The Life and Work of Hannah Mather Crocker
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Hannah Mather Crocker (1752-1829) was born into the prominent Mather and Hutchinson families in Boston. A staunch supporter of the principles of the American Revolution, she advocated radical ideas about the education and rights of women. Notably, Crocker believed that girls should receive an education equal to that of boys. She also argued that, if given the opportunities men were afforded, women would be their equals in virtue, intellect, and achievement.
Crocker was born on 27 June 1752 in her parents' seventeenth-century home on Moon Court near North Square in Boston. Her father was the Congregationalist minister Samuel Mather, son of the more famous Puritan minister Cotton Mather. Her mother was Hannah Hutchinson, sister to Thomas Hutchinson, who served as Governor of Massachusetts at the start of the Revolution. Fairly little is known about her early life as of yet, but in her later years she recorded in her Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston some personal anecdotes that suggest she became a young woman of exceptional character and action. In one tale recounted in her Reminiscences, she remembered smuggling letters out of British-occupied Boston at the onset of the revolution in 1775. Concealing the letters under her dress, she defiantly dared a British soldier to search her—which he declined. Crocker reported that she successfully delivered the letters from her father to a leader of the American forces, Joseph Warren.
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Series of Letters, 1815
School of Reform, 1816
Reminiscences, c. 1826
Observations of the Real Rights of Women, 1818
Hannah Mather Crocker's grave site in Copp's Hill, Boston
On 18 March 1779, she married Joseph Crocker, a Harvard graduate, and a captain in the Revolutionary War. Their relationship may well have been unusually equitable for the era. One of Crocker's writings, the “North Square Creed,” affirms the importance of women's voice and self-determination in marriage. Three copies of the “Creed” survive, one bearing a number of initials including JC. Their marriage produced ten children before he died in 1797. She also survived her parents and all of her siblings.
Crocker had at least eight poems—often concerning political issues—published in Boston newspapers (usually anonymously) from 1784 to 1820. As with other female scholars of the era, she was particularly productive once her children were grown. She had three major prose works printed during her lifetime: A Series of Letters on Freemasonry by 'A Lady of Boston' (1815); The School of Reform, or, Seaman's Safe Pilot to the Cape of Good Hope (1816); and Observations on the Real Rights of Women, with their Appropriate Duties, Agreeable to Scripture, Reason and Common Sense (1818). In addition, she donated a large quantity of her manuscripts to the American Antiquarian Society during the 1810s and early 1820s. During the last decade of her life, she was working on her Reminiscences, a synthetic history of Boston from its founding to the 1820s. The 459-page manuscript, featuring two versions of her history of Boston plus an appendix of related historical and literary documents, was not published before her death, but eventually was acquired by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in 1879. Crocker died on the 11th of July in 1829, and is buried in the Mather tomb at Copp's Hill, Boston.
Crocker’s works attest to her education and fluency in religion, literature, history, and politics. Like other girls of her generation, she was likely educated at home; there are no records of her having attended a school or academy. She had access to one of the largest libraries in Boston, in that portion of the Mather family library that was held by her father, Samuel Mather. She donated portions of that famous family library to the Massachusetts Historical Society in the late 1790s and to the American Antiquarian Society in the 1810s. Her philosophical interest in the education of girls took a concrete turn toward public service when she helped to found the School of Industry for “the female children of the poor in the Northern district of Boston” in 1813. This charity school gave girls literacy and economic skills in “domestic manufacture” until it closed in 1819, to make way for the new public primary school system in the city.
Crocker also participated in Freemasonry and her writings demonstrate her familiarity with its principles, history, symbolism, and language. Around 1778, she helped establish a female “lodge” (St. Ann’s Lodge) on the same principles as male Masonic lodges. St. Ann’s Lodge had a special focus on the education of its all-female membership, especially in the fields of science and literature. Two of her known newspaper poems, dated 1784 and 1798, provided glimpses of the workings of the “ladies’ lodge” to the reading public of Boston. She was well-known in the Masonic community in Boston: the dedication to her 1815 essay A Series of Letters on Freemasonry referred to the “protection and patronage of the M.W. (Most Worshipful) Past Grand Master, the Past Grand Chaplain, and the present Officers and Members of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.”
The early nineteenth century saw a transatlantic backlash against Mary Wollstonecraft and other revolutionary-era advocates of women’s rights, alongside a public diminishment of the cause of women’s rights in European and American law and culture. In this climate, Crocker expressed her beliefs carefully, balancing her own preferences in relation to current prescriptions of appropriate womanhood. Her 1818 Observations is the first book-length philosophical treatise on women’s rights written and published by an American. Remarkably, she ushered this work into the public sphere at the nadir of support for women’s rights in the early national era—paving the way for a resurgence of intellectual and political interest in the issue in the 1820s and beyond. Nonetheless, works by other early feminists whom she read and cited, including Wollstonecraft’s, have long overshadowed the reception and study of her landmark writings on women’s rights. Recent scholarship has begun to situate Crocker within a broader discussion of the history of women’s rights advocacy, Freemasonry, women’s literature, and the city of Boston. The goal of the Hannah Mather Crocker Society is to shed light on its namesake’s significance as an important historical, literary, and philosophical figure for American culture, then and now.