During her lifetime, Abby Kelley Foster followed the motto, “Go where least wanted, for there you are most needed.” A major figure in the national anti-slavery and women’s rights movements, she spent more than twenty years traveling the country as a tireless crusader for social justice and equality for all.
Foster was born into a Quaker family in Pelham, Massachusetts in 1811, and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts at a time when society demanded that women be silent, submissive and obedient. After attending boarding school, she held teaching positions in Worcester, Millbury and Lynn, Massachusetts.
In Lynn, she joined the Female Anti-Slavery Society, where she became corresponding secretary and later, a national delegate to the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in 1837. The following year, Foster made her first public speech against slavery, and was so well received that she abandoned her teaching career and returned to Millbury. There, she founded the Millbury Anti-Slavery Society and began lecturing for the American Anti-Slavery Society.
During the next two decades, Foster served as a lecturer, fundraiser, recruiter and organizer in the fight for abolition and suffrage. In 1850, she helped develop plans for the National Women’s Rights Convention in Massachusetts. There, she gave one of her most well-known speeches, in which she challenged women to demand the responsibilities as well as the privileges of equality, noting “Bloody feet, sisters, have worn smooth the path by which you come hither.”
In 1854, Foster became the chief fundraiser for the American Anti-Slavery Society, and by 1857, she was its general agent. Through the American Anti-Slavery Society, Foster continued to work for the ratification of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.
In her later years, once slavery was abolished and the rights of enslaved people were guaranteed, Foster focused her activism primarily on women’s rights. She held meetings, arranged lectures, and called for ‘severe language’ in any resolutions that were adopted. In 1868, she was among the organizers of the founding convention of the New England Woman Suffrage Association, the first regional association advocating woman suffrage. Foster’s efforts were among those that helped lay the groundwork for the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.