She grew up in Philadelphia in a Quaker family; her father, Isaac Hopper, opposed slavery and aided fugitive slaves. She grew to share her father's beliefs and spent much of her life working for social reform in several fields. In 1841, the New York Monthly Meeting disowned Gibbons' father and husband for their anti-slavery writing. Abigail Gibbons resigned the following year, also removing her minor children.
Gibbons was prominent during and after the American Civil War, when her work in Philadelphia, Washington, DC and New York City included civil rights and education for blacks, prison reform for women, medical care for Union officers during the war, aid to veterans returning from the war, to help them find work; and welfare. Because she was a known abolitionist, her house was among those attacked and destroyed during the New York City draft riots of July 1863.
Abigail Hopper was born in Philadelphia in 1801, the third of ten children. She was informally called Abby. Her father, Isaac Tatem Hopper, was of the Hicksite branch of Quakers.
He became an active and leading member of The Pennsylvania Abolition Society. He often directly confronted slave kidnappers, who frequented Philadelphia and sometimes kidnapped free blacks for sale into slavery, as well as captured fugitive slaves to gain bounties. Called upon to protect the rights of African Americans, Hopper and his wife garnered a reputation as friends and advisers of the "oppressed race" in all emergencies. The Hoppers also sheltered many poor Quakers in their house, despite their own family's large size and the father's unstable financial status. The children early on were called to aid others.
Hopper served as an overseer of the Negro School at Philadelphia, founded by Anthony Benezet. He was a Quaker educator and abolitionist who supported education of African-American children. The senior Hopper also was a volunteer teacher in a free school for African-American adults.
Abigail grew up to share her parents' abolitionist sentiments. As a young woman, she taught school for several years in Philadelphia before her marriage and move to New York. She directed Quaker schools both before and after her marriage.
In 1833, Abigail Hopper married James Sloan Gibbons, a fellow Hicksite Quaker from New York, who was also an ardent abolitionist. In 1836, the couple moved to New York City, where they had six children. Two of their sons died in infancy. A third died suddenly after an accident while he was attending Harvard University. Their daughters included Sarah Emerson Gibbons, who published an edited collection of her mother's letters and a short biography of her, and Lucy Gibbons (who married a Mr. Morse and had a family).
Some Quaker yearly meetings divided due to influences from Deism, as well as differences between urban and rural members. In 1841, the New York Monthly Meeting, which was dominated by Hicksites, disowned Isaac Hopper and James Sloan Gibbons for their writing and other activities against slavery. The following year Abigail Hopper Gibbons resigned from the Meeting in protest, also removing her and James' four minor children. She and her family maintained Quaker practices and faith but did not rejoin the Meeting.
Abigail Hopper Gibbons became involved in a variety of social reform movements. For twelve years in New York, she was also president of a German industrial school for street children. In 1845, she and her father founded the Women's Prison Association (WPA) of New York City. She lobbied the city government for improvements in the city's prisons, advocated the hiring of police matrons, and urged the construction of separate prisons for women, as they were housed in the same facilities as men. She frequently visited the various prisons in and about New York.
Under her leadership, in 1853 the Women's Prison Association separated from its parent, the Prison Association, and Gibbons obtained a New York State charter for her group. She led an aggressive program of legislative lobbying at the city and state level to improve prison conditions for women. She protested jail overcrowding and demanded that women prisoners be searched only by female matrons.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Gibbons knew that nurses would be needed to care for the wounded. The United States Sanitary Commission was established in 1861, shortly after the Civil War began, to recruit nurses and to provide adequate medical care to the Union wounded. It would undertake numerous fundraising efforts to raise money for these purposes. When the Commission set up a training base at David's Island Hospital in New York, Gibbons was among the trainees.
She traveled to Washington D.C., to help at the Washington Office Hospital, where she aided wounded officers and distributed supplies. She also helped to establish two field hospitals in Virginia. At Point Lookout, Maryland, the federal government took over a hotel and 100 guest cottages, converting them into a hospital complex with accommodations for 1500 soldiers. It was named Hammond General Hospital. Gibbons vied with Dorothea Dix, the Union Superintendent of Nurses, for control of the hospital. She finally gained an appointment as its head matron. In 1863 she left the facility after the hospital was adapted for use as the Point Lookout Confederate Prison.
In New York City, social tensions increased with the imposition of the draft. Many Irish immigrant working men did not support the war or abolition of slavery; they resented being drafted when wealthier men could pay for substitutes to take their places. With the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, they feared more job competition by blacks and the loss of work or being driven to lower wages. During the New York Draft Riots, ethnic Irish led mob attacks against individual blacks, their residences and businesses, as well as the Colored Orphan Asylum in the largest civil insurrection in United States history. They also attacked residences of known white abolitionists and prominent Republicans. On Tuesday, July 14, 1863, the Gibbons' Manhattan home at 19 Lamartine Place (now 339 West 29th Street) was burned and destroyed by rioters.
Following the war, Gibbons founded the Labor and Aid Society, which aided returning veterans find work. To further her mission with women prisoners, she co-founded The Isaac T. Hopper Home, named for her father. It assisted former women prisoners to integrate into society after their release. As a result of her working on notable social reform movements, Gibbons corresponded with other nationally prominent leaders, including Theodore Roosevelt, Lydia Maria Child, and Joseph H. Choate.
Her concern for women and children led Gibbons to found the New York Diet Kitchen (to serve infants, the elderly and the poor). She had also served as president of the New York Committee for the Prevention and Regulation of Vice, directed to control prostitution, drinking and gambling.
Gibbons died in New York in 1893, aged 91. She was eulogized in her obituary as "one of the most remarkable women of the century" for her work in noted reform movements.. She is interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.Her daughter Sarah Emerson Gibbons edited and wrote a biography of Abigail Hopper Gibbons, published in 1896, which was based in part on her letters.
The WPA has continued, providing programs through which women can acquire the life skills needed to gain and keep employment, manage finances, and to make good choices for themselves and their families. It is the nation's oldest advocacy organization working exclusively with women prisoners.