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Martha Coffin Wright

Biography

By James D. Livingston

~ James D. Livingston (jdliv @ mit.edu)

Martha Coffin was born in Boston on Christmas Day, 1806, the youngest child of Anna Folger and Thomas Coffin, a merchant and former Nantucket ship captain. Soon thereafter, the Coffin family moved to Philadelphia, and Martha received her education there at Quaker schools. Her father died in debt in 1815, and Martha's mother paid off his debts and supported the family by running a boardinghouse and small shop. Thus Martha grew up in a home headed by a strong, independent woman, a powerful role model.

In 1824, Martha married Peter Pelham of Kentucky, and moved with him to a frontier fort at Tampa Bay, Florida. For marrying a non-Quaker, Martha was expelled from her Quaker meeting, an event that contributed to her lifelong estrangement from organized religion. A daughter was born the following year, but Peter died in 1826, leaving Martha a nineteen-year-old widow with an infant child. To support herself and her daughter, she moved to upstate New York to teach painting and writing at a Quaker school for girls. Soon thereafter, she met and married a young law student named David Wright, with whom she would have six more children.

In July 1848, Martha's older sister Lucretia Coffin Mott, a prominent Quaker preacher, visited Martha's home in Auburn, New York. During that visit, Martha and Lucretia met with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and two other women and decided to hold a convention in nearby Seneca Falls to discuss the need for greater rights for women. The importance of that historic convention was recognized by Congress in 1980 with the creation of the Women's Rights National Historical Park, administered by the National Park Service. The Park's Visitor Center today features a group of life-size bronze statues to honor the women and men who in 1848 initiated the organized movement for women's rights and woman suffrage. When Martha helped to plan the Seneca Falls Convention, she was six months pregnant with her seventh child. Her statue shows her visibly pregnant, testimony for the ages that the bearing of children does not preclude women from making important public contributions to society.

In the years following Seneca Falls, Martha Wright participated in many state and national women's rights conventions in various capacities, often serving as President. In the antebellum years, she was also active in the abolition movement. With her sister Lucretia, Martha attended the founding meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833, and later presided over numerous anti-slavery meetings, including two in upstate New York in early 1861 that were disrupted by angry anti-abolitionist mobs. Martha's home in Auburn was part of the Underground Railroad, harboring fugitive slaves, and she became a close friend and supporter of Harriet Tubman, who obtained property in Auburn shortly before the Civil War.

During the war, Martha's son William served in the Union artillery, and was wounded at Gettysburg repelling the famed Pickett's Charge. Many of Martha's Pelham kin, relatives of her first husband, fought instead in the Confederate Army. (A web project on the site "Women and Social Movements in the United States" is based on the lively, sometimes heated, correspondence between Martha, an ardent abolitionist, and her slaveholding Southern relatives.) In 1863, Martha and other women's rights workers formed the Women's National Loyal League, and carried petitions for the abolition of slavery, which was finally achieved in 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

After the war, Martha was instrumental in the formation of the American Equal Rights Association, which attempted to merge the issues of black suffrage and woman suffrage. However, controversy arose over the Fifteenth Amendment, which provided only black male suffrage. This issue split the postwar women's movement into two camps, one led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the other by Lucy Stone. Martha sided with her friends Stanton and Anthony, and in 1874 was elected President of their National Woman Suffrage Association.

Martha's youngest daughter Ellen had married William Lloyd Garrison, Jr., son and namesake of the abolitionist leader. In December 1874, Martha traveled to Boston to assist the Garrisons at the birth of her fourteenth grandchild, William Lloyd Garrison, 3rd. Martha took ill there with typhoid pneumonia, and died in Boston on January 4, 1875, at the age of sixty-eight. Susan B. Anthony was shocked at the news, and wrote in her diary, "I could not believe it; clear-sighted, true and steadfast almost beyond all other women!" Much of Martha's correspondence, full of wit, wisdom, and erudition surprising for someone whose formal education ended at the age of fifteen, has been preserved in the archives of Smith College and Syracuse University, and used by historians studying reform movements and middle-class family life in nineteenth-century America.

A more complete treatment of Martha Wright's life appears in an article by Sherry H. Penney and James D. Livingston, "Expectant at Seneca Falls," in the Winter 2003 issue of New York History. A full-length biography by the same authors, A Very Dangerous Woman, was published by University of Massachusetts Press in 2004.

Contact: James D. Livingston (jdliv @ mit.edu)

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