Lucretia Mott; abolitionist, feminist; Valiant Friend: The life of Lucretia Mott, by Margaret Hope Bacon. New York: Walker. $14.95.
One hundred years ago Lucretia Mott passed from a lifetime of dedicated activism to immortality as one of the leading figures in the reform movement in America. It is good time to assess the significance of her commitment as a staunch Quaker, a determined antislavery advocate, and a confirmed believer in women's rights. It is also a good time to take a closer look at the woman who until now has been "legendized" by her Victorian biographers.
Born on Nantucket in 1793, Lucretia Mott was the second daughter of the sea captain Thomas Coffin Jr. and Anna Folger. Both parents were descendants of the island's original settlers; both were Quakers and industrious members of the community. Thomas Coffin spent months and even years away at sea whaling. During his absence, Anna Folger Coffin supported herself and their six children by keeping a shop. The example of her parents was a lesson in steadfastness their daughter never forgot.
Moving from Nantucket to Boston and then to school in Duchess County, New York, Lucretia developed her considerable talents and grew convinced of her mission to right the wrongs she saw around her. James Mott, a fellow teacher at the Quaker school, shared her views and offered to share his life with her. It was the beginning of a partnership that sustained all her efforts.
Although James and Lucretia Mott's activities on behalf of abolition, women's rights, and pacifism made frequent journeys to New York and Boston necessary, the family home was in Philadelphia. Each time they moved, it was to a larger house in order to accommodate family and friends. Ministers and escaped slaves, orphans and immigrants sat side by side at a dining room table that could serve 50 peope. Ideas were exchanged and lasting friendships formed.
As the years passed, gains were made: Slavery was abolished; women joined the professions; and the movement begun at Seneca Falls became the National Woman Suffrage Association. Lucretia Mott's basic allegiances never wavered. She regularly attended Fourth-day Meeting at the Race Street Meeting House, preached as the spirit moved her, and, despite the schisms which divided the Society of Friends, she remained a resolute Quaker all her life.
This is a biography of achievement, a straightforward record of years of determination to follow the "light within" regardless of the disapproval of some members of the Society of Friends and the actual harassment of anti-abolitionists, Tammany toughs, and hostile Philadelphia mobs. And, as far as reliable sources provide, it is an exemplary account of a dedicated woman, a loving wife and mother who in her last years "waited patiently and cheerfully for the end."
But Margaret Hope Bacon's "Valiant Friend" whets the reader's appetite for a fuller portrait than the passing references to Lucretia Mott's preference for an English bonnet "with a higher crown and a few more pleats than American Quaker women were accustomed to wearing," and her mild censorship of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's $100-dollar woolen shawl provide. There are facets of this complicated woman's emotional and social life which are not quite perceivable in Bacon's meticulous account. At times dates and places assume more importance than events. Sequences become more involved than relationships. The human dimensions of the rapidly unfolding scenes seem hidden in the plethora of detail.
On balance, however, there is no denying the need for this updated, well-researched life of Lucretia Mott and its value to the general reader and, particularly, to the feminist in search of the contribution of this 19th-century "mother of us all." Together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott struggeld unremittingly to secure for half the human race the "right to be acknowledged as moral, responsible beings." "Valiant Woman" details this crusade.