BookMark: "Lucretia Mott's Heresy" By Carol Faulkner
“Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in 19th Century America” is a delicious history. The book draws heavily from the letters of Lucretia Mott, which gives the reader the voice of this fiery opponent of slavery and promoter of women’s rights.
In the mid-1800s, Lucretia Mott was one of the most popular abolitionist speakers among the Philadelphia-area Religious Society of Friends. As a friend of a Friend, I am interested in the history of Quakers. This tiny religious sect has had an outsized impact on American history. I will also confess that my husband and I take special delight in academic histories. You know, those books with a colon in the title that signifies it will be easy to fall asleep to this one. At night we take turns reading out loud, occasionally asking, “Are you still awake?”
For us, “Lucretia Mott’s Heresy” was perfect bedtime reading. But it is not for everyone. Some readers will be impatient with the exhaustive detail of this scholarly tome by Syracuse University professor Carol Faulkner.
Lucretia Mott was raised a Quaker, and through her story, we see how the church split. What I loved about the book was how Mott reviled those who held Biblical teachings above the revealed truths of her time. She chose to remain a Quaker, but she aligned more with Unitarian intellectuals. Mott spoke at events with many of the most famous abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass. She was in abolition groups that included free blacks and former slaves.
One anecdote in the book illustrated how extreme Mott’s principles were. The daughter of a member of an abolition group was still enslaved and was about to be sold. The father asked for donations so that he could buy his child’s freedom. But Mott spoke against the collection because the money would go to slavers.
While Mott may have worn gray, she saw moral questions with a stark absolutism that some would call absurd.
Feminists and black rights activists who read the book will be interested to see that Mott criticized the women’s movement in ways that still echo today.
Mott was thrilled when slavery was abolished, but after the Civil War, she barely stopped to celebrate. Instead, she dedicated more of her activism to women’s suffrage. But soon she felt she had to distance herself from the women’s movement when its white, middle class leaders refused to take up the cause of female former slaves who were not allowed to vote. Mott didn’t use the word “intersectionality,” but she recognized that exploited groups had to stand together for justice.
“Lucretia Mott’s Heresy” is a slow read. I recommend it to anyone who wants a detailed understanding of how the movement to end slavery and the push for women’s suffrage developed in the 19th century—sometimes together, and sometimes destructively apart.
Reviewer Cindy Simmons is a professor in the college of communications at Penn State University Park.