Mary Grew & Margaret Burleigh


Mary Grew & Margaret Burleigh


Mary Grew, abolitionist leader & newspaper editor. Her work was respected by all the men in the movement—except her own father. Mary >> back row with fellow members of the Penn. AntiSlavery Society. Margaret Burleigh, her partner of 40 years, is in front. They were known as the “Burleigh-Grews.” Thread.

Mary Grew & her father Henry sailed for England to attend the World AntiSlavery Convention. They were both delegates—but when Mary & the other women were denied their seats, her father didn’t protest. The opposite: he said seating women wd violate “the ordinance of Almighty God!”

We don’t know what Mary thought of her father, whose wealth gave her the freedom not to marry.

Mary was an officer of both the Female AntiSlavery Society and the co-ed Pennsylvania AntiSlavery Society. She edited the Pennsylvania Freeman, the abolitionist newspaper. 

When the Freeman merged with the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Mary wrote for the National as a Philadelphia correspondent. She also wrote the Female AntiSlavery Society’s annual report every year, concluding in 1870 with a retrospective on 35 years of work.

From her earliest years as an abolitionist, Mary demanded radical and immediate change. In 1838 she spoke at the American Women’s AntiSlavery Convention the day before their meeting hall was torched. Mary made a controversial resolution to cut off churches that condoned slavery.

“RESOLVED That it is our duty to keep ourselves separate from those churches which receive to their pulpits and their communion tables those who buy, sell, or hold as property, the image of the living God.”

It passed narrowly. Yrs later the larger movement took the same position.

Abolitionists were trying to convince white Northerners that slavery was evil. In this work, Mary had much to offer. She was a good writer, a clear and compelling speaker, and willing to go door to door to collect signatures, even when Congress refused to accept them. 

SIDEBAR: Did you know there was a Gag Rule in the 19th century? Abolitionists submitted so many petitions that the House of Representatives voted to table them automatically. Like the contemporary Gag Rule, this affected women most, as petitioning was their only political voice.

Mary Grew believed in racial equality in the north, not just freedom from enslavement in the south. When Frances Watkins Harper critiqued the women’s rights movement for ignoring streetcar segregation in Philadelphia, Mary listened. 

Mary lambasted local white clergy:

“Eager, zealous, prompt to do battle against the running of our city cars on Sunday, they have scarcely been disturbed by this wicked and cruel practice of excluding their fellow citizens and fellow Christians from those cars on account of their complexion.”

Mary was always a feminist, though she wasn’t at Seneca Falls in 1848. That convention, sparked by the discrimination Mary Grew and Lucretia Mott experienced in London, was called on short notice when Mott was visiting western NY from Philadelphia. 

But the same year, Mary lobbied the Pennsylvania legislature to pass the married women’s property act. 

After the war, with ratification of the 15th Amdt imminent, Mary turned more attention to women’s suffrage. She was the founding president of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association, and its head for 23 years.

She was exasperated with those who demanded justification for women voting. “What is woman going to do with the ballot? I don’t know; I don’t care; and it is of no consequence. Their right to the ballot does not rest on the way in which they vote.” (1871, quoted in HWS)

When she died in 1896, her obituary observed: “Her biography would be a history of all reforms in Pennsylvania for fifty years.”

What about Margaret??

From the time they were in their 30s, Mary Grew and Margaret Jones did everything together. Abolition was the center of their lives, but they also took trips to the seashore. 

Their circle included Mary’s co-editor on the newspaper, Cyrus M. Burleigh. In 1855, when he was dying of tuberculosis, Margaret married him.

Cyrus died a month later. 

Margaret settled his affairs and she and Mary set off on a tour of New England. Six months later they were signing their letters “Mary & Margaret.” They lived together the rest of their lives.

Did they have sex? They may have; it’s not a new invention. We know they were a devoted couple for 40 years. When Margaret died, Mary received condolences like a widow. 

When Mary died five years later, a eulogy described their connection as akin to husband and wife: “They had grown like two noble trees, side by side from youth to age, with roots so interlaced that when the one was uptorn the other could never take quite the same hold on life again.” 

Mary Grew’s only fault, said the eulogist, was her intolerance of people not committed to justice.


Daily Suffragist


January 30, 2021


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Daily Suffragist, “Mary Grew & Margaret Burleigh,” Daily Suffragist, accessed July 14, 2024,

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