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Kelley, Abby

Abigail (Abby) Kelley (1811 – 1887) – Anti-Slavery Reformer and Woman Suffrage Activist


Introduction: Abigail (Abby) Kelley was an influential Quaker anti-slavery reformer and a women rights activist who provided inspiration and courage to the women who organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention. Her activism in Seneca Falls led to the formation of the Wesleyan Methodist Congregation with their public anti-slavery stance and free speech commitment.

Abby Kelley Foster, Anti-Slavery Reformer. Shown in profile with her hair pinned up.
Abby Kelley Foster
Photo: Public Domain

Early Years: Abigail (Abby) Kelley was born January 15, 1811 the seventh daughter of Wing and Lydia Kelley, in Pelham, Massachusetts. Abby Kelley grew up helping with the family farm in Worcester where she received a loving, yet strict Quaker upbringing. Kelley and her family were members of the Quaker Meeting in nearby Uxbridge, Massachusetts. She began her education in a single-room schoolhouse in the Tatnuck section of Worcester. Her family, school, and religious community instilled in her a belief in the equality of all people.

In 1826, as Worcester had no high school for girls and her parents could not afford a private seminary, Kelley continued her education at the New England Friends Boarding School in Providence, Rhode Island. After her first year of school, Kelley taught for two years to make enough money to further her education. In 1829, she attended her final year of schooling, having received the highest form of education any New England woman of her relatively moderate economic standing could hope to obtain.  Abby returned to her parents’ home to teach in local schools and, in 1835, helped her parents move to their new home in Milbury. Then in 1836, she moved to Lynn, Massachusetts where she taught at a local school. There she met fellow Quakers who preached the ideas of dietary restriction, temperance, pacifism, and anti-slavery.

Early Career: Abby Kelley gained a greater interest in the abolition of slavery after hearing a lecture by William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the abolitionist publication The Liberator. In 1837 Kelley joined the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Lynn, a chapter of William Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society and was soon elected to a committee charged with collecting signatures for petitions to the Federal government to end slavery in the District of Columbia. Kelley passionately carried out her assignment, and in 1837 collected the signatures of nearly half the women of Lynn.

As a follower of Garrison, Kelley agreed with his extreme radical philosophy. It included “non-resistance” which opposed all forms of governmental coercion, a refusal to serve on a jury, join the military, or vote. Garrison called for the immediate end of slavery and the extension of civil rights to women and African Americans.

By 1838 the American Anti-Slavery Society had 1350 chapters with a membership of over 250,000. The organization employed a wide and varied network of lecturers including men, women, fugitive slaves, and free blacks. Along with Abby Kelley, these included Angelina and Sarah Grimke, Frederick Douglass, Lydia Maria Child, Maria Weston Chapman, Theodore Weld, Sarah Parker Remond and her brother Charles Lenox Remond, Robert Purvis, Charlotte Forten, and Lucretia Coffin Mott.

Slavery and Women’s Rights: Abby Kelley began working very diligently for the American Anti-Slavery Society distributing petitions, fundraising, and public speaking. In 1838 she gave her first speech to a mixed gender audience, known at the time as a “promiscuous” audience. She addressed the Second Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in Philadelphia in the newly constructed Pennsylvania Hall.

The local community was outraged that men and women were meeting together, that there were members of the African American community present with whites, and that women were at the podium. A mob formed and burned the new meeting hall to the ground. The mob stayed to throw rocks and shout obscenities as the participants fled. Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth M’Clintock were among the participants.

By 1840 many women who worked in antislavery, like Kelley, were testing the boundaries of what was considered proper for a woman to do in public. Kelley continued to create controversy for speaking to male audiences and sharing speaking platforms with men who were once slaves. Some male members of the Society objected to the ideas propounded by Garrison, Kelley, and other radicals. As a result, when Kelley was elected to the national business committee of the Anti-Slavery Society, conservative members left in protest. The two groups of abolitionists officially severed. Pacifist radical abolitionists controlled the Society, who promoted complete egalitarianism, to be obtained without the aid of any government, as all such institutions were constructed on the violence of war.

In June of 1840 abolitionists traveled to Great Britain to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Garrison, accompanied by Charles Lenox Remond, arrived late and sat in protest with the American women delegates who had not been seated or given the opportunity to participate. Lucretia Mott, a delegate, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a spectator, were among them.

In 1843 Abby Kelley arrived in Seneca Falls for a week-long series of speeches intended to convert as many souls as she could to the anti-slavery cause. She called for the Christians in the village to take a public stand against slavery in their local churches. Presbyterian Rhoda Bement took Kelley’s advice to heart and asked her own minister if he was an abolitionist. Outraged and flummoxed by Bement’s inquiry, the minister put her on trial and Bement was excommunicated. Bement and her protestant supporters then found a welcoming worship community as Wesleyan Methodists as active abolitionists and advocates of free speech. They met in the Wesleyan Chapel.

After a four-year courtship, Kelley married fellow abolitionist Stephen Symonds Foster in 1845. In 1847, she and her husband purchased a farm in the Tatnuck region of Worcester, Massachusetts and christened it “Liberty Farm”. She gave birth to their only daughter in 1847. The farm served both as a stop on the Underground Railroad and as a refuge for fellow reformers.

Kelley continued her efforts as a lecturer and fundraiser throughout the North until 1850, when declining health forced her to reduce traveling. She carried on an active correspondence and local meetings to work for the cause and helped plan the 1850 National Women’s Rights Convention.

Abby Kelley Foster died January 14, 1887, one day before her 76th birthday.  In 2011, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame

For further reading:

Abby Kelley Foster, Papers, 1836-1975. American Antiquarian Society.

Melder, Keith (1994). Jean Fagan Yellin, John C. Van Horne, ed. The Abolitionist sisterhood: women’s political culture in Antebellum America:Abby Kelley and the Process of Liberation. Cornell University Press.  pp. 231–247.

Sterling, Dorothy (1991). Ahead of Her Time: Abbey Kelly and The Politics of Antislavery. W.W. Norton and Company.


National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Women’s Rights, National Historical Park


How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2016). Abigail (Abby) Kelley (1811 – 1887) – Anti-slavery reformer and woman suffrage activist. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from