Purists vs. Pragmatists

Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America
By Carol Faulkner
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, 312 pp., hardcover, $45.00

Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America
By Faye Dudden
New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 296 pp., hardcover, $34.95

Reviewed by Lisa Tetrault

In the annals of US women’s history, few nineteenth-century leaders have been more mythologized than Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, and few events are more famous than the fight for woman suffrage. These two new books require us to think deeply about the stories we tell and to question their accuracy. Authors Carol Faulkner and Faye Dudden suggest that hindsight has muddied an accurate understanding of their respective subjects, and each seeks to rectify this by allowing her subjects’ lives to unfold as they took place, not as they would be remembered. Both work at a propitious moment, when there is more accessible documentary evidence than ever, offering fertile ground for new interpretations.

Lucretia Mott’s Heresy, Carol Faulkner’s much-needed biography, challenges conventional narratives about abolition and women’s rights, placing Mott at the center, where she rightly stood, and recasting both. Although Faulkner doesn’t slight Mott’s personal life, she focuses on her public life. She presents a woman who was, to borrow one of Mott’s favorite terms, a “cipher”—a social outsider, an enigma, and a puzzle. The standard image of Mott as a saintly, matronly, pacifist Quaker wrongly “softens her radicalism,” says Faulkner. Her Mott is fierce—a heretic in religious as well as civil matters. She traveled incessantly, speaking and preaching before sizeable audiences who often rejected her message. She broke social convention by traveling alone. She lived under the constant threat of violence and endured mob attacks. And she remained strictly devoted to egalitarian principles. She was a powerful, confrontational, independent, indomitable, yet self-effacing woman, with boundless charisma, wit, and intellect. Unfortunately, however, Mott published very little, never kept a diary (save for three months in England), and spoke extemporaneously—“moved by the divine spirit within”—so few of her speeches survive. Ralph Waldo Emerson likened hearing her “to the rumble of an earthquake.”

Faulkner, a former editorial assistant at the Lucretia Mott Papers Project, focuses on three aspects of Mott’s activism: her Quakerism, her abolitionism, and her feminism. These are not the only areas that concern Faulkner, however. She depicts Mott as having a hand in nearly every nineteenth-century reform cause—because Mott understood all oppression to be interrelated. Born on Nantucket, Mott lived most of her adult life in or near Philadelphia. Grief over the death of her young son drove her into a period of religious awakening and, by 1818, into the Quaker ministry, where she spent a lifetime.

The 1827 Quaker schism—usually described as resulting from the conflict between the followers of Elias Hicks, who emphasized the “inward light” in each individual, and Orthodox Quakers, who emphasized scriptural authority and atonement—is recast by Faulkner as also a conflict over “the character and authority of female ministers,” with “women as crucial players.” Mott sided with the Hicksites, which sealed her conversion to antislavery and anti-authoritarian ideas—although these commitments soon led her to question the Hicksite elders, and she became an outsider in her own sect. Although some abolitionists encouraged people to leave their churches for collaboration with slavery, Mott never did. Instead, she tried to reform the Society of Friends from within, consistently supporting religious liberalism and opposing doctrinal feuds.

Mott converted to “immediatism” after reading Elizabeth Heyrick’s influential pamphlet, Immediate, not Gradual Abolition or An Inquiry Into the Shortest, Safest, and Most Effectual Means of Getting Rid of West Indian Slavery, published in England in 1824. Mott’s embrace of this position predated that of almost all the major white players in American abolitionism, even William Lloyd Garrison, the supposed father of immediatism, who, Faulkner suggests, Mott helped groom. She was also “perhaps the earliest and most consistent proponent of . . . racial equality,” something she practiced as well as preached.

Although Mott was the nation’s “foremost white female abolitionist,” historians have marginalized her because, Faulkner argues, they “privileg[e] the radicalism and egalitarianism of political abolitionists,” who sought to end slavery through political means—a large and growing movement by the 1850s. Mott never deviated from her commitment to Garrisonian moral suasion as the only righteous path to ending slavery. If anything, she became more unyielding as time went on, adopting the stance of a “radical purist,” and becoming “more Garrisonian than Garrison himself.” Yet her commitment to principles over pragmatism made her a poor strategist, cost her long-time friends, and sometimes worked against the interests of enslaved people. Mott, for example, withheld support for the underground railroad, and she opposed the buying of Frederick Douglass’s freedom, which she found complicit with slavery. Nevertheless, Mott represented the conscience of American abolitionism. Never passive or meek, she opposed war, including the Civil War, as an inadequate force when compared with moral suasion. Her fierce confrontational style, Faulkner argues, was a kind of belligerent “civil disobedience . . . an active—even aggressive—form of moral suasion,” which would emerge again in the US with the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Faulkner repositions women in abolitionism generally and offers other correctives, including the assertion that the often-dismissed movement to boycott slave-made products was actually critical to the creation of immediatist networks.

“Despite the adoration” Mott has received from proponents of women’s rights, she “does not fit easily into histories of nineteenth-century feminism,” Faulkner insists. Mott represents a “more complicated, racially egalitarian history,” a lost, alternative feminism that was as purist and uncompromising as her abolitionism. In fact, for Mott, the two reforms were inextricably related, part of the same impulse “to liberate the individual from the bonds of tradition, custom, and organized religion.” Both her abolitionism and her feminism grew out of her “universal conception of liberty,” in which women’s rights were part of a larger struggle for “Human Rights.” She was a reader of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and a defender of Frances Wright, the founder of the short-lived Nashoba Commune in Tennessee, which was meant to prepare slaves for liberation. Faulkner also uses Mott to reperiodize feminism. Mott believed the women’s rights movement began with the 1837 Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, not with the 1848 convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Faulkner goes on to reverse conventional depictions of Seneca Falls by calling Mott, not Stanton, “the moving spirit” of the event—even though Mott’s promotion of an indivisible human rights movement was ultimately unsuccessful.

Mott was a somewhat reluctant leader of the woman suffrage movement. It never interested her to the same degree as abolitionism, and “she maintained a critical distance.” To her, it seemed hopelessly compromised and conservative, too insular and preoccupied with issues of sexual respectability. After the Civil War, “as activists turned their attention to white women’s rights,” Mott’s “estrangement became even more pronounced,” writes Faulkner. Yet Mott sided with Stanton in the acrimonious 1869 split in woman suffrage forces, an odd choice given Stanton’s racism and Mott’s ideological purism. Faulkner points to Mott’s love for Stanton as an explanation, but this seems inadequate, given Mott’s willingness to jeopardize friendship over principle.

Instead, Mott threw herself into fights to enfranchise black men, to end segregation in Philadelphia’s public transportation—particularly important to black women, Faulkner says—and to promote peace. Mott died in 1880, and Faulkner argues that her contemporaries immediately started using her memory for their own purposes. The loss of “the real Lucretia Mott” had begun.

Faye Dudden’s Fighting Chance treats the vexing period from 1850 and 1870—the same decades during which the feminist turn to “white women’s rights” alienated Lucretia Mott—in an attempt to understand why the feminist-abolitionist coalition broke apart. This boils down to examining why, as the usual story goes, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony descended into racism, prioritizing white women’s voting rights over those of black men—and neglecting black women altogether. While historians have tended to treat this racism as an integral, persistent feature of Stanton’s politics in particular and of Anthony’s to a lesser degree, Dudden argues that neither was a committed racist. At first, both used racist language merely strategically, when they reasonably believed they had a “fighting chance” to win the vote for women—opportunistically using every argument available given the historic nature of the moment. Then, when Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, enfranchising black men but not women, in 1869, the pair saw that fighting chance slip away. Defeat and humiliation drove them to temporarily abandon their otherwise firm commitment to universal suffrage, and they made a regrettable slip, descending into heartfelt (if short-lived) racism, denouncing both the Amendment and black men in unspeakable terms. “[H]ad they not believed they had a fighting chance, they would not have reached so far or stooped so low,” argues Dudden.

Some readers will find here a welcome defense of Stanton and Anthony, while others will find an objectionable apology. Leaving aside Dudden’s sure-to-be-controversial conclusions, the strength of her book lies in the depth of her analysis. Historians usually skip over these years, depicting events in a well-rehearsed and too-often schematic way. Few have taken the time to plumb the sources as thoroughly as Dudden does, or to situate Stanton and Anthony as effectively in the political moment of which they were a part. Dudden also writes at a time when, thanks to the magisterial Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers Project, new and abundant material exists that enables us to reevaluate their long careers.

Although the book purports to be about the break up of the feminist-abolition coalition, it focuses on Stanton and Anthony because, says Dudden, they were the movement’s most important strategists after the mid-1850s. In response to scholarship that tries to temper the relentless focus on Stanton and Anthony, Dudden says that the pair “cannot be replaced by a broader cast of grassroots feminists, or swapped out for a truer heroine in Lucy Stone, because they were so widely influential.” She goes on to argue that “Stanton and Anthony chose the movement’s strategies and crafted the arguments with which women’s cause became identified.” She endeavors to show how the feminist-abolition coalition was created, how Stanton and Anthony emerged as leaders, and why they moved from supporting abolition to demanding the vote. Too frequently, however, Anthony fades into the background, overshadowed by Stanton, whom Dudden uses to represent both.

The careful tracking of movement finances is one of Dudden’s most important innovations. She moves between ideas and practical, on-the-ground realities, arguing that the two were inextricably related. Her conclusions, however, will raise questions. When Stanton and Anthony had the money to mount campaigns, they did so effectively, she insists. Where they didn’t, they were handicapped, and failed outcomes often had more to do with Stanton and Anthony’s restricted access to cash rather than to the viability of their demands. The villain in the book is the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who controlled the movement’s purse strings and who, after the Civil War, famously declared that this was the “Negro’s hour”—in other words, that black men’s rights came before (white) women’s. Phillips, whom Dudden paints as an inept political bungler, continually denied Stanton and Anthony, whom Dudden paints as infinitely superior politicians, access to funds that were rightfully theirs. “Flat broke at what they still believed was a moment of historic political opportunity,” the pair made a series of political compromises, including alliances with known racists—practically forced to do so, Dudden implies, by Phillips’s recalcitrance.

Still, Dudden insists that Stanton and Anthony participated in more meaningful cross-racial alliances than historians have realized. “Only in hindsight,” she says, did the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), founded after the Civil War and dedicated to universal suffrage, “seem rife with irreconcilable hostility between the advocates of the two causes.” Dudden patiently unpacks each political moment, trying not to presume the ending—namely, the acrimonious 1869 split in the AERA over the Fifteenth Amendment—and she offers some remarkable insights. Her account of the Kansas Campaign of 1867, when both black male and woman suffrage were put to a vote of the people, is the best to date. She demonstrates, among other things, that woman suffrage was not a fringe issue in Reconstruction politics but rather absolutely central, helping to make (and break) the careers of local Republican Party officials. She further insists that Stanton and Anthony’s participation in the campaign was marked by inter-racial cooperation, a fact their contemporaries lost sight of almost as soon as the campaign ended. Dudden’s focuses tightly on Stanton’s rhetoric, and she makes a number of complicated arguments about how to read Stanton’s writings, which are rife with racist language. Dudden asserts, for example, that Stanton adopted a lawyerly “‘in the alternative’ style of argument that put a desire to win the case above principle,” meaning that Stanton was perfectly willing to make contradictory arguments and perfectly willing to appeal to contemporary racism, even if she herself did not subscribe to that racism. In Dudden’s account, nearly everyone, from Frederick Douglass to Lucy Stone, “shifted back and forth between principles and expediency,” much as Stanton did. No one comes out as an egalitarian purist. Stone takes the hardest hit. Historians often judge her to have been more racially enlightened than Stanton and Anthony because she supported the Fifteenth Amendment. Dudden, however, finds her equally guilty of racist commentary, although based on comparatively thin evidence, and she recasts Stone as politically inept and largely irrelevant.

Faulkner and Dudden encourage us to go beyond the often-rehearsed but not particularly well-researched stories that circulate around Mott, Stanton, and Anthony—surely today the most well-known nineteenth-century feminists. Each author challenges us to grapple with the difficulties of creating meaningful equal-rights campaigns—how to manage the tension between principles and expediency. They present two radically different approaches: Mott’s purism on the one hand, Stanton and Anthony’s pragmatism on the other. And they complicate existing conclusions about how to understand these three activists, the times in which they lived, and the content of the campaigns for which they labored.

Lisa Tetrault is an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. She is completing a book about the creation of the Seneca Falls story, provisionally titled Memory of a Movement: The Making of a Feminist Origins Story, 1865-1900, and she is the author, most recently, of the article “The Incorporation of American Feminism: Suffragists and the Postbellum Lyceum” (Journal of American History, March 2010).


Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Continue Privacy Policy