The Shakers are known for their beliefs about equality – man or woman, black or white, no one brother or sister was considered more or less important than another. Each leadership position had male and female counterparts, reflecting the desire for egalitarianism, symmetry, and balance. Yet despite this dogma that is so central to the Shaker religion, there was resistance to female leaders in the Society’s early years.
There is no doubt that Ann Lee, the founder of Shakerism, was beloved and respected by her followers. She was very intuitive to human nature and always knew just how to respond to various personalities and moods. A woman speaking out in public, and especially about religion, in the 18th century was a major breach of social norms, and Ann often suffered at the hands of non-believers because of it. But those that chose the Shaker path owed everything to the woman who brought this way of life to the new nation. After Mother Ann’s predecessor James Whittaker died in 1787, Joseph Meacham became the spiritual leader. Meacham did something that was unprecedented in the still-young Society: he chose a co-leader, a woman named Lucy Wright.
The Wrights were a very wealthy family and were viewed as leaders in their community in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Lucy was very popular and a leader among her peers. She was often described as having a good figure and a beautiful smile. In 1779, at the age of nineteen, she married another local named Elizur Goodrich.
The Goodriches were swept up into a New Light Baptist religious revival in the Lebanon Valley during the Second Great Awakening. It was during this time that they first visited the Albany Shakers. Elizur was immediately captivated and wanted to join them, but Lucy wasn’t as easily convinced. Just imagine it: she was a young married woman of means who could do almost anything she wanted to (within social parameters, of course). Joining the Shakers meant giving up everything, least of all her husband, whom she loved. Lucy stood by as more than twenty of the Goodriches joined, yet she debated her own membership for several months. She eventually joined Elizur, who was no longer her husband, but her spiritual brother. Yet despite Lucy’s original hesitation, she was a very devout and efficient Shaker, making obvious Meacham’s decision to share power with her.
Meacham’s choice to bring on a co-leader turned out to be an ingenious one for the later strength and success of the Society. He summoned Lucy to Mount Lebanon and she became known as Mother Lucy. When Meacham died in 1796, Lucy became the sole leader of the Shaker Ministry. This infuriated several Shaker brethren. Refusing to be any part of this “petticoat government,” these disaffected men left the Shaker community. Even though equality was a basic tenet of Shakerism and they believed in the dual Godhead – that God has both male and female counterparts – the Shakers were not immune to the affect of outside beliefs about gender roles, especially with so many members having been raised in “the world.”
While this was probably discouraging, it didn’t stop Lucy. She continued on to have an unprecedented twenty-five year tenure as leader of the Shakers. Lucy was responsible for creating the rigid uniformity in dance that has come to define Shaker worship. She also worked to establish the basic internal organization of the Society and its communities. Lucy worked diligently to attract new converts and initiated the westward expansion of Shakerism; it was under her watch that communities were created in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.
In her later years, Mother Lucy returned to Watervliet, desiring to spend her last days there. She died on February 7, 1821, two days after her 61st birthday. Lucy ensured her rule continued beyond her death because she chose her own predecessors. The basic structure she created while she was at the helm remained as the organizational model for the Society throughout its history. Her leadership set an example for equality of the sexes. Mother Lucy is buried in the Shaker cemetery at our site, next to Mother Ann Lee.
On Saturday, March 24th at 2pm, the Shaker Heritage Society is hosting the lecture “Women in Shaker Society.” Our Executive Director Starlyn D’Angelo will explore the role of women in Shaker society through the stories of individual Shaker sisters in honor of National Women’s History Month. This lecture is free for SHS members and a $5 donation is suggested for non-members. Please join us for this great lecture and learn more about Lucy Wright and the lives of other women in the Shaker community.