Abigail Kelley Foster

American reformer Abigail Kelley Foster (1810-1887) was a pioneer in the abolitionist movement and contributed to the developing suffragist principles of her time.

The daughter of Irish Quakers, Abby Kelley was born in Pelham, Mass., on Jan. 15, 1810. She was raised in Worcester and educated at the Friends' School in Providence, R.I. She became a schoolteacher and showed gifts of eloquence and public presence. Abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore D. Weld urged her to join their cause. In 1837 she became an antislavery lecturer—the first woman to do so after the Grimké sisters, and the first woman to face mixed and often hostile audiences under the same conditions as men.

Though denounced and ridiculed, Kelley entered alien environments in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, meeting antagonism with oratorical power and a firm grasp of her subject. As a symbol of Garrisonian extremism, she roused criticism among moderate abolitionists who were outraged by Garrison's determination to involve women in decision making. At the 1840 annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York, Kelley was elected to the business committee. At this point the moderates withdrew to form the rival American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

In 1845 Miss Kelley married Stephen Symonds Foster. He too had endured many mob actions, was noted for his denunciations of slavery, and had authored The Brotherhood of Thieves: A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy (1843). The couple was honored by James Russell Lowell in his "Letter from Boston" (1846). Lowell, like others, had noticed the contrast between their personal mildness and decorum and the violent language they employed in public address.

Such was Abby's reputation that as late as 1850 the managers of the Woman's Rights Convention doubted whether she should be allowed onto the platform. When she appeared, she began with the words, "Sisters, bloody feet have worn smooth the path by which you come here!"

The Fosters settled on a farm near Worcester and, though engaged in rural pursuits, maintained their war against social discriminations. They refused to pay taxes to a state which deprived Abby of her right to the vote, and twice they had their property sold at auction to satisfy that debt. The friends who purchased back the farm for them were ultimately reimbursed. Their last cause was in helping get passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave the vote to former slaves, though not to women. Abby, surviving her husband, died on Jan. 14, 1887.


Further Reading on Abigail Kelley Foster

Information on Abby Foster is in Inez H. Irwin, Angels and Amazons: A Hundred Years of American Women (1933); Lillian O'Connor, Pioneer Women Orators: Rhetoric in the Ante-Bellum Reform Movement (1954); and Alma Lutz, Crusade for Freedom: Women of the Antislavery Movement (1968).