Abby Kelley Foster at First National Woman’s Rights Convention

1851 interior of Foster Street Station, Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, p. 249.
Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Post Civil War era images of Brinley Hall on Main Street, Worcester, Massachusetts. The hall was the site of many anti-slavery bazaars and meetings.

Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

After the first Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, another local convention was soon held in Rochester, NY followed by a state convention in Salem, Ohio. In 1850 over a thousand people came to Worcester aboard the many railways passing through this hub city. The came “to give earnest thought and effective effort to the rightful adjustment of women’s rights and relations” at the first national gathering on the topic.

The harsh new Fugitive Slave Law, a component of the Compromise of 1850, held the nation’s attention. So, at the annual May convention of the American Anti-Slavery Association held in Boston that year, Abby, Lucy Stone, Paulina Wright Davis, and six other women decided it was time to discuss another kind of slavery that was not being remedied. The Call for a National Woman’s Rights Convention was issued

Since both Abby and Lucy were traveling, the organization of the event was left to Paulina, Eliza J. Kenney, and Dora and Eliza F. Taft. Edited excerpts (corrections removed and disruptive spelling and punctuation corrected) from Abby’s letter to Wendell Phillips, another organizer and her closest friend in the anti-slavery movement, expressed her concerns and preparations for the first National Woman’s Rights Convention on October 23-24.

Waterloo N. Y. Oct. 6 __ 1850

My dear Mr. Phillips

In view of the approaching Convention on Woman’s Rights, in Worcester, I am driven to make some investigation which, otherwise, I might continue to neglect for years longer, being so entirely absorbed by the “one idea”.

What I particularly allude to is information of Woman’s political and legal position. Now will you have the kindness to inform me what are the best works to which I can refer for this information. And if they are such as are to be found in most of our lawyers offices I can borrow them in Worcester. But if they are not usually in such offices and you can conveniently loan them to me or obtain the loan of them for me, will you send them by Leonard’s Express to Worcester where I expect to be two days hence. __I would purchase books on Law could I afford it as they are frequently useful.

I hope this first Convention for Women’s true position in Mass. will make a fine impression. I trust that those who have had the arrangements for it in charge, have made all necessary preparations and have secured a good number of persons to be present who will be able to discuss the question with ability.__ I regret, however, to learn that J. Elizabeth Jones, who has given, perhaps more attention to the subject than any other woman in the country who is in the habit of public speaking, will not be there, pecuniary considerations forbidding it. __ Mrs. Stanton’s health is not equal to the journey and I have not heard whether Lucy Stone has returned from the west.

But I presume you know more about this matter than I do, for I know nothing, only that the call is issued.__ I am anxious, however, that the Convention (should) impress the age and of course you are no less desirous of a grand result__ You will, of course, be there and influence all true hearts you can, to come with you. What I most fear is a lack of women who “themselves must strike the blow,” after all.

You may want to hear a word about my western tour__ I realized much more than I expected and never left the west in half so good spirits. Not so much because the Society is out of debt and had something in its treasury, but because I think they have learned an important business fact “money is the sinews of war” whether physical or moral. I presume I have not made less than a thousand individual calls this summer, and in all occasions it has been my special design, not to get money for the present alone but to lay a foundation from which money could be raised, regularly, for the future. I have endeavored to clear away all that mystification and folly in which so many wrap up a reformatory enterprise and make them see it in the common sense light of building a house or doing any other plain practical work which needs to be done. This was what those western Quakers needed__

I have collected for the western Society in donations somewhere about $850, and for the Bugle in subscriptions $107. I cannot tell precisely what I got in donations and I have left my books with Jas. Barnaby and neglected to take off the amount. I also obtained some Two Hundred Dollars in pledges. When the annual meeting convened there was still $200 debt, but I think enough was paid in at that time to square all up, as in pledges and donations together some $900 was received. __ __ There seemed to be a deep seated and calm determination to press steadily onward in the work, and, as several expressed themselves at the annual meeting, to “go alone” and take care of themselves for the future and no longer lean on the American Society for support. __ Indeed tho’ we had many glorious meetings during the season the last was the crowner. Not that it was so very enthusiastic or that there were any particularly great speeches made, but that it gave evidence that the people well understood their work and were resolved to do it.

I have also collected for the Liberator $174.75 for the Standard $72.45 and for the Americans Society in New York on my way out $69.— Since the annual meeting of the western Society I have been holding meetings in western Pennsylvania, mainly on new soil till within 4 or 5 days which I have spent in looking over the ground in western New York as I work my way homeward __ There never was a more auspicious season for labor than the present __ The Fugitive Slave law and the new atrocious acts of the late Congressional session have awakened the people generally __ Let us strike while the iron is hot.

Will you inform me what are the wishes of Ex[ecutive] Com[mittee] of the American Society, if any, in regard to me for this fall and winter and whether they are desirous that I should continue to act as an agent for the Society, and if so what field they would prefer that I should take. I don’t know whether you have made any arrangements with my husband nor exactly what he purposes to do this winter, but I presume he designs to devote it entirely to lecturing__ Indeed I shall govern my movements very much by his as I can not think of journeying and lecturing alone any longer ___ ___ __ My health continues remarkably fine __ Indeed it was never better at the close of a campaign. __ But my mind needs some relaxation. __ Give my warmest regards to Mrs. Phillips __

Yours very truly Abby K. Foster

(Houghton Library, b ms am 1953(556)

Educational Resources:

Angels & Infidels Curriculum

McClymer, John F. This High and Holy Moment: The First National Woman’s Rights Convention, Worcester, 1850. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers,1999.

Moran, Karen Board. Windows on the Past: Revisiting the First National Woman’s Rights Convention. Worcester: Burbank Educators, 2000.