March 17, 2015

Quaker Causes and the Women's Rights Quilt

Members of the Religious Society of Friends generally supported the abolition of slavery in this country from the time they first emigrated to American shores in the 17th and 18th centuries, up to and through the Civil War, and until the Fifteenth Amendment to our Constitution was ratified on February 3, 1870.

1870 print celebrating the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment.  Source of
image:  Wikimedia Commons.
The Fifteenth Amendment was the third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments enacted after the Civil War.  It states:  "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
Quaker women were among those who founded and joined the ranks of female anti-slavery societies prior to emancipation.  They, and most other women who joined the cause, strongly empathized with the overall condition of the slave population.  Not only were they enslaved, they were considered chattel who were denied the freedom to own property, to vote, and to participate openly in society -- freedoms that women, who shared a similar status economically, socially, and politically at the time, were also denied.
Women's rights had, in fact, been considered by William Lloyd Garrison as part of the platform when he founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.  The issue of women's rights, however, was rejected by the members of the Society as a distraction from the Society's purpose. 
Women working for the anti-slavery cause did not let the issue of women's rights die.  In 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an apostate Presbyterian, and Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott attended the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London with their husbands.  Prevented from speaking and forced to sit behind a curtain with the other women attending, they resolved to organize a convention to advocate for women's rights when they returned to America.
In 1848, after the Genesee Yearly Meeting in New York decided to terminate its Michigan Quarterly Meeting for advocating more freedom to pursue women's rights, Lucretia Mott, her sister Martha Coffin Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton met for tea at the home of Jane Hunt.  All of these women, save Stanton, were Quakers, upset and annoyed by the action of the Genesee Yearly Meeting.  Around the tea table that day, these women planned the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women's rights convention ever convened.  One of the results of the convention was a Declaration of Women's Rights signed by one-hundred attendees.  Among the rights declared by this document was the right to vote.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
Lucretia Mott.  Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
The first drafts of the Fifteenth Amendment to grant suffrage without regard to "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" surfaced in 1865 and clearly revealed that this Republican-sponsored amendment pertained only to black men.  In reaction, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and fellow-abolitionist and women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association in May of 1866.  Its purpose was to work to gain suffrage for both black men and white women.  Lucretia Mott was chosen to head the organization.
Susan B. Anthony.  Source of image: Wikimedia Commons.


It wasn't long before quarreling broke out between the long-time abolitionists in the organization, who felt that black men should have precedence and receive the vote first, and the women's rights activists who wanted the Fifteenth Amendment to address both groups at once.  After the May 1869 meeting of the American Equal Rights Association, Stanton and Anthony "surreptitiously" broke away from the group and formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) for women only, "believing that the presence of men in the Equal Rights Association had led to their betrayal."  (Bacon, 127.)
The split in the suffrage movement was final when, after Lucretia Mott and others failed to bring peace to the two factions, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and others formed an opposing organization called the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) that pulled its membership from the states and worked to establish women's suffrage throughout the country at the state level.
The schism created by earlier disagreements was healed in 1890 when the NWSA and the AWSA merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association with Susan B. Anthony, who was raised as a Quaker, as its primary force.
In about 1875, when the split in the women's rights movement was still unresolved, a quilt was made in the Midwest that is now a holding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Women's Rights Quilt, made in the Midwest ca. 1875.  Photograph courtesy of
the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The quilt measures 70 inches by 69.5 inches and is made of cotton fabrics that are appliqued, reverse-appliqued, embroidered, and quilted.  The quilt was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011.  When it was published by Sandi Fox in 1990 and Deanna V. Boone in 1994, the quilt was owned by Nancy Livingston and her daughter, Elizabeth Livingston Jaeger of Ripon, Wisconsin.  Their understanding was that the quilt had been made by Emma Civey Stahl of Elgin, Illinois, and had passed to Stahl's daughter who eventually gave it to Martha Livingston, Nancy Livingston's mother-in-law.  Boone cites Roderick Kiracofe as having said that it is "the only quilt known to date that pictorially depicts the issue of women's rights and suffrage before 1990."  (Boone, 16 and 18.)
The quilt's blocks are decorated with fruits, vegetables, birds, and flowers surrounded by square borders, as well as a number of scenes in circles depicting, among other topics, a women's rights advocate engaged in various activities.

Detail, Women's Right Quilt made in the Midwest ca. 1875.  Photograph courtesy of
the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Boone noted that a botanist at Ripon College felt the fruits, vegetables, birds, and flowers depicted on the quilt "were not then commonly known in the Illinois region."
Sandi Fox has provided, verbatim, some commentary about the pictorial blocks that had accompanied the quilt.  (It is not known if this commentary was provided by the quilt maker or by one of those through whom the quilt passed.)  Three of the blocks are described in this manner:  "1. Man is in the kitchen doing dishes.  He is owlish and cross.  Represented by Owls.  2. The woman has gone to lecture on Womans Right.  How important she is driving.  3)  She is lecturing to all men only 1 woman and that is her Pal [. . . ].  Fox goes on to describe a block not covered by the commentary.  "A child kneels in prayer in the presence of a chair empty save for a bit of red and white cloth.  These are the colors assigned to the mother in the quilt, seen in her skirt and in the sash of her dress.  Has the child lost her mother to death -- or perhaps to the cause?"  (Fox, 110 and 111.)  Portions of a banner inscribed "WOMANS RIG . . ." appear on three of the blocks.
Some of the pictorial blocks seem to offer a satirical, nineteenth-century view of the woman's behavior.  It is not clear whether the quilt was meant to laud or to ridicule women seeking equality and their civil rights.  Given the opposition to women's suffrage before, during, and after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment granting the vote to black men, it would not be surprising to find a quilt of the nineteenth-century with negative or mocking portrayals of a woman who fought for this right.
The nineteenth-century women who labored long and hard for women's suffrage were later joined by other dedicated women, many of whom were Quakers, who persisted in the struggle until women were finally granted the vote by the Nineteenth Amendment.  This amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920 -- seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York.
Bacon, Margaret Hope.  Mothers of Feminism, The Story of Quaker Women in America.  Philadelphia: Friends General Conference, 1986.
Boone, Deanna V.  "Suffragette Quilt Documents Historical Change" in Quilt World, Vol. 19, No. 1 (January 1994), pp. 16-18.
Constitution of the United States of America.  New York: A.C.L.U., no date.
Fox, Sandi.  Wrapped in Glory, Figurative Quilts & Bedcovers 1700-1900.  London: Thames and Hudson and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990. 
Hedges, Elaine, Pat Ferrero and Julie Silber.  Hearts and Hands, Women, Quilts, and American Society.  Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1987.
(c)  Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2015.


  1. Let me add to the community memory about this quilt. I saw it in Chicago at a show maybe in the early 1980s. The story was an owner had taken it to a care facility. There was a fire or some kind of disaster (or imagined disaster). The quilt was thrown from the window and laid under the Wisconsin snow all winter. Pinned to it was a typed note on letter-sized paper, which was displayed with it at the quilt show. The comments were the detailed captions in Fox's book. I took pictures at the show---so did many others. It's so great that it's in a museum now. Credit goes to Julie Silber at the Quilt Complex and several others who have watched this quilt move along over the past three decades.

  2. How interesting! Thanks, Barbara. Thanks, Julie.