Abigail Kelley Foster (1811-1887)

“The movement for equal rights of women began directly and emphatically with her.” -Lucy Stone

Abby Kelley Foster was a fairly average, middle class Massachusetts woman whose special contribution was her skill to reach out to and change ordinary people in small villages and towns. She felt her true calling was converting people who were not yet convinced that slavery was evil. She wrote about going into new territory, clearing the brush of prejudice, planting the seeds of anti-slavery sentiment, and laying the ground work for more famous anti-slavery lecturers such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.

Her Quaker upbringing and education helped shape her distinctive attitudes about women's role in society. Like many, she at first supported the plan of the American Colonization Society, which subsidized the move of black people to Africa, but after hearing William Lloyd Garrison in 1832, she converted to his platform of abolition of slavery within the United States.

Abby Kelley spoke at the 1838 Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia, breaking the cultural rules of her time by addressing a mixed audience of men and women. The meeting was highly controversial, and after it ended, protestors burned the newly built facility to the ground. Two years later, at the 1840 American Anti-Slavery Society's annual meeting, she broke another cultural rule and effectively split the anti-slavery movement by asserting woman's equality. Male abolitionists demonstrated their conservatism on women’s rights: when William Lloyd Garrison appointed Kelley to the society business committee, about half of the members resigned and formed their own rival group .

Abby Kelley's role in public life was dangerous, but she accepted the challenges and suffered the assaults. Her motto: Go where you are least wanted, for there you are most needed.

At a time when society demanded women to be silent, submissive and obedient, she was none of these. Kelley supported herself as a teacher until 1839, when after much soul searching, she set out on a precarious career of earning a living through lecture fees. Respectable unmarried women did not travel alone in that era, and she accepted both slander and discomfort to travel as far as Michigan. The label “Abby Kelleyite” was used for women who spoke before “promiscuous audiences” – those with both men and women. She also recruited young women such as Lucy Stone to join the work for equality.

The slanders against Abby Kelley abated when she married radical abolitionist Stephen Symonds Foster in 1845, when she was in her mid-thirties. They bought a farm near Worcester, Massachusetts: now called Liberty Farm, it is a designated Historical Landmark. Abby gave birth to their daughter, Alla, in 1847. Her letters show that she agonized over her selfishness at wanting to be with her daughter when so many slave women had their babies torn from their arms and never saw them again. She and Stephen worked out an unusual relationship for the times, though, as he often took care of Alla while she lectured.

Nor did having a young child prevent them from traveling together, and they attended many meetings, including the first National Woman's Rights Convention held in Worcester in October 1850. Unlike the famous 1848 gathering at Seneca Falls, New York, which attracted only local attendances, the Worcester meeting had representatives from nine states, and its message soon spread internationally.

Despite constant harassment and intense ridicule Abby never compromised her principles and her belief that all people are created equal and deserve to be free. She spent more than twenty years traveling across the nation as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society, becoming its pre-eminent public speaker and most successful fundraiser. After the Civil War, the Fosters worked tirelessly for the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments.The Fosters differed from Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who objected to the amendment's ratification because they didn't want the black males to get the vote before "intelligent white women." The suffrage movement split as a result, and the Fosters supported Lucy Stone’s Boston-based American Woman Suffrage Association formed in 1869.

The Fosters demonstrated their commitment to feminist ideals even in old age: in three separate incidents during the 1870s, they allowed property to be sold for non-payment of taxes as a protest against the taxation of women without representation. On each occasion, the sheriff auctioned off their farm; neighbors bought it and returned it to them. At age seventy, Abby Kelley Foster gave the last of her powerful speeches at the 30th anniversary of the first national woman’s rights convention in her hometown of Worcester. She died six years after her husband’s death, at age 77.

Over fifty years of her life were dedicated to aid the cause of humanity and justice and she often signed her letters, “Yours for humanity - Abby.” In 2011 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Abolition Hall of Fame.


Written by Karen Board Moran

References and Further Reading:

  • Picture: American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts [n.d.]
  • Melder, Keith E.  Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Volume One. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.
  • Sterling, Dorothy. Ahead of Her Time: Abby Kelley and the Politics of Antislavery. New York:
    W.W. Norton, 1991.
  • Weatherford, Doris. American Women’s History: An A-Z of People, Issues, Organizations, and Events. New York: Prentice Hall, 1994.
  • Worcester Women’s History Project, http://www.wwhp.org
  •