Fervent 19th-Century Reformer
ALL but forgotten in this century, the fiery abolitionist and women's-rights crusader Abby Kelley (1811-1887) was one of the more remarkable personalities in a century filled with remarkable personalities.
A Quaker farm girl of Irish and English descent, Abby Kelley was one of the many courageous and conscientious women who worked for the abolitionist cause, but one of the very few - for a long time, the only one - to take the podium at public meetings.
To address what was called a "promiscuous audience" in those days (an audience in which there were both men and women) was considered a distinctly unwomanly thing to do. But for Abby Kelley and others like her, the overwhelming urgency of speaking on behalf of slaves prompted them to do what they would not have done on their own behalf.
Abby and her fellow abolitionists were harassed, threatened, pelted with rotten eggs, insulted, and attacked. When the women in the antislavery movement held a convention at Philadelphia Hall in 1838, the building was set on fire by an angry mob.
While many of the women active in reform causes were mocked as "old maids," Abby was denounced as a "Jezebel" whose youthful beauty and soft, appealing voice "seduced" her listeners into supporting the abolitionist cause. Although she was a high-minded advocate and practitioner of temperance, cold-water baths, simple clothing, and the Graham diet (an early forerunner of today's macrobiotic and organic diets), she was denounced as a loose woman.
Hurt but undaunted, she proceeded on her way, traveling through New England, Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and Ohio, lecturing (she always spoke extemporaneously, in the Quaker tradition), selling antislavery literature, and organizing at the grass-roots level. In 1845, she married fellow abolitionist Stephen S. Foster (not the songwriter), who was even more vehement in his politics than she was.
Although the Fosters had a daughter (who went on to attend Vassar College and receive an advanced degree from Cornell), marriage and motherhood did not stop Abby from going on with her work.
Abby and her husband were part of the more radical wing of the abolitionist movement, which held that American society as a whole was too deeply mired in the business of slavery to be changed by ordinary participation in the political process.
But they were also opposed to violence, even doubting that it had been justified in the case of the American Revolution. In 1838, their leader, William Lloyd Garrison, set forth a doctrine of "nonresistance," which, together with Thoreau's idea of "civil disobedience," would later influence thinkers like Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Abby had a parallel interest in women's rights, but when the movement split over whether to back the 15th amendment giving black men the right to vote or to insist that the right should be extended as well to women, Abby came down on the side of the black franchise, explaining that recently freed blacks had a greater need to be empowered, because their situation was so perilous.
Women's-rights leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton took issue with this stand, and there were disturbing tones of racism in some of the objections to the black enfranchisement. Later, Abby more than paid her dues to women's rights when she stopped paying her property taxes as a protest against not having the right to vote and was forced to move out of her house. As always, she was prepared to put herself on the line for what she believed was right.
Dorothy Sterling, the author of "Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman,Lucretia Mott: Gentle Warrior," "We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century," and other biographical and historical studies, guides the reader through the complexities of abolitionist politics - including the infighting among various factions of the movement - with a sure and experienced hand. She maintains a constant sympathy with her embattled heroine without becoming unduly partisan on her behalf.
Sterling demonstrates a nice sense of some of the parallels between Abby Kelley's and today's world: Then, as now, there was an interest in alternative medicine, health foods, self-improvement, and self-analysis (phrenology was very popular, and Abby had her head bumps analyzed).
Already women were debating whether to retain the titles of Mrs. and Miss, or to be called by their husbands' names. But the fervent altruism that motivated this Quaker farm girl, as Sterling also conveys, had a kind of earnestness that is distinctly 19th century.
For all her sincerity, intensity, and altruism, Abby Kelley was a fairly shrewd political thinker. Very presciently, she recognized the full extent of the underlying problem of racism in the South, the North, and even among her fellow abolitionists.
While other abolitionists felt that they had achieved their goal once Congress had abolished slavery, she warned against over-confidence: "Napoleon spoke a great truth when, receiving the congratulations of his general on their success in Russia, he said 'I want you to remember that nothing is done while anything remains to be done, she declared.
With the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1869, Abby felt that some measure of progress had finally been achieved, even if more remained to be done: "Have we not moral as well as physical rail-roads and telegraphs?" she wrote. "I feel as if I had lived a thousand years."
Sterling's appealing account of Abby's 76 years, based on a wide knowledge of the subject and a good deal of primary research, shows us how it must have felt to live through and take part in a world-changing endeavor.