MARTHA COFFIN WRIGHT
Born on Christmas Day, Martha Coffin Wright was one of America’s First Women Heroines, became an active feminist (before the term was even known), a Quaker, an abolitionist, and sister to another well-known abolitionist, Lucretia Coffin Mott. She was the youngest of 8 children. In 1822, Peter Pelham, then 37, and a wounded War of 1812 veteran, came to Philadelphia for medical care and boarded at the Coffin home. The two fell in love and wished to marry, but Peter was not a Quaker and her mother would not give Martha permission to marry. Finally in 1824, her mother gave her permission and 17-year old Martha married 37-year old Captain Peter Pelham. The Quaker community, however, refused to accept the marriage. The couple moved to Tampa Bay, Florida, and Martha was expelled from the Quakers for marrying outside her faith, an event that contributed to her lifelong estrangement from organized religion.
Her first child was born in 1825, but unfortunately, Peter died in 1826, leaving a 19-year old widow with an infant child. But in 1829, Martha met and married a young law student, David Wright, with whom she had 6 more children.
In 1833, Martha and sister Lucretia attended the founding meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society held in Philadelphia. Thus began her forty plus years of dedication and commitment to women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.
In 1840, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where Stanton’s husband was a delegate. The male delegates voted that women should be denied participation in the meetings, EVEN if they had been nominated to serve as official delegates. The women were finally given permission to attend but were required to sit in a roped-off section hidden from view of the men in attendance. Returning home, the two women discussed the need for greater rights for women. Finally in 1848, the First Women’s Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, N.Y.. The meeting spanned two days and six sessions, and included a lecture on law and multiple discussions about the role of women in society. About 40 men attended the sessions, and altho they weren’t turned away, they were asked to remain silent.
First to speak was Elizabeth Cady Stanton with a profound and stunning statement, exhorting each woman to accept responsibility for her own life. Stanton read the “Declaration of Sentiments,” which was based on the language of the Declaration of Independence. Stating that “all men and women are created equal,” they demanded equal rights for women, including the right to vote.
On that first day, Lucretia read a humorous article from a newspaper, written by Martha, questioning why…after an overworked mother completed the myriad of daily tasks that were required of her, but not of her husband, she was the one upon whom written advice was “so lavishly bestowed.”
Martha was 6 months pregnant with her 7th child, testimony that the bearing of children doesn’t preclude women from making important public contributions to society.
The convention was seen by many, including Mott, as but a single step in the continuing effort by women to gain for themselves a greater proportion of social, civil and moral rights, but it was viewed by others as a revolutionary beginning to the struggle by women for complete equality with men.
This landmark convention marked the formal beginning of the women’s rights movement in America. At that time women were not allowed the freedoms assigned to men in the eyes of the law, the church or the government. Women did not vote, hold elective office, attend college and seldom were able to earn a living. If married, they could not make legal contracts, divorce an abusive husband, nor gain custody of her children.
Martha Wright participated in many state and national conventions in various capacities. She was secretary at the 1852 and 1856 National Women’s Rights Conventions, served as an officer at the 1853 and 1854 National Women’s Rights Conventions and presided over the Convention in 1855. Her sister, Lucretia, was frequently the keynote speaker.
Martha was also an ardent abolitionist and ran her home in Auburn as a station on the Underground Railroad, frequently allowing fugitive slaves to sleep in her home. In a letter to her sister in 1860, Martha wrote:
“We have been expending our sympathies and congratulations on 7 newly arrived slaves safely from the southern part of Maryland. One woman carried a baby all the way and brought 2 other children with her. They brought a piece of old comfort and a blanket in a basket with a little kindling, a little bread for the baby with some laudanum to keep it from crying during the day.”
Martha was instrumental in the formation of the American Equal Rights Association, which attempted to merge the issues of black suffrage and woman suffrage. Controversy, however, arose over the 15th Amendment, which provided the right to vote to only black males. Minutes from the 1874 NWSA meeting in New York City read, “Martha C. Wright, one of the most judicious and clear-sighted women in the movement.”
Martha Wright died in Boston on January 4, 1875. Susan B. Anthony was apparently shocked at the news of Martha’s death and wrote in her diary, “I could not believe it; clear-sighted, true and steadfast almost beyond all other women.”
What is the saddest part of this woman’s life, a strong, dedicated advocate of equal rights for women? The Equal Rights Amendment sits is a closed file and lacks less than 10 states signing this Act and to this day…we women of America do not have Equal Rights. If we did, an Equal Rights Amendment would not be required.