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January 3, 2018, would have been Lucretia Coffin Mott’s 225th birthday. When it came to birthdays, Mott had a particular way of celebrating: she made candies without sugar for her guests. Mott is well known as an educator, an abolitionist, and a pioneer of women’s rights. But what did she have against sugar?
Born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1793, Lucretia Coffin’s schoolmates labeled her a "spitfire." She maintained some of that reputation all her days. Her passion for the causes she cared about touched every aspect of her life.
After training as a teacher at a Quaker school in New York, Lucretia Coffin married fellow educator James Mott in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, the Motts became known for taking in fugitive slaves. Yet Lucretia realized that helping individuals was not enough.
Even in the North, she realized nearly all commerce was implicated in what Mott regarded as the sinful sale and ownership of human flesh. She had to do something about it.
"Going one day to our meeting . . . most unexpectedly to myself the duty was impressed upon my mind to abstain from the products of slave labor," recalled Mott, "About the year 1825, feeling called to the gospel of Christ, and submitting to this call . . . I strove to live in obedience to manifest duty." She knew that removing herself from complicity with the slave trade required effort and risk.
Despite the abolitionist stance of many of in her circle, Mott’s insistence that more must be done personally to fight for abolition alienated friends and relations. Breaking with those who did not agree "was like parting with the right hand, or the right eye," she remembered, "but when I left the meeting I yielded to the obligation, and then, for nearly forty years, whatever I did was under the conviction, that it was wrong to partake of the products of slave labor."
Doing whatever she could not to partake in the products of slavery included altering birthday celebrations. Since sugar at this time was often produced using slave labor, for her children’s birthday parties she made candies with sweetener she knew to be untainted from forced labor and passed them out in bags containing verses:
Take this, my friend, you need not fear to eat. No slave hath toiled to cultivate this sweet.
Mott’s special way of celebrating birthdays was just one way she fought for abolition. She toured extensively, speaking on the evils of slavery.
During her travels, Mott often clashed with abolitionists who believed women should not have a prominent role in the movement. When Mott announced her intention to serve as a delegate to an abolitionist conference in London despite its stated policy of seating only men, critics expressed outrage.
"We know this lady well, and for kindness, hospitality, benevolence, and purity of life, she had no superior," the editor of a Pittsburgh abolitionist newspaper wrote, "but . . . we should not be surprised if she should so far forget the true dignity of womanhood in her intractable zeal for what she terms ‘principle,’ as to attempt to take her seat as a delegate in the ‘World’s Anti-Slavery Convention.’ If she does, and mutual distrust, heart-burnings, and confusion result from such a step, upon her and her advisors will rest the tremendous onus of putting back the day of the slave’s redemption, and sacrificing mercy and righteousness to an insane caprice."
This resistance didn’t stop Mott. Instead she expanded her activism. She became a prominent suffragist fighting for the rights of women as well.
Mott’s willingness to speak uncomfortable truths made her among the most famous women of her day, sharing stages with such icons as Sojourner Truth. In 1848 a group led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and including Lucretia Mott, called a convention on women’s rights: the Seneca Falls Convention. Even earlier than this, Mott led a meeting that advocated "that it was time that woman should move in the sphere Providence assigned her, and no longer rest satisfied in the limits which corrupt custom and a perverted application of the Scriptures had placed her."
Although Mott was an ardent Christian and a member of the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, she liked to refer to her strong positions on social ills as "heretical." "The early Friends were agitators, disturbers of the peace," she said. It was the duty of those following in their footsteps, she insisted, to "stand out in our heresy."
At the age of 80, when Mott learned President Ulysses Grant was staying not far from her home, she put on the bonnet she was known for and announced she was going to see him. Grant had recently ordered the removal of Indians from a California reservation, and Lucretia Mott had something to say.
Peter Manseau is the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History in the Division of Home and Community Life.