Finding Historical Inspiration in the Grimke Sisters

For one of my history classes last semester we were assigned a research paper that dealt with race and ethnicity in the US. We were supposed to start with one primary source document and expand our research from there. I chose a document written by Angelina Grimké. At the time I knew a little bit about Sarah and Angelina Grimké, but I had no idea how these two women would come to inspire me as I learned more and more about them. Their bravery and conviction in the face of widespread opposition to their views, blatant sexism and even violence are remarkable. Their story illustrates how individuals, despite their backgrounds, could deconstruct popular ideas about race and inequality, how Southern society worked tirelessly to keep racial constructs in place, and the role religious conviction played on both sides of the slavery issue in the mid-1800s. I became so enthralled by the Grimké sisters that before long my paper was far longer than it was meant to be for the assignment, however, I did manage to cut it down and I though I would share the final product on my blog. I’d also like to post more reflection on these courageous women very soon.

The Grimké Sisters: Equality Under God

Sarah and Angelina Grimké were born into an elite southern family around the turn of the 19th century. Their father was a judge and owned a large plantation; the girls grew up surrounded by slavery and people who were firm in their convictions that the enslavement of black men, women and children was best for both master and slave. However, from a young age, Sarah and Angelina had a remarkably egalitarian view of the world. As young women, they became abolitionists and spoke out for the equality of all people under God. Their speeches and writings, such as Sarah’s Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Women and Angelina’s Appeal to the Christian Women of the South illustrate how these women challenged and deconstructed the idea of race. How did two young southern girls come to vehemently oppose an institution that their parents and society defended? And what does their deconstruction of these inequalities tell us about how race was constructed at the time? I will seek to answer these questions by referring to writings by the Grimkés themselves, a biography by Gerda Lerner, and articles by modern scholars about the sisters in the context of the larger egalitarian movements they were part of. Their personal deconstruction of race reveals the efforts taken by slave-holding societies to construct and reinforce racial hierarchies.

Even as a young child, Sarah was distinctly uncomfortable with the unequal system in which she lived. Long before Angelina was born, Sarah was given a slave girl as her companion and servant; however, she viewed the girl as a friend and equal. When, after a few years, the girl died of illness, Sarah was inconsolable (Lerner 16). The dehumanization of slaves being essential to the success of their plantation, her parents could not understand her distress over what they saw as completely replaceable property (Lerner 16). Sarah later reflected about her childhood, “It was often lonely… Slavery was a millstone about my neck, and marred my comfort from the time I can remember myself.” (Lerner 16) Even in her large family, it seems that Sarah felt isolated and lonely. In a letter, Sarah made a poignant remark about her horse, saying that she loved him because he was “neither slave nor slave-owner” (Lerner 16). Furthermore, when she asked to be educated alongside her older brother, her parents refused and restricted her education to only what was “proper” for young girls (Lerner 14). Inequality in any form did not sit well with Sarah. She was disappointed that she did not have the same educational opportunities as her brothers and upset by the inhumanity of slavery.

These two discomforts merged when Sarah was twelve and started helping her older sisters teach Bible school to the slave children. During this time, she asked her father whether it wouldn’t be more helpful to the slaves to read scripture for themselves. Her father explained that slaves were not fit to learn how to read and that they had no use for it; furthermore, it was illegal (Lerner 17). Unconvinced, Sarah taught her maid to read in secret. “The light was put out, the keyhole screened, and flat on our stomachs, with the spelling-book under our eyes, we defied the laws of South Carolina” (Lerner 18). Although they were eventually caught and Sarah was strictly lectured on the seriousness of her crime, her conviction, as a young child with no like-minded role models, is remarkable (Lerner 18).

When Angelina was born, thirteen-year-old Sarah asked to be the baby’s godmother and help take care of her. Her parents reluctantly consented, hoping it would help Sarah become a more compliant young lady (Lerner 18). It soon became clear that Angelina had taken after her sister in her sensitivity to others. Once, when she was a young child, she fainted at school upon noticing the scars and welts on the back and legs of her schoolmistress’ slave boy (Lerner 28). With Sarah as her guardian, Angelina stood a better chance than her peers of resisting desensitization. Physical signs of punishment were often used as a way to reinforce ideas of racial inequality through dehumanization. Most Southerners became accustomed to seeing evidence of this brutality. Angelina, with Sarah’s help, refused to become numb to the horrors of slavery that she witnessed.

In adulthood, Sarah and Angelina moved to Philadelphia, joined the Society of Friends, or Quakers, and joined the abolitionist movement (Varon). Quakers were known for their belief that anyone can have a personal connection with God, regardless of gender or race, as well as for non-violence and antislavery sympathies. By the 1830s, the sisters had become forceful leaders in the antislavery movement (Varon). During this time they delivered speeches more and more frequently. Angelina’s 1836 letter, An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, sought to strike down the biblical justifications for slavery that so many Southerners relied upon for their proslavery arguments, and to convince Christian women that they had a role to play in the abolitionist movement. She insisted that, “Man…never was put under the feet of man, by that first charter of human rights which was given by God…therefore this doctrine of equality is based on the Bible” (A. Grimké 3). She used popular Christian rhetoric, particularly “the golden rule,” to prove her point that slavery is wrong,

But did not Jesus condemn slavery? … ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them,’ Let every slaveholder apply these queries to his own heart; Am I willing to be a slave —Am I willing to see my wife the slave of another—Am I willing to see my mother a slave, or my father, my sister or my brother? ( A. Grimké 13)

Not only did she use this religious rhetoric with which people were already familiar, she also used recently popularized post-revolution rhetoric, based on the values of the Declaration of Independence,

… if a self evident truth that all men every where and of every color are born equal, and have an inalienable right to liberty, then it is equally true that no man can be born a slave, and no man can ever rightfully be reduced to involuntary bondage… (A. Grimké 2-3).

She defended her fellow abolitionists from the common accusation that they intended to cause insurrection and disturb the peace, saying, “Slavery always has, and always will produce insurrections wherever it exists, because it is a violation of the natural order of things” (A. Grimké 24).

In addition to their radical ideas about racial equality, the Grimké sisters believed in the equality of the sexes, and that under God women should have as much political and social agency as men. In fact, Sarah wrote the first American treatise on women’s rights in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women in 1838 (Varon). They sought to get women involved in politics and advocacy for equal rights. In 1837, the two sisters embarked on an extensive speaking tour across the Northern United States (Varon). However, even in the North, where slavery was illegal, they were faced with brutal opposition and criticism. Many people thought that women delivering public speeches was a “perversion” of the law of nature (Varon). Despite this, men and women turned up to listen to the Grimkés’ speeches on equality and the cruelties of slavery, making them the first women to address mixed audiences on such a regular basis (Davis 40-41). Although their main priority was to advocate for the eradication of slavery, when male-supremacists began to launch attacks against their ability to speak and lead others, they had no choice but to defend their rights as women (Davis 42), insisting that, “Men and women were created equal; they are both moral and accountable human beings” (S. Grimké). Therefore, in order to stand against slavery as moral and accountable human beings, women must have equal rights under the law and equal access to political voice.

Another major contribution of the Grimké sisters was a project they undertook along with Angelina’s husband, Theodore Weld, after their retirement from public speaking in 1838: a book called American Slavery As It Is. One of the most widely read anti-slavery publications before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe reportedly slept with it under her pillow while writing her famous novel (Garvey). The book contained first-hand testimonies from Southerners like Angelina and Sarah, and other primary sources from the Southern press, particularly “wanted” postings for runaway slaves. The Grimké-Weld trio used these “wanted” postings to collect data about the brutality of slavery, as the original authors would describe in detail the marks and scars of every runaway (Garvey). When interpreted by Sarah, Angelina and Theodore these ads revealed a “horrifying spectrum of abuse,” from proof of harsh beatings and the use of slaves for medical experiments to the separation of families (Garvey). All of these were evidence of active measures taken to dehumanize blacks and reinforce the slave system.

The Grimké sisters’ distinct sensitivity to the inequality around them and the work they did to forward the causes of abolition and women’s rights are certainly remarkable, made even more remarkable by the fact that they were women in a time when women weren’t supposed to speak out. However, equally impressive, though much less inspiring, is the effort that the majority of Southern society took to keep oppressive ideas of race and slavery intact. When her father told Sarah that she could not teach her slave to read, when her parents could not understand her sadness over the death of a friend, when proponents of slavery used the Bible to justify their actions, all of these are instances of people going out of their way to reinforce an unnatural system of inequality. The Grimké sisters were extraordinary women, not just because they were brave and passionate, but because they refused to accept any justification for the immorality and unnatural nature of slavery.

Works Cited:

 Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race and Class. New York: Vintage. 1983. Print.

Garvey, Ellen Gruber. “Nineteenth-Century Abolitionists and the Databases They Created.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 27.2 (2010): 357-366. Project MUSE. Web. 30 Nov. 2013. <http://0-muse.jhu.edu.opac.sfsu.edu/>.

Grimké, Angelina E. “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South.” New York: American Anti-Slavery Society. (1836) Web. 30 Nov. 2013. http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/abolitn/abesaegat.html

Grimké, Sarah. “Letter III: The Pastoral Letter of the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts.” Letters on the Equality of the Sexes. (1837) Web. 6 Dec. 2013. http://www.worldculture.org/articles/12-Grimke%20Letters,%201-3.pdf

Lerner, Gerda. The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition. The University of North Carolina Press. 2009. Print.

Varon, Elizabeth R. “Gender History and the Origins of the Civil War.” Magazine of History 25.2 (2011):19-23. Web. 30 Nov. 2013. http://0-search.proquest.com.opac.sfsu.edu/docview/916423160?accountid=13802