Born the daughter of a Nantucket sea captain, Mott was reared in a Quaker community that provided strong role models for the young girl. She attended a Quaker boarding academy in the Hudson Valley, New York, where she soon became a teacher. After her family moved to Philadelphia, a fellow instructor at the academy, James Mott, followed her there, and in 1811 the two were married. They had six children, five of whom survived infancy. The death of her first son deepened her spirituality, and in 1818, she became a member of the Quaker ministry.
Mott, like many Quakers, advocated antislavery and boycotted all products of slave labor. She helped found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and served as its president. She also became prominent in the national organization after it admitted women. This sort of activity in reform groups was a radical departure for women of her era.
When denied a seat in 1840 at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London on account of her sex, Mott preached her doctrine of female equality outside the conference hall. During her London visit, she befriended Elizabeth Cady Stanton, wife of abolitionist delegate Henry Stanton. During the summer of 1848 she and Stanton organized the meeting at Seneca Falls, New York, where the American women’s rights movement was launched. Mott was elected president of the group in 1852.
Mott’s feminist philosophy was outlined in her Discourse on Women (1850). She believed women’s roles within society reflected limited education rather than innate inferiority. She advocated equal economic opportunity and supported women’s equal political status, including suffrage.
After the Civil War, Mott, unlike many abolitionists who believed their work was done, threw herself into the cause of black suffrage and aid for freedpeople. She also helped establish a coeducational Quaker institution, Swarthmore College, in 1864. Two years later, despite increasing ill health, she was elected head of the American Equal Rights Association. Unfortunately the group broke into factions, the National Woman Suffrage Association (headed by Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (led by Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and others).
Although viewed as a peacemaker by both abolitionists and feminists, Mott did not thrive on her role as referee, suffering increasingly from severe stomach disorders. Nevertheless she pursued her own path as a champion of the unempowered-the poor, blacks, and women. Using her gift for oratory, Mott delivered hundreds of speeches and sermons, reached thousands of listeners, and was a strong force in effecting the reforms of her day.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.