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By Billie Luisi-Potts

“We abolition women are turning

the world upside down.”

Angelina Grimké, February 25, 1838

My title is composed of three great themes, major movements in the history of the United States and the role of Seneca County, a small, narrow county bordered on the west and east by the major Finger Lakes: Seneca and Cayuga. Since coming to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001, my history interests have been focused on the lens of biography — the stories, as our visiting students say.

Of the Hall’s 19th century inductees, whom most people associate with the rise of women’s rights, every one has an anti-slavery activism story as well. Many were radical abolitionists: Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah Grimké, South Carolina born women who left the south and became immediatist abolitionist speakers and writers, Quaker Minister Lucretia Mott, Harriet Tubman, Mrs. Stanton, Mrs. Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, the ‘notorious’ Fanny Wright, Lydia Maria Child, Susan B. Anthony, who did a stint on the paid agency circuit, a public speaking abolitionist firebrand in her own right, Ernestine Rose, Paulina Wright Davis, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. An extraordinary number of these women were either from upstate New York, were active here, spoke here, or chose, like Harriet Tubman, to settle in this region.

They wove a 19th century web, an internet of allies and families. Imagine a great web from Maine to Philadelphia, encompassing Boston, New York City, and spanning west to the Ohio Valley and Michigan. They had no telephones, no radios, no electronic communication. They did write voluminously, letters to one another, to newspapers, to conventions and gatherings. When anti-slavery activists began to speak at meetings, their words were written down, published and passed along. Those who were not literate such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, were read to by friends, relatives, and in later years as African-American literacy expanded, often by children. Martha Coffin Wright and Lucretia Mott wrote letters that were passed around their entire extended family. Early in the century, the telegraph had not yet arrived, but the web of friends and trusted kin was in touch.

These women and their abolitionist male allies were almost all participants in the ardent religious movement that swept central and western New York, and the nation, which we have come to call the Second Great Awakening. This passionate and fierce religious movement preached immediate conversion and free grace and told audiences that humanity was perfectible. Thousands were moved from seeing themselves as unworthy, mean, steeped in original sin, and condemned to a long and hard road to salvation, to seeing themselves as part of a chosen nation, optimistic, with a faith in perfection, to valuing their own religious experience. In the 1820s, Radical American Quakers such as the Hicksites, advocated a return to early Quaker simplicity, following one’s own Inner Light, pursuing peace, and opposition to slavery. The British Quaker Elizabeth Heyrick published her pamphlet, Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition in 1824, which became well known on both sides of the Atlantic. Thousands of people were spurred to a great drive to move into a troubled world and help perfect society and all of humankind. They set out to create the ‘benevolent empire’ envisioned by Charles Grandison Finney, the most renowned evangelical preacher of the time. The reform movements of abolition and women’s rights of the 19th century were fueled by the religious energy, doctrines and techniques of Finney and those he influenced.

In recent work undertaken by the researchers and steering committee of the Seneca County Underground Railroad resources survey, we have built a database of more than 700 people involved in anti-slavery activism: subscribers to an anti-slavery or abolitionist newspaper, signers of an anti-slavery petition, participants in a ‘come-outer’ church, a congregation that formed because its mother church would not take an anti-slavery stand - the way the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls separated from its parent church in 1843, became Free Soil Party supporters, or actually harbored or assisted freedom seekers, African Americans fleeing north from slavery.

This was the climate of the times in Seneca County. The coming of the railroads and the linking of the Cayuga-Seneca Canal to the Erie system, opened the county to new people, new ideas and deep currents of reform energy. The web that joined anti-slavery activists, passionate evangelicals and women’s rights proponents started with kinship ties and the written record left by these people.

Sarah Grimké left her privileged, slave-owning family of origin in South Carolina, settled in Philadelphia and converted to Quakerism. She became a member of the same Meeting as Lucretia Mott, and was there through the years of Hicksite dissent and eventual schism. In November 1829, her much younger sister and godchild, Angelina, joined Sarah. They came to hate the slave system they knew in the south. Soon Angelina became a Quaker. Both grew uncomfortable with the Orthodox Quakers they lived among, and by 1834 were unhappy with the Orthodox Quakers in regard to their stance on slavery. The Grimkés were reading The Emancipator and The Liberator. In March of 1835, Angelina attended the anti-slavery meeting addressed by the British immediatist George Thompson. The sisters dated their conversion to immediatist abolition from this meeting.

1834 had been the year of the Lane debates and the Lane rebels – much discussed in the abolitionist press. Mob violence against abolitionist speakers and literature was everywhere. In August 1835, Angelina Grimké wrote to Garrison at The Liberator supporting his appeal to Boston citizens to repudiate mob violence. Without asking her permission, he published her letter, forever linking her with radical abolitionists. This was the same year the mob broke up the New York State Anti-slavery Society founding meeting in Utica. Gerrit Smith invited the meeting to reconvene at his estate in Peterboro, Madison County. Elizabeth Cady began to meet zealous reformers and abolitionists at Peterboro, where she, cousin to the Smiths, visited for extended stays. Theodore Dwight Weld and Henry Brewster Stanton, former Lane Seminary rebels and paid agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society were Peterboro visitors. After a year of public turmoil and inner torment, Angelina Grimké wrote her Appeal to the Christian Women of the Southern States, an absolutely unique work. It was published by the American Anti-slavery Society and advertised in the abolitionist press. She was invited to speak by the New York Committee, and soon she and Sarah became the first female abolitionist agents in the country, trained in November 1836 along with forty men recruited by Weld. The Grimkés’ story is a great story of spiritual and moral growth, courage, insight, and passion…even romance – and mob violence. On May 14, 1838, abolitionists and reformers from across the nation gathered in Philadelphia, to celebrate the opening of Pennsylvania Hall, and in the evening to attend the wedding of Theodore Dwight Weld and Angelina Grimké. Two days later, Angelina addressed the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women at the Hall, while a mob stoned the windows. That night, mob arsonists burned the brand new Hall to the ground. I started out by saying that I would discuss the role of Seneca County in these movements, and here we are dwelling upon the southerners, Sarah and Angelina Grimké and the burning of Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia in 1838. We can pick up the strands of the web here.

In 1840, abolitionist agent Henry Stanton, old friend of Theodore Weld from the Lane rebel days, brought his new bride Elizabeth Cady Stanton – whom he had met at Peterboro, to visit the Grimké-Weld household at Belleville. Lizzie found them living so plainly as to be near poverty, but she had great admiration for their work. A fast friendship evolved. She wrote informative letters to the sisters and kept them abreast of happenings in the reform world. This was the fateful year when the Stantons on their honeymoon at the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society Convention in London, experienced the non-acceptance of the American female delegates, where Mrs. Stanton met Mrs. Mott, and they decided that they would call a convention of American women upon their return. It took eight years, but it launched a worldwide movement that resonates today.

Here we have Elizabeth Cady Stanton, cousin of radical abolitionist Gerrit Smith, married to one of the most mobbed anti-slavery speakers in America, Henry Brewster Stanton, meeting Lucretia Mott in London – who attended the same Quaker Meeting as the Grimkés in their Philadelphia days. And of course, Lucretia Mott visited frequently with her sister Martha Coffin Wright who lived down the road from Seneca County in Auburn. Martha, ‘a most dangerous woman’ was an anti-slavery activist, friend of Frances and William Seward and Harriet Tubman. Stanton’s radical abolitionist reputation was not helping his young law practice in Boston. In 1847, Judge Cady gifted Elizabeth with a house in Seneca Falls. The couple moved to Seneca Falls that year. Henry was frequently on the road. Elizabeth had a young family, little help and was feeling isolated after their early married years in Boston. She accepted a summer invitation to tea at the home of Jane Hunt, reunited with Lucretia Mott, and poured forth her discontent to the assembled women. Within two weeks Martha Wright, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the M’Clintock women of Waterloo planned and brought to fruition the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention, the first in the world. This constellation of women, Mrs. Mott, Mrs. Stanton, Martha Coffin Wright, and the Grimkés, is responsible for documenting their times, thoughts and indomitable spirit in letters, diaries, pamphlets, speeches, tracts, and books.

In May of 1851, Susan B. Anthony, temperance advocate and daughter of Hicksite Quakers, came to Seneca Falls from Rochester to hear William Lloyd Garrison and British abolitionist George Thompson speak. After the talk, Amelia Jenks Bloomer introduced Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Mrs. Stanton didn’t invite Susan B. Anthony to dinner at the Stanton home where she was hosting Garrison and Thompson. However, one of the most historically significant partnerships in women’s rights evolved from that hurried introduction. In 1856, Susan B. Anthony became a paid anti-slavery agent, and of course went on to become the most recognized women’s rights public speaker in America.


(Billie Luisi-Potts is executive director of the Women’s Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls. She arrived there in March 2001 from Regents College, Albany, NY, where she served as director of development. BeforeBillie PottsBillie Potts joining Regents, she was development manager for the Resource Center for Accessible Living, an independent living center serving people with disabilities in the Hudson Valley. Prior to her service with RCAL, she directed public relations and fund-raising activities for Catskill Area Hospice, Inc., serving Schoharie, Delaware and Otsego Counties.

Billie was a training associate, program manager and director of training and technical assistance for the Center for Women in Government, Rockefeller College, University at Albany. She holds a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from Hunter College, New York, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and a master’s degree in history from Fordham University, where she was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. She is a graduate of Capital Leadership, class of 2001 and holds certificates in management and executive development from the University at Albany.

She is the author of “Small Scaled Goatkeeping,” “A First Book of Clay” and “Ergonomics: A Problem Solver’s Handbook.” Billie is president of the Seneca Falls Rotary Club; vice-chair of the board of the Seneca County Chamber of Commerce; a member of the Seneca County Advisory Committee on Tourism and a charter member of the Association of Donor Relations Professionals.)