An early fighter for women’s rights

Abby Kelley comes alive in Dorothy Sterling’s book, the first full-fledged biography of the abolitionist and feminist, whose parents moved to Worcester soon after her birth in 1811, and who died 76 years later in her sister Lucy’s boarding house at 100 Chatham Street.

After two years at a Quaker boarding school in Provi-dence, Abby taught school in Worcester, Millbury and Lynn before heeding “the call” to serve as a lecturer for the cause of antislavery.

It wasn’t easy work. In dozens of meetings and lec-tures in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, Abby Kelley urged support for the anti-slavery cause, begged for funds and sold abolitionist tracts and subscriptions to antislavery newspapers.

She was outspoken and self-confident, but her remark-able courage was severely tested by hostile audiences, and she was sometimes the target of eggs or tomatoes. In 1841 a Philadelphia mob smashed and burned Pennsyl-vania Hall, the site of an antislavery convention at which Abby spoke.

While Abby Kelley’s assertiveness offended those who thought women should not speak in public, her warmth and beauty inspired many others. She was always on the lookout for potential leaders, and encouraged and trained many women lecturers. Among her best-known protégés were Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.

Opposition to the participation of women and black people in the movement, along with differing attitudes toward political participation and non-resistance, led to a schism in the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840. Abby Kelley, whose nomination to the society’s business committee at the national convention precipitated a crisis, was widely blamed for the split. She was denounced for her “effrontery in asserting the right of her sex to an equal place with men.”

Abby was married in 1845 to Stephen S. Foster, a fel-low abolitionist, lecturer and pamphleteer whose confron-tational style offended many of her friends. Although Abby and Stephen sometimes differed on issues or tac-tics, he was a supportive husband, proud of Abby’s suc-cess and joining her in 1872 in refusing to pay taxes on their jointly-owned Worcester farm because Abby was denied the right to vote.

The Fosters’ farm on Mower Street, which is now a na-tional historic landmark, was purchased by Stephen in 1847. Abby, visiting a sister in Rhode Island at the time, was disappointed with his choice. “Of all the neighbor-hoods in Worcester,” she wrote, “Tatnuck is the most re-pulsive to me.” Stephen was a skillful farmer and the di-lapidated farmhouse he bought was soon renovated and surrounded by fertile fields and orchards. The big house with its many cellars was well-suited to its role as a station on the Underground Railroad.

Abby, like many of her abolitionist colleagues, sup-ported a constellation of “18th [sic. 19th] -century reform movements — women’s rights, temperance, dietary re-form — but her chief priority until the 1870s was the anti-slavery cause and, after emancipation, the plight of the freed slaves. This attitude alienated some suffragists, who objected to Abby’s support for the 15th Amendment be-cause, while it granted black men the right to vote, the amendment did not enfranchise women.

Dorothy Sterling’s task as biographer was complicated by Abby Kelley’s aversion to self-publicity and her “Quaker habit” of speaking only extemporaneously. For-tunately, in eight years of research, Ms. Sterling has gath-ered a wealth of material from the letters of Abby and her contemporaries as well as accounts in 18th [sic. 19th]-century newspapers and journals.

This richly-detailed and lively account should bring Abby Kelley the recognition she deserves as a heroine of the antislavery and women’s rights movements.

Published Date: 
October 6, 2011