A complete understanding of our history is an integral part of who we are and who we hope to be. There are many unsung sheroes hidden in between the pages of history books who paved the way for us. HerStory is my attempt to shine the spotlight on them. Meet American Woman’s Rights Pioneer Lucretia Coffin Mott, a GoWoman from our past. In her own words, HerStory is OurStory…
(READ to the end for a documentary on bride-price in Uganda and the ways in which this culture affects women. Lucretia Mott was a notable advocate for equality in marriage.)
Mott on Religion & Women
“There is nothing of greater importance to the well-being of society at large —of man as well as woman—than the true and proper position of woman.”
So she began her Discourse on Woman in 1849, a pamphlet discussing the restrictions on Women in the United States of America. She hoped that in highlighting the problems, people will be moved to reflect on them and proffer solutions to remove them. Even though she was a Quaker preacher, she believed that religion had somehow conditioned men into thinking that women are here for their subjection. This she says was early ascribed to disobedience to the command of God. Referring to the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, she furthermore implied that this would seem to show that in so doing, Eve was not “occupying her true and rightful position in society.” She challenged this status quo and argued that If the scriptures were read intelligently, we should not so learn Christ, as to exclude any [woman or man] from a position, where they might exert an influence for good to their fellow-beings. As far as she was concerned, women were being faced with religious, social and civil “disabilities and disadvantages” which were paralysing their minds, impeding their progress and preventing them from being their true and higher selves.
Mott on Marriage & Women
“Why should not woman seek to be a reformer?… if she is to fear to exercise her reason, and her noblest powers, lest she should be thought to “attempt to act the man,” and not “acknowledge his supremacy;” if she is to be satisfied with the narrow sphere assigned her by man, nor aspire to a higher, lest she should transcend the bounds of female delicacy; truly it is a mournful prospect for woman.”
And a reformer she sought to be. Lucretia Mott could paint with words but they were hard hitting coming from a woman in that era. This made her an important activist and reformer. It is said that she spoke from the divine light within. She never wrote down her sermons or speeches and very rarely wrote anything for publication. She was a mother and a wife, yet at a time when she would have been expected to focus on the domestics of her family, she was determined to fight for equal rights and equal opportunities for all of humanity. She pushed for the empowerment of women especially through education and advocated for their right to be admitted into any profession of their choice, their right to vote and promoted law reform in all areas she believe to be detrimental to womankind. One of the areas she regularly opined about was the inequality in marriage. In that time, it was near impossible to get a divorce and fathers were always granted custody of their children. There were also issues surrounding women’s property rights and rights to their earnings. In her usual eloquent manner, she painted this scenario:
“In how many cases in our country, the husband and wife begin life together, and by equal industry and united effort accumulate to themselves a comfortable home. In the event of the death of the wife, the household remains undisturbed, his farm or his workshop is not broken up, or in any way molested. But when the husband dies, he either gives his wife a portion of their joint accumulation, or the law apportions to her a share; the homestead is broken up, and she is dispossessed of that which she earned equally with him; for what she lacked in physical strength, she made up in constancy of labour and toil, day and evening. The sons then coming into possession of the property, as has been the custom until of latter time, speak of having to keep their mother, when she in reality is aiding to keep them. Where is the justice of this state of things?”
She goes on:
“Let woman then go on—not asking as favour, but claiming as right, the removal of all the hindrances to her elevation in the scale of being—let her receive encouragement for the proper cultivation of all her powers, so that she may enter profitably into the active business of life; employing her own hands, in ministering to her necessities, strengthening her physical being by proper exercise, and observance of the laws of health. Let her not be ambitious to display a fair hand, and to promenade the fashionable streets of our city, but rather, coveting earnestly the best gifts, let her strive to occupy such walks in society, as will befit her true dignity in all the relations of life. No fear that she will then transcend the proper limits of female delicacy. True modesty will be as fully preserved, in acting out those important vocations to which she may be called, as in the nursery or at the fireside, ministering to man’s self-indulgence…Then in the marriage union, the independence of the husband and wife will be equal, their dependence mutual, and their obligations reciprocal.”
Mott on Freedom & The Right To Vote
The greatest thing to take away from the life of Mott is that her mission never ended. She never shied away from controversy and was a GoWoman constantly going for good. Until her death, wherever there was injustice her voice was heard and this was not only in relation to women’s rights. In 1840, she was a delegate at a World Anti-slavery Convention in London. In all there were only 6 women from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia attending that convention. Upon their arrival in England, they were dismissed and their credentials were not accepted because they were women. But she maintains:
“We were however treated with great courtesy and attention, as strangers. As women, were admitted to chosen seats as spectators and listeners, while our right of membership was denied–we were voted out. This brought the Woman question more into view, and an increase of interest in the subject has been the result.”
So in 1848 she was instrumental in organizing the first public women’s rights meeting in the United States; Seneca Falls Convention, with fellow Activist Elizabeth Stanton who she had met at the World Anti- Slavery Convention. The convention focussed on the women’s right to the elective franchise. Following this the Women’s Right Movement became consumed with women’s suffrage culminating in the birth of the Suffragettes in the late 19th Century. After the American Civil War (1861 – 1865), slavery was finally outlawed. Mott was elected to serve as the first president of the American Equal Rights Association. The mission of this association was to advocate for universal suffrage. In her position as president she began advocating for Black Americans to be given the right to vote. She resigned from the position in 1868 but continued lending her voice to women’s right, anti-slavery and universal peace.
Mott on What Women Want
As a 21st Century woman, it is worth noting that I owe my “right to be” to the discerning, resolute and irrepressible spirit of women from the centuries past. My life is their legacy. Yet oftentimes I find myself asking; what do women really want? While some are consumed with making a name for themselves and being successful career women, there are others who are more domesticated and long to be devoted wives and doting mothers. And then you have those in the middle admirably juggling both. Lucretia Mott posed the same question in 1849 and answers it in a way that only she could; an answer that would remain relevant for all of eternity:
“The question is often asked, “What does woman want, more than she enjoys? What is she seeking to obtain? Of what rights is she deprived? What privileges are withheld from her? I answer, she asks nothing as favour, but as right, she wants to be acknowledged a moral, responsible being. She is seeking not to be governed by laws, in the making of which she has no voice… her duties marked out for her by her equal brother man, subject to creeds, rules, and disciplines made for her by him—this is unworthy her true dignity. In marriage, there is assumed superiority, on the part of the husband, and admitted inferiority, with a promise of obedience, on the part of the wife. This subject calls loudly for examination, in order that the wrong may be redressed. Customs suited to darker ages… are not binding upon enlightened society. “
WATCH: DOCUMENTARY: What Price – Bride Price?
So in the light of all of the above, how much has changed? The following documentary is about the controversial African culture of paying a bride-price as part of marriage rites. In Uganda where the documentary is set it is called Lobola. Watch as women recall being subjected to domestic abuse by husbands who saw them as their property. I can’t help but wonder what Lucretia Mott’s take would be on this.
This inspirational documentary tackles important side effects of bride wealth, namely child marriages, domestic violence and poverty. It features a cross-section of survivors of domestic violence, judges, community leaders, policy makers and rights activists.