Abby Kelley Foster (1811 – 1887) in many ways was the “mother” of the women’s movement in America. Certainly a leader, and certainly rebellious, she stepped on many toes and overcame many barriers in her struggle to end slavery and achieve equality for women.
Kelley was born January 15, 1811 into a Quaker farming household in Pelham, Massachusetts. She attended school in a one-room schoolhouse until 1826 when she was sent to the New England Friends Boarding School in Providence, Rhode Island. After her first year, Kelley taught school to help pay for her education. When she had received as much schooling as any daughter of parents of modest means could hope to attain, she returned to her parent’s home and taught school. In 1836, Kelley moved to Lynn, Massachusetts where she also taught school, and became interested in the abolition of slavery after hearing a lecture by William Lloyd Garrison. She joined the Female Anti-Slavery Association of Lynn.
As she continued working with abolitionists, Kelley’s views became consistently more radical. She advocated not only the abolition of slavery but also full civil rights for blacks. She adopted Garrison’s views, and not only opposed all forms of war, but also believed one shouldn’t serve on juries, vote or join the military. She was praised for her public speaking ability and her dedication to the cause. Radical abolitionism became known as “Abby Kelleyism”.
In 1838, Kelley gave her first speech to a “promiscuous” (mixed gender) audience, not something ladies were supposed to do. By 1839, she was fully involved in the Anti-Slavery Society, and true to Quaker tradition refused payment for her services. In 1841 however, Kelley resigned from the Quakers when they refused to allow anti-slavery speakers in meeting houses.
In 1848, Kelley married fellow abolitionist Stephen Symonds Foster. Kelley and her husband purchased a farm near Worcester, Massachusetts that became a stop for the Underground Railroad and also a haven for fellow reformers. Kelley and Foster had their only child, a daughter, in 1847.
Kelley continued with her lectures and activities with the Anti-Slavery Society. In 1854, Kelley became the Society’s chief fundraiser; in 1857 she was given the position of general agent in charge of lecture and convention schedules.
Fighting for women’s rights soon became a new priority. Kelley was speaking in Seneca Falls, New York five years before the Seneca Falls Convention was held there. It was Kelley who influenced such future suffragists as Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone to become political activists. Kelley helped organize and was the keynote speaker at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850.
After the Civil War, Kelley was a strong supporter of the 15th Amendment. Many suffragists were opposed to any Amendment that did not include a provision for woman’s suffrage. Kelley split with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton over this issue and continued her support of the 15th Amendment even without a woman’s suffrage clause.
In 1872, Kelley and her husband refused to pay taxes on their property, arguing that since Kelley could not vote, the government was taxing her without representation. The property was eventually seized and sold, but was repurchased for Kelley and her husband by friends.
Kelley continued working on behalf of woman’s suffrage for the remainder of her life. When she was in declining health she did correspondence and held local meetings. She died January 14, 1887, one day before her 76th birthday.
Kelley was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
–Nancy Campbell Mead