Hannah Mather was born in Boston, Massachusetts on 27 June 1752, and she died in Dorchester, Massachusetts on 10 July 1829. She was the daughter of the Congregational minister Samuel Mather and Hannah Hutchinson Mather. On her father's side, she was the granddaughter of Cotton Mather, the great-granddaughter of Increase Mather, and the great-great granddaughter of Richard Mather – three of the most famous Puritan ministers of New England. On her mother's side, she was the niece of Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts at the time of the Revolutionary War. She was well-educated at home in literature, history, and theology. She had use of the famed Mather family library, the best book collection in eighteenth-century America, which she eventually inherited. She established a female Masonic society in 1770s Boston, St. Anne's Lodge, which was devoted to the education of women. She married Joseph Crocker, a Revolutionary War captain and shopkeeper, in 1779 and they had ten children between 1780 and 1795. Joseph died in 1797, leaving Crocker a widow for the remaining thirty-two years of her life.
Beginning in the 1770s, Crocker published poems in Boston newspapers. She deposited a collection of her manuscripts in the American Antiquarian Society in 1814, including a 70-page theological essay entitled “The United Trinity or Consistent Catholic Christian.” She published her three major works in the 1810s: A Series of Letters on Free Masonry (1815), The School of Reform, or Seamen'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). The Observations was the first book-length philosophical treatise on women's rights by an American. In the 1820s Crocker was hard at work on a book, Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston, being an Account of the Original Proprietors of that Town & the Manners and Customs of its People, which was left unpublished at her death.
Crocker's major contribution to American philosophy is her theory of women's rights. Her theory of women's rights is woven throughout her writings, but the core arguments can be found in her Observations. The Observations has a reserved tone, however, which is easily misconstrued as conservative. Writing during the post-revolutionary backlash of the early nineteenth century, Crocker used rhetorical techniques to initially conceal and only gradually reveal her more radical ideas to her audience.
Crocker used a proto-feminist reading of Genesis 1-3 as the basis of her understanding of the equality of the sexes. She argued that the creation of the human soul in the image of God gave men and women the same mental capacities, which enabled them to be autonomous beings. Rejecting the common Christian justification of patriarchy, she argued that it was the mutual folly of Adam and Eve that rendered them equally culpable for the Fall of humanity. Although God had punished Eve by making her subject to Adam's will, he did not intend women to be oppressed by men. Man-made educational, cultural, and legal practices – not nature or God's will – had kept women socially and politically unequal since the Fall, despite the good news of Jesus Christ and its restorative effects on the human spirit.
Given her theological view of the equality of human mental and moral capacities, Crocker argued that education should be the same for both sexes. Reform of female education would eventually eliminate any appearance of systematic, innate differences in the intellectual capacities and interests of the sexes. In addition to establishing St. Ann's Lodge, Crocker advocated the establishment of female literary societies in her Letters on Free Masonry. Crocker's Observations also suggested that the freedom and strength of the American republic depended on the equal education of the sexes.
Crocker was a critic of the oppression of women in the family. She argued for a reformulation of the Christian ideal of the wife as “helpmeet” by asking that husbands think of their spouses not as slaves, but rather rational companions, associates, and friends. She wrote an oath for husbands, the “North Square Creed,” which was intended for the husbands of the women in St. Ann's Lodge. The oath asked them to see their spouses as their best friends and to respectfully accept their superior judgment in all matters inside and outside the home. The “North Square Creed” set the stage for Crocker's understanding of how women, through the exercise of their rational capacities, served as not merely the helpers but the prudent advisors and leaders of men, in not just the family but also civil society and politics.
Crocker provided models of such strong female leadership, in her writings and in her life. She gave an abolitionist sermon in 1814, a time in which public condemnations of slavery were rare for either sex. In her three published works from the 1810s, she supported women's movement outside the home into the organization and leadership of benevolent societies. Like other women's rights advocates of the early republic, Crocker did restrict women from formal political roles such as office holding and voting. Crocker argued for a robust vision of women's informal political participation, however. Women were to act directly in the public realm when culturally appropriate or urgently necessary, persuade men in authority through print and conversation, and organize societies for the betterment of the broader community. In this way, she challenged the emergent “separate spheres” discourse of the 1810s and encouraged women to break down the gendered barriers between the public and the private and the domestic and the political.
Crocker's legacies are threefold for American political philosophy and feminist philosophy. First, Crocker theorized the need for women to organize in reform-oriented societies. Such organizations, in practice, became the basis of the American women's rights movement. Second, Crocker kept alive philosophical writing on women's rights in America during the nadir of support for the cause. She was the only major writer of a philosophical text on women's rights in America between 1800 and 1820. Third, Crocker serves as a resource for contemporary feminist philosophers and political philosophers interested in exploring the potentially productive tension between normative conceptions of human capabilities and rights, and the experience of such capabilities and rights in practice. While Crocker conceded certain limits on the implementation and realization of women's rights, she used her metaphysical conception of human rights and capabilities as a normative standard by which historical definitions of women's rights could be judged and gradually reformed.
Crocker's papers are mostly at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. Manuscripts there include “An Humble Address to the reason and wisdom of the American Nation” (1814), “North Square Creed” (1814), and “The United Trinity or Consistent Catholic Christian” (1814). The New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston holds her manuscript Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston: being an Account of the Original Proprietors of that Town & the Manners and Customs of its People.