Grimke Sisters: Early and Prominent Activists for Abolition and Women’s Rights
Editor’s Note: This entry is a composite of content from three sources: The National Park Service’s Women’s Rights History, the National Women’s History Museum, and Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
Angelina Grimke Weld (1805-1879) date of image is unknown. Library of Congress
Sarah Grimke (1792-1873) date of image is unknown. Library of Congress
Early Years: Two early and prominent activists for abolition and women’s rights, Sarah Grimke (1792-1873) and Angelina Grimke Weld (1805-1879) were raised in the cradle of slavery on a plantation in South Carolina. The Grimke sisters, as they were known, grew to despise slavery after witnessing its cruel effects at a young age. Sarah later recalled that her father, the wealthy Judge John Fauchereaud Grimke, held his 14 children to the highest standards of discipline and sometimes required them to work in the field shelling corn or picking cotton. She observed, “Perhaps I am indebted partially to this for my life-long detestation of slavery, as it brought me in close contact with these unpaid toilers.”
Sarah grew up feeling that she was alone in her questioning of the institution of slavery and the treatment of women. She recalled always feeling uneasy about societal inequality: “We had many outdoor enjoyments. … I, however, always had one terrible drawback. Slavery was a millstone about my neck, and marred my comfort from the time I can remember myself.”
The Grimké family attended the Episcopal Church regularly, and Sarah read Bible stories to slave children. South Carolina law barred teaching slaves to read, but Sarah chafed at the idea that the slaves were forced to hear the Gospel from others rather than read it for themselves. She rebelled in secret, teaching her handmaid, a slave, to read at night until her father caught her and lectured her on the impropriety and illegality of her action.
At the age of 12 Sarah became godmother to her baby sister Angelina, promising “to guide and direct [this] precious child.” Unable to continue her schooling to attend law school — as her brother had — because of restrictions on women’s education, Sarah, who had just turned 13, delighted in Angelina’s birth. Sarah took responsibility for her sister, and this commitment foreshadowed the lifelong bond the sisters had with one another and strengthened Sarah’s determination to fight for social justice. The two remained the closest of friends throughout their lives. They both questioned slavery and desired equality for men and women, but it was not until Sarah traveled to Philadelphia that the sisters felt there was anything they could do as young women.
Careers: In 1819 Sarah accompanied her father to Philadelphia so he could receive medical treatment. There she encountered members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, who helped her care for her dying father. After her father’s death she returned to Charleston, where her feelings of fierce opposition to slavery were quickly renewed: “…after being for many months in Pennsylvania when I went back it seemed as if the sight of [the slaves’] condition was insupportable…can compare my feeling only with a canker incessantly gnawing…. I was as one in bonds looking on their sufferings I could not soothe or lessen….” Much to the chagrin of her family, Sarah converted to Quakerism and moved to Philadelphia in 1821; by 1829 Angelina had also become a Quaker and decided to move north to be with her sister.
The sisters’ conversion to Quakerism and subsequent move to Philadelphia made them virtual outcasts in the South, but they also found themselves at odds with many northerners after William Lloyd Garrison published a personal letter Angelina wrote to him in The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper. Her letter was against slavery and it included her volunteering to help in the cause. Her letter also encouraged Garrison to stand his ground even in the face of mob violence: “If persecution is the means which God has ordained for the accomplishment of this great end, emancipation, then…I feel as if I could say, let it come; for it is my deep, solemn deliberate conviction, that this is a cause worth dying for….” Angelina chose not to recall the letter despite the outrage it caused among fellow Quakers who believed she was a radical abolitionist. Despite the disapproval they faced from fellow Quakers and from a society that did not accept women as public speakers on such controversial topics as slavery, the Grimke sisters found themselves caught up in the anti-slavery movement.
In 1836 Angelina issued her most famous pamphlet, titled Appeal to the Christian Women of the South imploring white southern women to embrace the antislavery cause. She wrote, “I know you do not make the laws, but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do; and if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow slavery, you are greatly mistaken.” The pamphlet also included the following:
I appeal to you, my friends, as mothers; Are you willing to enslave your children? You start back with horror and indignation at such a question. But why, if slavery is no wrong to those upon whom it is imposed? Why, if as has often been said, slaves are happier than their masters, free from the cares and perplexities of providing for themselves and their families? Why not place your children in the way of being supported without your having the trouble to provide for them, or they for themselves? Do you not perceive that as soon as this golden rule of action is applied to yourselves that you involuntarily shrink from the test; as soon as your actions are weighed in this balance of the sanctuary that you are found wanting? Try yourselves by another of the Divine precepts, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Can we love a man as we love ourselves if we do, and continue to do unto him, what we would not wish any one to do to us? Look too, at Christ’s example, what does he say of himself, “I came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” Can you for a moment imagine the meek, and lowly, and compassionate Saviour, a slaveholder? Do you not shudder at this thought as much as at that of his being a warrior? But why, if slavery is not sinful?
Southern women appealing to Southerners was a new phenomenon, and the pamphlet was burned in the Grimkés’ hometown. Undeterred, the sisters began a speaking tour of the Northeast, arranging talks in 67 cities, unheard of for women of the time. Sarah called on women “to rise from that degradation and bondage to which the faculties of our minds have been prevented from expanding to their full growth and are sometimes wholly crushed.” Angelina’s last speech of the tour, to the Massachusetts Legislature, made her the first woman in American history to speak in front of a legislative body.
Her writing drew the ire of southerners who opposed its abolitionist message and northerners who felt that women had no business writing or speaking about something as controversial as slavery. This outcry over women abolitionists prompted Sarah to write Letters on the Equality of the Sexes. By the late 1830s the Grimke sisters were known not only as abolitionists but also as proponents of women’s rights.
Grassmere [Seneca Falls] Friday morning [14 July 1848]
Rain or shine I intend to spend Sunday with you that we may all together concoct a declaration I have drawn up one but you may suggest any alterations & improvements for I know it is not as perfect a declaration as should go forth from the first woman’s rights convention that has ever assembled. I shall take the ten o’clock train in the morning & return at five in the evening, provided we can accomplish all our business in that time. I have written to Lydia Maria Child Maria Chapman & Sarah Grimke, as we hope for some good letters to read at the convention. Your friend
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
In May of 1838, Angelina married fellow abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld of Boston, and Sarah moved in with the couple. The next year, Sarah Grimke and Theodore Weld published a remarkable collection of newspaper stories that came directly from Southern papers. American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839) used the actual words of white Southerners in describing escaped slaves, slave auctions, and other incidents that demonstrated how routinely gross inhumanity was accepted as a natural part of the plantation economy. Again, the effect was shocking.
Like the Grimkes, Weld was a member of a prominent family, but wealthy conservatives in both the North and South rejected such idealistic rebels, and the three suffered financially in the next decades. Angelina was 33 at marriage, and her health also deteriorated with the birth of three children, Charles Stuart, Theodore, and Sarah. The three farmed and operated schools in the 1840s and 1850s, moving several times within New Jersey and Massachusetts. During this period, the sisters also experimented with the practical pantsuit-style clothing promoted by Amelia Bloomer, but – like other women’s rights leaders – they gave it up when their appearance distracted from their ideas.
They finally retired to the Hyde Park section of Boston in 1864. By then, the Civil War was in its last full year, and the sisters’ activism would switch to women’s rights. When the U.S. Constitution was amended to give civil rights to former slaves after the war, the Grimke sisters were among those who tested the gender-neutral language of the Fifteenth Amendment that granted the vote. They attempted to cast ballots in the 1870 election, but male Hyde Park officials rejected them and other women.
They also continued their efforts on behalf of racial equality. In 1868, Angelina and Sarah discovered that they had two nephews, Archibald Henry and Francis James, who were the sons of their brother Henry and a slave woman. In accordance with their beliefs, the sisters welcomed the boys into their family. One of them would marry Charlotte Forten, an outstanding Philadelphia black woman, and the sisters’ feminist legacy would continue through Charlotte Forten Grimke.
Sarah was nearly 80 when she attempted to vote for the first time, and she died three years later, two days prior to Christmas of 1873. Angelina Grimke Weld suffered a debilitating stroke and died on October 26, 1879. Weld lived on until 1895, but he never was as radical as the women.
In the process of fighting against slavery, the Grimké sisters discovered the prejudices that women face, and their cause joined abolitionism and the early women’s rights movement together. They showed more courage than any white person in the South of their times, sacrificing both luxury and their family relationships to work for African-American freedom.
National Park Service, Women’s Rights, National Historical Park, New York. www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/grimke-sisters.htm
National Women’s History Museum. www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/youngandbrave/asgrimke.html
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grimk%C3%A9_sisters
If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it!