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A Very Dangerous Woman

Martha Wright and Women's Rights

Sharon H. Penney and James D. Livingston

Publication Year: 2004

"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 sixty-eight, when she was president of the National Woman Suffrage Association. At age twenty-six, she attended the 1833 founding of the American Anti-Slavery 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 nineteenth-century 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.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Front Matter

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Contents

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pp. vii-x

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xiii

We spent many hours working with letters and other material in the Garrison Family Papers of the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, and we are especially thankful to Sherrill Rodman and her staff, especially Kathleen Nutter and Susan Boone, for their help. We are also grateful to Carolyn Davis, Terry Keenan, and their colleagues in the Bird Library at Syracuse University, who...

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Introduction

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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...

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1. Origins and Influences

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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...

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2. First Love

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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...

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3. Dawn in Aurora

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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...

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4. Philadelphia Story

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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...

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5. Auburn

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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...

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6. Seneca Falls

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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...

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7. Arrivals and Departures

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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...

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8. The Convention Circuit

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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...

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9. Toward Disunion

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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...

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10. The Rebel Pelhams

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pp. 138-154

Martha 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...

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11. The Loyal Wrights

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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...

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12. Aftermath

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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...

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13. Free Platform, Free Love, Free Lust

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pp. 187-199

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...

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14. Final Years

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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...

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15. Martha Coffin Pelham Wright

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pp. 220-231

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...

Appendix

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pp. 233-235

Notes

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pp. 237-289

Bibliography

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pp. 291-304

Index

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pp. 305-315

Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761489
E-ISBN-10: 1613761481
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558494466
Print-ISBN-10: 1558494464

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2004

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Subject Headings

  • Wright, Martha Coffin, 1806-1875.
  • Feminists -- United States -- Biography.
  • Suffragists -- United States -- Biography.
  • Women's rights -- United States -- History.
  • Women social reformers -- United States -- Biography.
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