inception, the Religious Society of Friends accepted women equal with
men in its ministry. George Fox, who founded the Society of Friends in
the mid-17th century, noted in his journal Peter's quotation
of the prophet Joel, "I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh and
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy."
Within the Society's first decade women weren’t only acknowledged
as vocal ministers but encouraged toward the business of the Meeting as
well–albeit separately. Many could read and write and kept detailed
journals of their lives. It’s from these journals that we learn much
about early Friends and life in their homes.
Howard Brinton in Friends for 300 Years points out that
"the assignment of important executive responsibilities to women
was a bold step in the 17th century," thus qualifying
them to become leaders within and without the Society of Friends,
including many areas of social reform and concern–Education, Peace,
Race Relations, Environmental problems, Health Care, Prison Reform, and
Two of these Quaker women, Elizabeth Gurney Fry and Lucretia Coffin
Mott, were way ahead of their time and brought about major reforms.
ELIZABETH GURNEY FRY
Gurney Fry was born into a distinguished English Quaker family in 1790
in Gurney Court, off Magdalen Street, Norwich, in Norfolk. As a child,
she lived at Earlham Hall. Her father, Joseph Gurney, was a partner in
Gurney's bank while her mother, Catherine, who came from the Barclay
family, the founders of Barclays Bank, died when Fry was 12. As one of
the oldest girls in the family, she took responsibility for the care and
training of the younger children.
At age 18, the preaching of William Savery, an American Quaker,
deeply moved her. Motivated by his words, she took an interest in the
poor, the sick, and the prisoners. She collected old clothes for the
poor, visited those who were sick in her neighborhood, and started a
Sunday school in the summer house to teach children to read. She felt
called to devote her life to help those in need. To her administrations
of comfort, time, money, and material aids, she added something even
more valuable. She taught the disadvantaged how to care for themselves.
While aiding an ill family on her father's estate, she discovered
that the children couldn’t read. She began a free school which soon
became not only a learning place for the estate children but for the
village. In the early 18th century the ability to read
insured a higher paying job. She made Bible reading an important part of
her curriculum. Fry felt if people could read of God's love for them, it
would comfort them and increase their confidence and ambition.
She met Joseph Fry, a Quaker banker and 13 years her senior, when she
was 20. They married on August 19, 1800 at the Norwich Goat Lane Friends
Meeting House and moved to St. Mildred's Court in the City of London.
They bore 11 children between 1801 and 1822. However, when she married
Joseph, it was with the understanding that he wasn’t to interfere with
her charitable work. He did aid his wife in his later years in her fight
for the disadvantaged.
Stephen Grellet, a friend of the family, prompted Fry to visit
Newgate prison. She had heard of the deplorable conditions at Newgate
Prison where children lived with their mothers, there was no medical
aid, no beds, little food and the prisoners had only the clothing they
wore when they entered. Though cautioned to stay away from the prison,
Fry went ahead with her work anyway.
She returned the following day with other women who brought sewing
goods, cleaning materials, learning tools, as well as food and clothes
for some of the prisoners. Again, she knew that equipping these women
with skills would benefit them when they left prison. She and her
friends returned many times. At some point during the visit, Fry read
the Bible to the prisoners. She told them God loved them and would help
them. They knew he had already helped them by bringing her to them. She
visited the women's section and saw a filthy room filled with hostile,
angry inmates. She heard a baby crying and sick women moaning. Some of
the women grabbed at the food, clothing, and blankets she brought. She
stood quietly and talked with them, all the while noting what they
needed. And her list was long.
She was unable to further her work for nearly four years because of
difficulties within the Fry family, including financial difficulties in
the Fry bank. Fry returned in 1816 and eventually founded a prison
school for the children imprisoned with their parents. She began a
system of supervision and required the women to sew and to read the
Bible. In 1817 she helped found the Association for the Reformation of
the Female Prisoners in Newgate. This led to the eventual creation of
the British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female
Prisoners, widely described by biographers and historians as
constituting the first "nationwide" women's organization in
LUCRETIA COFFIN MOTT
Coffin Mott (1783-1880) was a contemporary of Elizabeth Fry. However,
Lucretia, an American, met Fry only briefly in 1840 when she was in
London for the World's Anti-Slavery Convention. Born on January 3, 1793
in Nantucket, Massachusetts, the daughter of a sea captain, Lucretia
grew up in Boston.
She was an abolitionist, social reformer and proponent of women's
rights and is credited as the first American "feminist."
Born into a Quaker family, she was the second child of seven by
Thomas Coffin and Anna Folger. At the age of thirteen she was sent to
the Nine Partners Quaker School in Dutchess County, New York, run by the
Society of Friends, where she eventually became a teacher. Her interest
in women's rights began when she discovered that the school paid male
teachers twice as much as female ones. On April 10, 1811, she married
James Mott, another teacher at the school. They had six children. Their
first child died at age five. Ten years later, she became a Hicksite
She began traveling around the country in 1820 lecturing on religion
and social reform, in particular temperance, the abolition of slavery,
and peace. Lucretia gave countless addresses and lectures throughout her
life. In "Famous American Women", it was said of her, "A
fluent, moving speaker, she retained her poise and femininity before the
most hostile audiences". Her last address was given at the age of
87,six months before she died.
Like many Friends, Mott considered slavery an evil. She and her
fellow Friends refused to use cotton cloth, cane sugar, and other
slavery-produced goods. With her skills in the ministry, she began to
speak publicly for abolition, often traveling from her home in
Philadelphia. Her sermons combined anti-slavery themes with broad calls
for moral reform. Her husband supported her activism, and they often
sheltered runaway slaves in their home as part of the Underground
By the 1830s, Mott had gained considerable recognition as an
abolitionist. It was around this same time that she and her husband
became friends with William Lloyd Garrison, who helped draw Mott and her
husband deep within the abolitionist circle. In December 1833, Garrison
called a meeting to expand the New England Anti-Slavery Society. James
Mott was a delegate at the Convention, but it was Lucretia Mott who made
a lasting impression on those present. She tested the language of the
Constitution and bolstered support when many delegates were precarious.
Merely days after the conclusion of the Convention, at the expressed
urging of the other delegates, Lucretia and her husband founded the
Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. The extensive participation of
blacks in the organization tightly bound the actions of Friends to the
Philadelphia black community.
Mott continued her unwavering work for the abolitionist cause,
despite social persecution. She kept a tight household budget to allow
she and her husband to entertain guests and still donate to charities.
Many praised her for her ability to maintain her household while still
contributing to the cause. Many
members of the abolitionist movement opposed female participation.
Participants in the Congregational General Assembly drafted a pastoral
letter warning women that to lecture directly defied Paul’s
instruction for women to keep quiet in the church and maintain the
properties of the "clinging vine."
Lucretia Mott received endless criticism for her leading role in the
1837 Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women. Protestors threw rotten
produce at their doors while others burned books and roamed the streets
of Philadelphia in search of Mott.
Mott spoke at the International Anti-Slavery Convention in London,
England in June 1840. In spite of her status as one of six women
delegates, Mott was not formally seated at the meeting because she was a
woman. Mott was however honored to the highest degree, as she was given
a throne-like chair from which she could properly view all the
proceedings. Delegates approached her in groups of two or three to
become acquainted with Mott.
At a convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, Mott called for
"Equality before the law for women". The U.S. Congress named
the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) after Lucretia Mott when it was
introduced. Women's rights and suffrage movements as organized political
campaigns grew directly from that convention.
In the 1850's, she helped to found Woman's Hospital and the School of
Design for Women, now Moore College of Art, both in Philadelphia. In
1864 Mott and several other Hicksite Quakers incorporated Swarthmore
College outside Philadelphia, which today remains one of the premier
liberal arts colleges in country.
In 1866, Mott,along with several other leading feminists, including
Susan B. Anthony, founded the American Equal Rights Association. She was
also a leading voice in the Universal Peace Union, founded that same
year. As one of the organizers of Free Religious Association, she worked
to secure voting and educational opportunities for freedmen in 1867.
Mott felt moved to speak to President Ulysses S. Grant in 1873,
urging him to pardon six Modoc Indians who had been condemned to death
for refusing to resettle in California. He told her they wouldn’t all
be executed. And two were.
Lucretia Coffin Mott died of pneumonia on November 11,1880 in
Abington, Pennsylvania. She’s buried in the Friends Fairhill Burial
Ground in North Philadelphia. Newspapers at the time described her as
"the most venerated woman in America." In 1983 she was
posthumously inducted into the U.S. National Women's Hall of Fame.
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