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A Very Dangerous Woman

A Very Dangerous Woman: Martha Wright and Women's Rights

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 352
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    A Very Dangerous Woman
    Book Description:

    "A very dangerous woman" is what Martha Coffin Wright’s conservative neighbors considered her, because of her work in the women’s rights and abolition movements. In 1848, Wright and her older sister Lucretia Mott were among the five brave women who organized the historic Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Wright remained a prominent figure in the women’s movement until her death in 1875 at age sixtyeight, when she was president of the National Woman Suffrage Association. At age twentysix, she attended the 1833 founding of the American AntiSlavery Society and later presided over numerous antislavery meetings, including two in 1861 that were disrupted by angry antiabolitionist mobs. Active in the Underground Railroad, she sheltered fugitive slaves and was a close friend and supporter of Harriet Tubman. In telling Wright’s story, the authors make good use of her lively letters to her family, friends, and colleagues, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. These letters reveal Wright’s engaging wit and offer an insider’s view of nineteenthcentury reform and family life. Her correspondence with slaveholding relatives in the South grew increasingly contentious with the approach of the Civil War. One nephew became a hero of the Confederacy with his exploits at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and her son in the Union artillery was seriously wounded at Gettysburg while repelling Pickett’s Charge. Wright’s life never lacked for drama. She survived a shipwreck, spent time at a frontier fort, experienced the trauma of the deaths of a fiancé, her first husband, and three of her seven children, and navigated intense conflicts within the women’s rights and abolition movements. Throughout her tumultuous career, she drew on a reservoir of humor to promote her ideas and overcome the many challenges she faced. This accessible biography, written with the general reader in mind, does justice to her remarkable life.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-148-9
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    IN JULY 1848, sixty-eight women and thirty-two men in Seneca Falls, New York, signed the Declaration of Sentiments, a document modeled after the Declaration of Independence, which had been written and adopted seventy-two years earlier. To many contemporaries, the addition of “and women” to Thomas Jefferson’s famous sentence was as revolutionary as the original Declaration. Another seventy-two years would pass before the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution enfranchised women, the majority of the U.S. population; only one of the female signers of the Seneca Falls declaration lived to see it. Even today, full gender equality has not been achieved in...

  5. 1 Origins and Influences
    (pp. 7-16)

    MARTHA COFFIN was born in Boston on Christmas Day, 1806. Yet after her death, even her close friends Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton mistakenly wrote that she was born in Nantucket.¹ Each probably thought that Nantucket was Martha’s birthplace because it was her older sister Lucretia’s, and in her adult years, Lucretia Coffin Mott often spoke of how her childhood on the island had developed her interest in abolition and woman’s rights. Moreover, all of Martha’s siblings were born on Nantucket, as her father, Thomas Coffin, and her mother, Anna Folger Coffin, had been. Thomas and Anna were...

  6. 2 First Love
    (pp. 17-27)

    IT WAS an unusual match. Martha, barely sixteen when she fell in love with Captain Peter Pelham, had spent most of her life in Philadelphia. She had been infused both at home and at school with Quaker values, which included pacifism and a strong dislike for the military. Pelham, thirty-seven, was a non-Quaker who had traveled widely and had spent most of his adult life serving in the army. Martha’s family was opposed to slavery, while Pelham had been raised on a Kentucky plantation worked by slaves. Perhaps the prospect of leaving the boredom of her daily chores at her...

  7. 3 Dawn in Aurora
    (pp. 28-38)

    ALTHOUGH MARTHA was born in Boston, grew up in Philadelphia, and lived briefly in Florida, she spent most of her life as a resident of upstate New York. She first moved to New York, to the tiny village of Aurora on the east shore of Cayuga Lake, one of the largest of New York’s Finger Lakes, in November 1827. This region had earlier been home to the Cayugas, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. But the Iroquois had sided with the British during the Revolution, and soon after the war most of them departed to Canada or...

  8. 4 Philadelphia Story
    (pp. 39-49)

    MARTHA WRIGHT’S 1833 visit to Philadelphia coincided with the founding meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society.¹ As the guest of James and Lucretia Mott, Martha had her first direct exposure to the moral fervor of William Lloyd Garrison and other leaders of the growing abolitionist movement. James and Lucretia had earlier become enthusiastic participants in the movement.

    In the first decades of the nineteenth century, many antislavery reformers had focused on the idea of “colonization.” The American Colonization Society, formed in 1816, financed the purchase of slaves from their owners and the emigration of the freed blacks to a colony...

  9. 5 Auburn
    (pp. 50-66)

    MARTHA HAD gone to Aurora to teach at Brier Cliff, and David had moved there to study at a local law office. But Martha’s teaching years were behind her, and David’s law business continued to grow and required more and more travel, which was not easy from tiny, isolated Aurora. By 1839, after ten years in their lakeside home, they decided to move to Auburn, the county seat about fifteen miles to the northeast.¹ Much of David’s business was conducted there in the county courthouse, and Auburn also was becoming convenient for more distant travel. A railroad line had just...

  10. 6 Seneca Falls
    (pp. 67-80)

    AMERICA WAS awash with reform movements in the nineteenth century, but the two to which Martha Wright became most committed were abolition and woman’s rights. Historians recognize the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, today the site of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park,¹ as the formal beginning of the organized woman’s rights movement.² (Although “women’s rights” is in more common usage today, Martha and her contemporaries wrote and spoke mostly about “woman’s rights.”) As one of the planners and organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention, Martha is recognized as a pioneer in the movement. But long before Seneca Falls, there had...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. 7 Arrivals and Departures
    (pp. 81-97)

    FROM HER upbringing and from her adult experiences with marriage and children, Martha had developed a feminist perspective that was reinforced by Seneca Falls and by increasing contacts with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But her household responsibilities, and her immediate “prospects” of another child, would temporarily delay her public activities on behalf of woman’s rights. “No one is fonder of ‘children in the Abstract’ than I am, but when it comes to theconcreteit becomes suggestive of the remark of the psalmist relative to ‘too much of a good thing.’ ” So wrote Martha in October 1848, shortly before her...

  13. 8 The Convention Circuit
    (pp. 98-116)

    AFTER THE women of New York, along with Lucretia Mott, had set the precedent at Seneca Falls and Rochester in 1848, the 1850s saw a rapid explosion of conventions focused on the revolutionary topic of woman’s rights.¹ One was held in Salem, Ohio, in April 1850, and that October, the first “national” woman’s rights convention convened in Worcester, Massachusetts, with Paulina Wright Davis of Providence, Rhode Island, presiding. Representatives came from nine northern states, one from California, and another from Iowa. Lucretia was one of the speakers. The Worcester convention was highly successful, with over a thousand in attendance. It...

  14. 9 Toward Disunion
    (pp. 117-137)

    IN THE latter half of the 1850s, as the nation moved inexorably toward war, Martha was able to devote more time and energy to the woman’s rights and antislavery movements. With her three younger children away at boarding schools, she fulfilled her maternal responsibilities largely through letters, full of love but also full of advice and occasional criticism. Her letters reveal what a mother promoting woman’s rights considered proper guidelines for preparing two adolescent boys and an adolescent girl for adult life in the mid-nineteenth century.¹

    Ellen and Willy went off in 1854 to Eagleswood, Theodore Weld’s school in New...

  15. 10 The Rebel Pelhams
    (pp. 138-154)

    MARTHA’S WRIGHT’S correspondence with her slaveholding Pelham relatives in the months before the outbreak of war reflects the intensifying feelings of the national controversy over the issue of slavery. Her first husband, Peter Pelham, had died in 1826 when she was only nineteen years old and their daughter Marianna was only one, but Martha maintained contact with his relatives for many years, even into the 1870s. She corresponded with Peter’s father, a Revolutionary War veteran, until his death, with Peter’s brothers John, William, and Atkinson, and later with Atkinson’s oldest son, Charles. From 1841 on, Marianna also corresponded with her...

  16. 11 The Loyal Wrights
    (pp. 155-170)

    WHEN CONFEDERATE guns fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Martha was in Philadelphia for Lucretia’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. That month she and Marianna received a visit from John Pelham on his way south from West Point to Alabama to take up arms against the Union. A few days later, David arrived for a brief visit, also traveling south, but only to Washington and only on legal business with the Patent Office. However, when he applied at the railroad office for tickets to Washington, he was refused. With war fever gripping the nation, travel to the nation’s capital was being...

  17. 12 Aftermath
    (pp. 171-185)

    BY THE summer of 1866, Martha had eight grandchildren—Marianna and Thomas Mott’s three daughters, Eliza and Munson Osborne’s three daughters and one son, and Ellen and William Garrison’s one daughter. Martha’s two remaining sons, Willy and Frank, were now in their twenties but remained unmarried. Willy had largely recovered from his war wounds, but his future remained uncertain. He showed no interest in studying law in David’s office, or in working on David’s farm or sawmill, and had not yet developed any alternate plans. David wrote to him in frustration: “I wonder often why you can content yourself with...

  18. 13 Free Platform, Free Love, Free Lust
    (pp. 186-199)

    FOR MANY years, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, with help from Martha Wright and others, had lobbied in Albany, the capital of New York, to improve state laws pertaining to women, such as married women’s property rights, child custody, and liberalized divorce. Starting in January 1869, they focused on Washington, lobbying Congress for a sixteenth amendment establishing woman suffrage.¹ A description of the prominent participants in the 1869 Washington Convention includes “Mrs. Wright, of Auburn, a woman of strong, constant character, and of rare intellectual culture.”²

    The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) met again in Washington in January...

  19. 14 Final Years
    (pp. 200-219)

    IN JANUARY 1870, after participating in the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) convention and congressional hearing in Washington, Martha traveled to Philadelphia and spent several days caring for her sister Eliza Yarnall, who was nearing death. “I seldom left her during her illness,” she wrote to Ellen, “& was very thankful to have been with her from the first.”¹ In one conversation held in Eliza’s final days, we get some evidence that Martha’s conversations were as frank as her letters. Eliza said, “I know what theesaysis thy opinion,” but, Martha wrote, “I told her I always said what...

  20. 15 Martha Coffin Pelham Wright
    (pp. 220-232)

    AS PRESIDENT of the National Woman Suffrage Association, Martha was expected to chair its January 1875 meeting in Washington. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, then first vice president, replaced her, and reported to the press that the convention honored Martha “with a fitting tribute to the departed friend who signed the call for the first convention in ’48, took an active part in its proceedings, and has been a steadfast advocate of woman’s enfranchisement during all these years, attending nearly every meeting, presiding frequently, and giving generously to the treasury of the association.”¹ In a memorial to Martha written in the 1890s,...

  21. Appendix: Family of Martha Coffin Pelham Wright, 1806–1875
    (pp. 233-236)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 237-290)
  23. Bibliography
    (pp. 291-304)
  24. Index
    (pp. 305-315)
  25. Back Matter
    (pp. 316-317)