Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Martha C. Wright, 1806-1875
By Sue Boland, Historian
Matilda Joslyn Gage Center
Martha Coffin Pelham Wright was an important suffragist during the early years of the woman suffrage movement, yet she has been overshadowed by her more well-known sister, Lucretia Mott. Wright played a vital role behind-the-scenes an organizer and confidant to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Born on Christmas Day in 1806 in Boston to Anna Folger and Thomas Coffin, young Martha saw her mother struggle to earn money when Thomas was out to sea or after his death in 1815. Martha was raised in Philadelphia in the Quaker religion. A strong emphasis on an individual's ability to communicate with the divine led many Quakers to believe in the equality of all people and work for the abolition of slavery, women's rights, and other reforms.
Before she became active in women's rights, Wright balanced a busy family life with antislavery work, organizing abolition meetings and hosting freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad in her home in Auburn, New York. In fact, she was six months pregnant when she attended the famous tea at which she, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Hunt and Mary Ann McClintock planned the 1848 Seneca Falls convention. Despite being crippled by a fear of public speaking, Wright consented to be the president or secretary of several state and national women's rights conventions during the 1850s and 60s. Outside of conventions, she held several offices. Wright was chosen in 1869 as the first president of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, on several executive committees, vice president three times for the American Equal Rights Association, and elected president of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1874.
Wright's greatest contribution to the women's movement may have been her role as a trusted advisor. The editor of the Stanton/Anthony Papers, Ann Gordon, states Wright “left a valuable archives of correspondence” and “both Stanton and Anthony relied on her political advice.” Stanton recalled that Wright “was a frequent visitor at the center of the rebellion, as my sequestered cottage on Locust Hill was facetiously called” for “councils of war.” Anthony declared, “I always felt sure Mrs. Stanton's and my plannings were right when Mrs. Wright gave them her sanction. Her calm, cool judgment was safe . . . “
When she married a non-Quaker, Martha was expelled from the Friends and never joined another religious denomination. The use of the Bible to justify slavery “and to support the subordination of women further alienated Martha from orthodox religion,” according to her biographers. Martha's first husband, Peter Pelham, died just before her first child was born in 1826. In 1829, she married David Wright and had six more children, but sadly buried three of them. For more on Martha and her relations with the Pelham family see the document project, “How Did Abolitionist Women and Their Slaveholding Relatives Negotiate Their Conflict over the Issue of Slavery?”
Martha Wright died in January of 1875. She is buried in Auburn's Fort Hill Cemetery, not far from her home, which is no longer standing. The site is memorialized by a New York State historical marker, one of few dedicated to a woman.
Martha C. Wright, c. 1881. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. Engraving from HISTORY OF WOMAN SUFFAGE, vol. 1, p. 641.
Faulkner, Carol. Lucretia Mott's Heresy: Abolition and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
Harper, Ida Husted. The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, vol. I & II. Indianapolis: The Hollenback Press, 1898. [LINK]
Penney, Sherry D. and James D. Livingston. A Very Dangerous Woman: Martha Wright and Women's Rights. Amherst, MA.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years and More. New York: European Publishing Company, 1898.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Elizabeth Cady Stanton as Revealed in Her Letters, Diary and Reminiscences, vol. 2. Theodore Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch, eds. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1922.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady and Susan B. Anthony. The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Volume I: In the School of Anti-Slavery, 1840-1866. Ann D. Gordon, ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady and Susan B. Anthony. The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, vol. II: Against an Aristocracy of Sex 1866-1873. Ann D. Gordon, ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady and Susan B. Anthony. The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, vol. III: National Protection for National Citizens 1873 to 1880. Ann D. Gordon, ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds. History of Woman Suffrage, vol. I: 1848-1861. Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1887. LINK
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds. History of Woman Suffrage, vol. II: 1861-1876. Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1887. LINK
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds. History of Woman Suffrage, vol. III: 1876-1885. Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1886. LINK