry Street Meeting] that precious handmaid of the Lord, Lucretia Mott. Great has been her exercise and devotion for the cause of the slave; may her reward be sure. Thou precious lamb, thou hast known what it is to be in perils through false brethren, and to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and thine is the kingdom of heaven. Let me here bear my testimonies to thy edifying discourses, and be permitted to say that I believe thou art not far from the kingdom. Let this record stand to enduring generations. Amen.

So the “secret’ I’ve been looking for is the answer to the question that pops up almost continually during her most active years: How did she get away with it?

And I think I’ve figured it out. It’s because of Nantucket.

Nantucket is a small island about 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Nowadays it’s a summer resort for the well-heeled, with the harbor full of yachts and other bobbing signs of affluence. 

But Back In the Day — say the day of January (oops, excuse me: First Month) 3, 1793, [Happy 225th Birthday, Lucretia!] Nantucket was fast becoming the American capitol of whaling, a substantial port for merchant shipping — and the most important Quaker stronghold in new England, second only to Philadelphia on this side of the Atlantic. 

Nantucket is a fascinating pilgrimage spot for Quakers; go off season, when it’s easier to look  past the opulence, and it’s dense with stirring Quaker history. Being a Quaker-dominated port gave this island town numerous distinctive features.  The one we need to home in on, though, was the fact that while the harbor was populated with Quaker ships, the town was populated by many Quaker women. And these women, even the most prosperous ones, were kept plenty busy; not just with children, but also with business.

I mean both business business, and Meeting business. Many Quaker men were away from the island for years on end (Lucretia’s father was away for three years), sailing halfway around the world (or farther) on trips that were always dangerous, and not rarely fatal — and during which communication with home was rare or nonexistent.

Meantime, Quaker women, while still heavily encased in what we would now think of as stereotyped women’s roles, were more educated than many other females of their day; they also had official status in the Meetings; and they  — well, let’s hear how Lucretia describes it:

Biographer C. M. Hare noted that Lucretia once referred to her island background and childhood, writing:

“In those early years I was actively useful to my mother, who, in the absence of my father on his long voyages, was engaged in the mercantile business, often going to Boston to purchase goods in exchange for oil and candles, the staples of the island.
“The exercise of women’s talents in this line, as well as the general care which devolved on them in the absence of their husbands, tended to develop and strengthen them mentally and physically.”

Many Nantucket women, like Lucretia’s mother, were in business. Some from home, others had shops clustered around a street that is still unofficially called “Petticoat Row.”

Thus, while still looking very demure and conventional, many of these women were encountering and making their way in a “man’s world” of commerce, and learning much that stayed with them

Further, Lucretia wrote to Elizabeth Cady Stanton that:

— As to Nantucket Women, there are no great things to tell. In the early settlement of that Island Mary Starbuck bore a prominent place, as a wise counsellor, & a remarkably strong mind.

— Divers Quaker women since that time, have been eminent as preachers. . . . Hannah Barnard of Hudson, a native of Nantucket, of the last century, was regarded one of the greatest ministers in the Society. She travelled in England, & was there deposed by the ruling powers ^in the Society of course,^ for daring to express doubts of the Divine authority of the Jewish Wars—as well as far more openly than Friends were wont, to deny the atonement & scheme of Salvation. She returned home to Hudson & was much respected thro’ a long life for her good works.

“No great things to tell”? Who’s she kidding? The whole Nantucket community and culture was largely founded by a towering matriarch, Mary Coffin Starbuck (Lucretia’s great-something-or-other aunt; can’t keep all the genealogy straight). Then:

— The early Quakers still earlier 1660 & 70 asserted & carried out Womans equal claim to the Ministry—& reciprocal vows in the Marriage covenant—also in acting a part in the Executive duties of the society—while their women too were & they still are governed by laws, in the making of which they have no voice—rules of Discipline always issuing from men’s Mg— Some advance in this respect in Rhode I. Yearly—& Genesee; as well as entire equality in the Progressive Frds. Mgs . . . .

And here, I think is the nub of it:

. . . In the Mo. Mg. of Friends on that Island, the Women have long been regarded as the stronger part— This is owing in some measure to so many of the men being away at sea— During the absence of their husbands, Nantucket women have been compelled to transact business, often going to Boston to procure supplies of goods—exchanging for oil, candles, whalebone—&.c.— This has made them adept in trade— They have kept their own accounts, & indeed acted the part of men. 

— Then education & intellectual culture have been for years equal for girls & boys so that their women are prepared to be companions of man in every sense—and their social circles are never divided. Successive generations of this kind of mental exercise have changed improved the form of the head, and the intellectual portion predominates— Set down as much of this to partiality & self-praise as thou please.
       — Lucretia Mott, Letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, March 1855, from Selected Letters, p. 234.

Now, let’s talk some turkey here: Quaker women in Nantucket’s unique setting, were learning the ways of business. And they had to carry on most of the business of the Meetings, which were central institutions of their culture, acting “the part of men,” in an era when gender roles were still sharply separated.

But there’s more. maybe I’m reading between the lines here but I don’t think so: the Quaker sailors, like Lucretia’s own father, eventually came back to port. And when they did, they expected to take up their defined roles, as paterfamilias, and the superior “men’s meetings” in their Quaker preserve. 

So the women learned not only the business of commerce; they not only managed the “business” of the whole Monthly Meetings; they also learned how to make sure that the seafaring Quaker males, once they returned, were made to feel as if their status and roles had been preserved, not diminished or usurped, in their absence.

It had to be a delicate stately Quaker dance. Women’s ways. Don’t tell me there weren’t such things that girls like the young Lucretia took in with their mothers’ milk. 

Another way to frame it is more secular: along with the basics of worldly commerce, Nantucket Quaker women learned Quaker politics; ins and outs beyond the basics of formal rules and protocols.   It wasn’t taught in their schools. Yet thee may be sure that there was instruction in the subject then — as there needs to be now. (If this is news to thee, Friend, there’s some important things yet for thee to learn.)

Lucretia hinted at this in a letter to a friend much later:

Geo[rge]. Combe [a major advocate of Phrenology] told me the sculls of the native Anglo Saxon, in the earliest day were far inferior to our later developments— Nantucket women’s frontal organs are more prominent than those of women whose intellectual powers & business talents have not been called into action.

—Lucretia Mott, letter to Richard D. Webb, 2nd Mo 1870, Selected Letters, p. 435

So: here’s the the secret, the answer to the question of HOW did Lucretia avoid getting disowned in year after year of upsetting the conventional Hicksite applecarts, and tweaking the stuffy, compromised Establishment?

No, Lucretia, it wasn’t the bumps on your head.

After all this, it’s basically simple: she was a better, smarter Quaker politician than the men who were after her; and the women too. She was always one step ahead; there were close calls, but she slipped from their grasp even then.

And besides her native intelligence, of which she had plenty, and her courage (ditto), where did this shrewdness come from?  It was not cynical, or even ambitious. It enabled her ministry; and it was a Nantucket export as real as spermaceti candles.

Nantucket is part of all her biographies, of course; but I don’t recall seeing anything like an adequate analysis of how this Quaker heritage was crucial to her success in hanging on to her membership, while she kept speaking up, with the growing influence that enabled, in a time of turbulence which led to civil war outside the Society, and something close to it within. I have some ideas about it, but not yet the time to dig out the nuances and put them all together. 

But that’s okay. It’s just another example of how, even at 225, Lucretia Mott just doesn’t get old.

2 thoughts on “Lucretia Mott’s Birthday Secret: No Woman Is an Island?”

  1. Wow again! Great stuff with societal ramifications.

    How do the serfs learn to find their way? By having roles learned from childhood where they are not acting as serfs.

    Where is that going to happen? That’s the question.

    Quaker Meeting is one good place that comes to mind — if we who populate said Meetings were to open our cultural doors to those unlike ourselves.

    Thanks. This points to many doors that need opening.

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