JoAnn and Martha and Me

Today (April 21st) is a  very special day in my life. It’s my mom’s birthday! Most of the time I call her Mama Llama. When I have to get real with her, it’s JoAnn. I look just like her. I sound just like her. And if, in my life, I can be a fraction of the woman she is, I will consider myself a raging success.

Llama is made of some the strongest stuff I’ve ever encountered. But she’s also so incredibly kind and gentle. At almost 28, I still love to hold her hand When I have bad days, I still find myself wishing I could curl up in her arms. When she has bad days, I wish I could be there with a hug and a glass of white wine. 

She is the one responsible for my baseball obsession (Go Cards!) and my love of the outdoors. She taught me how to make some of the best banana bread on either side of the Mississippi and maybe one day she’ll share her summertime grilling secrets with me. Perhaps more to the point, she instilled in me both the knowledge that the world is not a fair or kind place all the time and that I have the power to do something about that. 

She is my hero and I know her heroes include all the women that fought so hard to ensure that brilliant, kind, compassionate people like her could be recognized for their talents and not belittled or neglected because of their gender. So, Llama, here’s a bit about a woman almost as amazing as you. Happy Birthday!

Martha Coffin Wright may not be as well known as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (ECS, if you will) or Lucretia Mott (who is actually Martha’s sister) but, frankly, she should be. Her place among the founding members of the Seneca Falls Convention—and therefore the organized women’s rights movement in America—is enough to secure her a spot in History-with-a-capital-H, but there is so much more to her story than that.

Martha had personality to spare. She’s one of those figures who jump off the page of a book, life size and ready to chat. (Yes, I actually read a real book from an honest to gawd library while researching this piece.) Born in 1806, she was every politically active, fiercely independent, kind, good natured, witty, mischievous woman I have ever met.

She fought for women’s rights, for an end to capital punishment, for the abolition of slavery; when she wasn’t conversing with Harriet Tubman (a personal friend), she was defying gender stereotypes by teaching her sons how to knit or writing satirical editorials that wrapped the message of equality in humor and intelligent prodding. Even when she personally couldn’t get on board with an idea—such as somewhat scandalous Bloomer dresses or women not taking their husbands’ names—she defended personal freedoms saying “I believe in people doing as they please, when there is no law agin it."

Maybe not the best with one liners, but an amazing person nonetheless. (Image from Smith College Library)

Maybe not the best with one liners, but an amazing person nonetheless. (Image from Smith College Library)

Martha wasn’t much on public speaking, so she used her gift for writing and her warm personality to enable those around her to see beyond the limitations of their own prejudices.

No doubt inspired by her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit (Anna Folger Coffin ran several successful businesses both before and after her husband’s death) and her sister’s zeal, Martha left her impression on the world in subtle, often unappreciated ways. While busy changing the world and raising seven children, Martha also cared for a pet flying squirrel name Puss. If she was a teetotaler, at least she wasn’t boring.

Here was a woman who once described being shipwrecked for two weeks off the coast of Florida (as a new bride, nonetheless*) as appealing to her spirit of adventure. In later years, she would recall Florida as “that dismal spider and scorpion country,” but remarked that she “enjoyed the escape from conventionalities that continually interfere with one’s course of action.”

(I think we can all agree that the spiders, and indeed most forms of insect life, in Florida are absurd. If I’m correct in my assumption that when she said ‘scorpions,’ she meant retired New Yorkers who should no longer be allowed to operate motor vehicles, then she and I are on the exact same page about Florida.)

After her first husband’s untimely death in the frontier town of Tampa Bay (population: 500 people, a goat, and a whole lot of malaria), Martha moved to upstate New York to work as a teacher at a school her mother was running. She evidently wasn’t very fond of the the task, once describing her job in very much the same way I imagine my mom might describe the job of raising my brother and me: “instilling knowledge into those heads whose thickness renders an over abundance of patience necessary.”

She didn’t last long as a teacher, but after meeting and marrying a young law student named David Wright, Martha would go on to make upstate New York her home for the rest of her life. It was there that she began to grow more and more involved in the abolition movement.

The Wright family home around 1875 (Syracuse University Library)

The Wright family home around 1875 (Syracuse University Library)

At the Wright family home in Aurora and, later Auburn, NY, you would have been just as likely to encounter Harriet Tubman—whom Martha described as warm, sincere, and proud— or Frederick Douglass—who frequently dined and stayed with the Wrights while in town, as you were Susan. B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The home was a hub of revolutionary free thinking and, as was often the case with such locales in the mid 1800s, it was also a station on the underground railroad.

Like many women in the abolition movement, Martha and Lucretia found that using their voices for one cause emboldened them to use it for others. One afternoon both women found themselves at tea at the Warerloo, NY home of Jane Hunt. Jane, a devoted abolitionist had invited Lucretia, ECS, another staunch abolitionist with the delightful name of Mary M’Clintock, and our hero Martha to come socialize and exchange ideas on the hot topics of the day. (One gets the feeling that hot topics abounded in Martha’s presence.)

Not long into the afternoon, the women decided that the time had come to make a stand for women's rights. Working quickly, they drafted a statement announcing their plans to hold “A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women” the following week in ECS’ town of Seneca Falls. At 41 years old, twice a grandmother, and pregnant with her seventh child, Martha worked with the other women to draft A Declaration of Sentiments which would be ratified and signed by the delegates to the convention.

Can we just repeat the fact that Martha had seven children and still managed to change the world? I have no children and can’t even get my laundry done on a regular basis.

The women’s Declaration was no less revolutionary than the Declaration of Independence, on which it was modeled. After listing the wrongs inflicted on women by men, it made the shocking demand that women be given “immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.”

Though Martha, like all but one of the 68 women whose names appear on the document, would not live to see the ratification of the 19th Amendment, such a momentous piece of legislation would not have been possible without the efforts of Martha and all those who proudly declared the value and necessity of women’s contributions to society.

Today, the Declaration of Sentiments and the names of its signatories are inscribed on the water wall of the visitor center at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. As a child, my family vacations revolved around baseball stadiums and National Parks. As an adult, I’d love to continue that tradition. So what do you say, mom? Want to take a trip with me to Seneca Falls?


*This story, like most stories about Martha, is so much better than I could possibly fit in this one post. Martha is a wealth of anecdotes, quips, and amazing encounters. I had to cut so much of it out that I wish I could have told you. It’s a rare occasion that I laugh out loud while reading a historical biography, but I did just that while working on this post.