Our Dearest Abby

The word “trailblazer” conjures up many images for people, and for most I suppose the image would not be the antiquated, serene, humble, and gracious vision of Abby Kelley Foster, but she is the absolute epitome of the definition, a pioneer in any field or endeavor.

It is difficult for us to comprehend the social animosity and personal danger which awaited any woman brave enough to enter the public arena of reform in Abby’s era, but it was their reality, one in which Abby was steadfast in her belief that her participation was vital, should be accepted, and the direction of her life was ordained from God.

From the onset of her work as a lecturer, she was forging a path and creating an existence never experienced by women. In 1838, in the very beginning of her life’s work for reform, she spoke for the American Anti-Slavery Society at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hall. Two days later, in a most riotous spectacle, the building

was burned to the ground by an angry mob. Far from being dissuaded to continue, Abby would go on to become one of the most powerful speakers for abolition for decades to come.

Abby began her work in earnest at a time when the very idea of women at meetings of Anti-Slavery or other societies was the cause of violent internal and public protest, was actually the defining point for the splitting of organizations, and became the cause for very powerful clerical admonishment that female involvement was ‘repugnant’. Women wanting to participate had to endure endless debate over whether memberships should be made up of ‘men’ or ‘persons’. Amidst all the turmoil, our trailblazer was nominated to an American Anti-Slavery Society business committee in 1840 by William Lloyd Garrison, to the consternation of many. Such uproar arose when her name was announced that a vote was immediately taken; and to a thunderous applause of hundreds, it seemed in the affirmative. Then the applause of hundreds in the negative came as well. The final tally, 571 yea, 451 nay. More uproar followed and many of the men nominated stood and said they would not serve on a ‘promiscuous’ committee, that it defied Scripture and custom. Someone then voiced that slavery is customary as well and yet we object to that. Abby then said “In Congress the masters speak while the slaves are denied a voice. I rise because I am not a slave.” The meeting was adjourned before a walkout or worse erupted. The next day the membership officially split, and the objectors formed a new society, as did Garrison and Kelley, and three other women, were named to the newly-formed Executive Committee of their new organization. (Chapman, Child, and Mott)

In 1843 Abby traveled to none other than Seneca Falls, New York, and held multiple meetings, and though she was pelted with eggs, she managed to organize with the local women an anti-slavery fair that was quite successful in raising funds. She left in her wake nothing short of a woman on trial with her church. Rhoda Bement had brought to the Reverend of her Presbyterian Church notices of Abby’s lectures and wanted him to promote them to the congregation. He had refused. The chaos that followed developed into a trial that lasted for months and ended with Rhoda removed from church membership, found guilty and refusing to apologize. Instead, a new congregation was born, The Wesleyan Methodist Church. Founded on the freedom of speech and abolitionist ideals, the church hosted such reformers as Abby’s friend Frederick Douglass. In 1848 they would host a Woman’s Rights Convention that would be the springboard for the first National Woman’s Rights Convention in 1850....in Worcester!

Abby was indeed a pioneer and her legacy is lasting and profound. We have only begun to understand her courage and the inspiration we can gain from her unshakable determination.

Published Date: 
October 4, 2010