October 27, 2018
On October 23, 1850, Abby Hills Price came to Brinley Hall in Worcester to give a speech at the first National Woman’s Rights Convention. She stood before the crowd of 1,000 to talk about equality – not for herself, but for her daughters. Abby wanted them to have the same opportunities as her sons, and she was not afraid to use the P-word to make her point – prostitution. Even that made Elizabeth Cady Stanton take notice. “She thought the speediest solution of the vexed problem of prostitution was profitable work for the rising generation of girls,” Elizabeth noted about the speech. For Abby, this wasn’t about shock-value – she simply wanted her daughters to be able to work in the world. “Human beings cannot attain true dignity or happiness except by true usefulness. This is true of women as of men. It is their duty, privilege, honor, and bliss to be useful,” she said.
Abby lived in Hopedale, where she had almost total equality with the male Practical Christian members in town. She and her female neighbors voted on local matters and served in local government. They worked in local businesses and had a voice in the local paper. The women of Hopedale were 70 years ahead of the rest of the country.
Abby Hills Price was used to an audience. She cut her teeth on the abolitionist rally circuit, even reading an “effusion” at an 1844 anti-slavery fair where she asked the country to “free these millions from the chain.” Frederick Douglass heard her speak on that day in Upton, at a time when women were told to stay home and keep quiet. In 1837, the General Association of Congregational Ministers here in Massachusetts warned against letting women address the public, which they said would lead to “degeneracy and ruin.” Abby and the other women of Hopedale were undeterred.
In her Worcester speech, Abby went further and her words still echo today. “Woman, in order to be equally independent with man, must have a fair and equal chance,” she told the crowd, and she bemoaned the fact that her daughters, even if they could find work, would make significantly less than her sons. “When she is engaged in the same occupations with men, her remuneration is greatly below what is awarded to her stronger associates.” Today, at a time of the “Me, Too” movement, “stronger” may be an outdated term.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton knew Abby Hills Price and called her “large hearted, and large brained, gentle and strong,” noting that the speech centered on “the injustice of excluding girls from the colleges, the trades and the professions, and the importance of training them to some profitable labor, and thus to protect their virtue, dignity, and self-respect by securing their pecuniary independence.” Abby was speaking as a woman, yes, but also as a mother. “Women at present are cramped, dwarfed, and cowed down. Mothers, with large families of girls, though they may see in them intellect and genius, which, were they boys, might open to them in the future the pathway to independence and perhaps to fame, find that to girls nearly all avenues are closed.”
But Abby couldn’t resist a parting shot, sharing with the audience that she and the women of Hopedale had equality in their “little Commonwealth.” “Where I live,” she said, “all persons have equal rights, in public deliberations. Men and women are alike recognized as having a common interest in public officers and public measures.” Yet she tried to soften the blow for those who opposed a woman’s right to vote. “I have never, in the small State of Hopedale, heard of one home being neglected, or one duty less thoroughly attended to by allowing women an equal voice.”