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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Gender and Race: Modern struggles mirror past

Historian Carol Faulkner says experiences of abolitionists and suffragists inform modern politics

Nov. 3, 2011, by Carol L. Boll

Carol Faulkner, chair of the Department of History, examines historic documents in Bird Library Archives
Carol Faulkner, chair of the Department of History, examines historic documents in Bird Library Archives
When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama launched dueling campaigns in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, the clash between a woman and an African American sparked sometimes heated debate over which underrepresented group should be first to shatter the glass ceiling to the highest office in the land.

While pundits viewed the contest as a transformative moment in history, Carol Faulkner, associate professor and chair of the Department of History, heard in it an echo of our 19th-century past, when abolitionists and suffragists at times clashed over competing agendas in their mutual struggles for civil rights. In her new book, Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), Faulkner explores the era through the life of one of its most remarkable activists, a “radical egalitarian,” who embraced both racial and sexual equality as basic human rights.

A Quaker minister, mother, and grandmother whom fellow suffragists dubbed the “moving spirit” of the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., Lucretia Coffin Mott may well be—incongruously—one of the most famous yet little known or understood figures in the suffragist movement, says Faulkner. Her book, the first biography of Mott in 30 years, seeks to correct misconceptions and give Mott her due as a transformative moral figure in American history.

“She was one of the earliest white advocates for the immediate abolition of slavery, and that was scandalous,” says Faulkner. “Unlike others, who called for a gradual, compensated plan, Mott said, ‘No. Slavery is a sin, and it must end immediately. It’s impossible to “own” another human being.’ That was heretical.” And Mott embraced the label gladly. “She believed activists should stand out in their heresy, be willing to confront social wrongs, withstand the names hurled at them, and present a moral force until the wrong was righted,” Faulkner says.

Mott’s passionate stance on slavery—and her refusal to elevate the struggle for women’s rights over abolition—established her as something of a dissenter within the suffragist movement, Faulkner says. For instance, she strongly endorsed the post-Civil War movement to gain black men the vote even as her fellow feminist leaders objected to anything short of universal suffrage. “She was constantly pushing to be more racially egalitarian,” Faulkner says, “and not quite so focused on self interest.”

In fact, Mott had little interest in winning women the right to vote at all—as a Quaker, she viewed politics as corrupted by slavery. Instead, she pushed for intellectual and social equality and the right for women to pursue whatever they chose, Faulkner says. And while history often depicts Mott as a “quiet Quaker” and a paragon of feminine virtue, Faulkner says her boldness in confronting violent mobs and her willingness to take her anti-slavery rhetoric directly to hostile southern audiences—as well as her membership in the integrated Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society—speak to her extraordinary courage and fierce commitment to an ideal of justice that transcended distinctions of race and gender.

Faulkner, who also co-edited the 2002 book The Selected Letters of Lucretia Coffin Mott, says the biography not only puts into historical perspective the complex
dynamics that continue to infuse both groups’ struggles for equal rights and opportunities today; it also raises tantalizing possibilities of a much broader-based justice movement had Mott’s egalitarian vision prevailed.

“She really represents the long and complicated history of feminism and African American civil rights, which continues to this day,” says Faulkner. “And her story shows that American feminism at one time had the possibility of being an integrated, interracial movement rather than the white, middle-class movement it largely became after her death.”