The South Carolina Historical Magazine
The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women's Rights and Abolitionby Gerda Lerner
The only Southern white women ever to become leading abolitionists, Sarah and Angelina Grimke encountered many obstacles in pursuing their antislavery work. Their greatest accomplishment was in challenging the ubiquitous prejudices of society against women and African Americans. They were the first US-born white women to take to the public platform and the first to assert woman's rights.
In The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina, Gerda Lerner, herself a leading historian and pioneer in the study of Women's History, tells the compelling story of these determined sisters and the contributions they made to the antislavery and woman's rights movements. From their wealthy upbringing in Charleston, South Carolina, the societal restraints that kept them from higher education, and their utter contempt of slavery, to their conversion to the Quaker religion, and monumental achievements at the podium and with the pen, Lerner illuminates the lasting contributions of the Grimke sisters, as well as the important role played by women in the antislavery movement.
A fascinating life story, this book reads like fiction and will appeal to the young adult and general reader alike.
The South Carolina Historical Magazine
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The Grimké Sisters from South CarolinaPioneers for Women's Rights and Abolition
By Gerda Lerner
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2004 Gerda Lerner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWe Abolition Women are turning the world upside down. Angelina E. Grimké, February 25, 1838.
On Wednesday, February 21, 1838, starting about noon, people from all over Boston began arriving at the State House in carriages, by horseback and on foot. By one o'clock the crowd was so great that guards were posted inside the Hall of Representatives to reserve seats for the members of the Legislative Committee scheduled to meet at two. It was what the newspapers then called a "mixed" audience, which meant mostly men with a sprinkling of ladies who in their ruffled skirts, their frothy bonnets and gaily colored shawls brightened the galleries. One could recognize many of the more prominent citizens in the hall, while the inevitable ruffian element clustered around the entrance, undecided whether the coming spectacle merited giving up a few hours in the tavern. Here and there, a few respectable colored people could be seen in the crowd. The attendance of so many people at a legislative hearing was quite out of the ordinary, especially since no advance public notice had been given, but news of this kind could be trusted to travel speedily by word of mouth. Today, a woman would address a Committee of the Legislature of the State of Massachusetts.
Groups of abolitionists had come early from Lynn, Lowell, Worcester, Shrewsbury and several other of the surrounding townships. A good many of them had previously heard the speaker on her recent tour through New England. They could testify to the scoffers and doubters that she was perfectly capable of sustaining oratory and refuting objections by logical argument. However, they had to admit that for a woman to speak before a friendly small-town crowd was quite a different matter from speaking before a legislative body. Questions from the legislators in the presence of such a large crowd might well overawe the young woman, despite her customary eloquence.
By two o'clock the members of the legislature had to light their way to the seats reserved for them. The gallery, the staircase, even the platform, were crowded. Every seat was taken; the aisles and lobby were filled with standees. Men clustered around the windows and doors and many, after waiting patiently for an hour to be admitted, had to leave disappointed. No one, apparently, wanted to miss this unprecedented event. Until this day, no American woman had ever spoken to a legislative body. Women did not vote nor stand for office and had no influence in political affairs. They received inferior elementary schooling and were, with the exception of recently opened Oberlin College, excluded from all institutions of higher learning. No church, except the Quakers, permitted women any voice in church affairs or in the ministry. The belief that a woman's name should properly appear in print only twice in her life, on her wedding day and in her obituary, described accurately the popular dread of female "notoriety." Woman's sphere was the home. There, she was the "grace, the ornament, the bliss of life." With an education which provided her with just enough "skill in household matters and a certain degree of cunning in culinary disposition" she might rule supreme over children and servants and expend what energies she had left after the care of her large family on the care of the community's indigent and poor. This gospel of woman's "proper role" was preached from pulpit and press and enshrined in the law, which classified women with slaves and imbeciles regarding property and voting rights. Married women had no legal rights over their inherited property or their earnings, could not make contracts, could not sue or be sued. While American practice, especially that of premarital contracts, tended to mitigate the generality and severity of these restrictions, the concept of woman's inferior position remained firmly entrenched in the law and in the popular mind. Children were under the sole guardianship of the father; mothers had no rights over them even in cases of legal separation. Few occupations were open to women and in those her wages were often less than half of those of men. As a result unmarried and widowed women were dependent on their nearest male relatives, and spinsterhood was considered a tragic fate. Prescribed in scriptures and fixed by tradition, woman's secondary role in society was taken for granted by most men and women. "A woman is a nobody," declared The Public Ledger of Philadelphia as late as 1850 in an article ridiculing the advocates of equal rights for women: "A wife is everything. A pretty girl is equal to 10,000 men and a mother is, next to God, all powerful. The ladies of Philadelphia therefore ... are resolved to maintain their rights as wives, belles, virgins and mothers and not as women."
One daring woman had attempted to break through this web of restrictions, but she had been a foreigner, a radical and an infidel. In 1828 Frances Wright had lectured to large audiences in several American cities, but had been hooted and jeered as a freak. Her name had become an epithet across the land. It was considered unthinkable that any American woman would follow the example of this "female monster."
Several years later a Negro woman, Mrs. Maria W. Stewart, gave four lectures in Boston, speaking to her own people in favor of abolition and education for girls. But she soon gave up and admitted failure. "I find it is no use for me, as an individual, to try to make myself useful among my color in this city.... I have made myself contemptible in the eyes of many."
But the woman who would address the legislators today was not only American-born, white and Southern, but the offspring of wealth, refinement and the highest social standing. Angelina Grimké and her sister Sarah, notorious as the first female antislavery agents, were ladies whose piety and respectability had been their shield against all attacks during their recent precedent-shattering nine months' speaking tour.
Angelina Grimké was well aware that people regarded her as a curiosity and came not so much to listen to her as to stare and scoff. Now, as she approached the hall and noticed the large number of people who could not find room inside, she felt her courage waning.
I never was so near fainting under the tremendous pressure of feeling. My heart almost died within me. The novelty of the scene, the weight of responsibility, the ceaseless exercise of mind thro' which I had passed for more than a week-all together sunk me to the earth. I well nigh despaired.
She knew that a great many in this crowd were at best unsympathetic, at worst openly hostile. They had read derogatory accounts of the Grimké sisters' brazen defiance of public opinion, of their unwomanliness in appearing on public platforms, of their radical and inflammatory speeches against slavery. A Pastoral Letter of the Council of Congregationalist Ministers had warned all the churches of Massachusetts against these dangerous females. Outrageous caricatures of Angelina Grimké and William Lloyd Garrison had daily been hawked in the streets. She was experienced enough in judging audiences to know that a crowd such as this might easily become a mob. Somewhat anxiously, she turned toward the woman walking with her, a beautiful Bostonian of unequalled poise. Maria Weston Chapman was a veteran of the antislavery movement and had an unusually thorough acquaintance with mobs. The intrepid courage of the Boston antislavery women, who had walked through the mob attacking their meeting, their hands folded in white cotton gloves, their eyes fixed sternly on each threatening face, had become almost a legend. Now, Mrs. Chapman cast an experienced eye over the waiting crowd and for an instant placed her hand on Angelina Grimké's shoulder. "God strengthen you, my sister," she said quietly and smiled her radiant smile. Angelina relaxed; the faintness left her. She was surrounded by friends, by women who had felt the shame of slavery deep in their hearts as she had. Twenty thousand of them had signed the antislavery petitions she was about to present to the legislators. It was for them she was speaking, for them she must do what no American woman had done before her. If only her sister Sarah could have been beside her to support and sustain her as she had all during their speaking tour. But Sarah, who had been the scheduled speaker today, was suffering from a violent cold and could not leave her room. In a last-minute change of plans, Angelina, who had originally intended speaking at the next session, had to substitute for her.
Once inside the hall, Angelina recognized many familiar faces: Reverend Samuel May with his kindly smile, the Samuel Philbricks, whose houseguests she and Sarah had recently been, Brother Allen from Shrewsbury, nodding encouragement. The delicate features of Lydia Maria Child expressed her affection and sympathy. The presence of these friends gave Angelina courage. And, as always, in moments of tension, her religious faith sustained her. "... our Lord and Master gave me his arm to lean upon and in great weakness, my limbs trembling under me, I stood up and spoke...."
In this first moment of hushed attention Angelina Grimké impressed her audience most of all by her dignity. Slight of build, often described as frail, she stood before them in her simple gray Quaker dress, her delicate features framed by a white neckerchief. Beneath her dark curls deep blue eyes dominated a thoughtful, serious face. Her earnestness and concentration transmitted itself to the crowd even before she began to speak. "For a moment a sense of the immense responsibility resting on her seemed almost to overwhelm her," Lydia Maria Child later wrote to a friend. "She trembled and grew pale. But this passed quickly, and she went on to speak gloriously, strong in utter forgetfulness of herself." Angelina was not beautiful in the conventional sense, but when she spoke in her clear, well-modulated voice her personality and deep convictions captivated her audiences and transformed her in their eyes. She was often described as beautiful, powerful, a magnetic, gifted speaker.
Now she reached far back in time for a precedent to her appearance before the legislature. Like her, Queen Esther of Persia had pleaded before the King for the life of her people.
Mr. Chairman, it is my privilege to stand before you on a similar mission of life and love.... I stand before you as a citizen, on behalf of the 20,000 women of Massachusetts whose names are enrolled on petitions which have been submitted to the Legislature.... These petitions relate to the great and solemn subject of slavery.... And because it is a political subject, it has often tauntingly been said, that women had nothing to do with it. Are we aliens, because we are women? Are we bereft of citizenship because we are mothers, wives and daughters of a mighty people? Have women no country-no interests staked in public weal-no liabilities in common peril-no partnership in a nation's guilt and shame?
The bold words rang out in the hall. Woman's influence on the nations, the speaker asserted, had been largely as courtesans and mistresses through their influence over men.
If so, then may we well hide our faces in the dust, and cover ourselves with sackcloth and ashes. This dominion of woman must be resigned-the sooner the better; in the age which is approaching she should be something more-she should be a citizen.... I hold, Mr. Chairman, that American women have to do with this subject, not only because it is moral and religious, but because it is political, inasmuch as we are citizens of this republic and as such our honor, happiness and well-being are bound up in its politics, government and laws.
Here the speaker paused, and a stirring, like a sigh, went through the audience. Not only the event itself, but the words here spoken were so daring and novel, it staggered the imagination. The women in the audience listened in rapt fascination as one of their own sex dared to speak out what many had thought in silence. Some of the ministers present nodded sagely; they were hearing blasphemy, just as they had expected. Not for nothing had this woman been called "Devil-ina" in the daily press. The devil did indeed work through her attractive form, her poised and ladylike manner. But the abolitionists in the audience, even those who had previously expressed their disagreement with the speaker's approach, now were clearly won over. It had seemed to many that it would be best for Angelina Grimké simply to speak about the antislavery petitions and avoid offending the sensibilities of the audience by bringing up the extraneous subject of woman's place in society. But it was obvious that she had the audience spellbound and even those most critical could not help but admire her accomplishment. Angelina felt their sympathetic support, like "a body guard of hearts faithful and true," and drew strength from it. Her voice, previously calm, now took on a passion that gripped her listeners' emotions.
I stand before you as a southerner, exiled from the land of my birth by the sound of the lash and the piteous cry of the slave. I stand before you as a repentent slaveholder. I stand before you as a moral being and as a moral being I feel that I owe it to the suffering slave and to the deluded master, to my country and to the world to do all that I can to overturn a system of complicated crimes, built upon the broken hearts and prostrate bodies of my countrymen in chains and cemented by the blood, sweat and tears of my sisters in bonds.
The audience was deeply moved and eagerly looked forward to her next appearance, which was scheduled for Friday, February 23, two days later. The arrangements caused some dissension among the legislators. A Boston representative claimed that the crowds she attracted were so great that the galleries were in danger of collapsing. This caused a witty legislator from Salem to propose that "a committee be appointed to examine the foundations of the State House of Massachusetts to see whether it will bear another lecture from Miss Grimké." This, apparently, ended the discussion.
Angelina described the scene on her arrival for the second session:
... the hall was jambed to such excess that it was with great difficulty we were squeezed in, and then were compelled to walk over the seats in order to reach the place assigned us. As soon as we entered we were received by clapping.... After the bustle was over I rose to speak and was greeted by hisses from the doorway, tho' profound silence reigned thro' the crowd within. The noise in that direction increased and I was requested by the Chairman to suspend my remarks until at last order could be restored. Three times was I thus interrupted, until at last one of the Committee came to me and requested I would stand near the Speaker's desk.
Excerpted from The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina by Gerda Lerner Copyright © 2004 by Gerda Lerner. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Gerda Lerner, author of twelve books in women's history, was one of the founders of the field in the 1960s. Her creative scholarship, her organizing work on behalf of women historians, and her leadership in graduate education have been widely recognized and honored. She is past president of the Organization of American Historians, Robinson-Edwards Professor Emerita of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and visiting professor of history at Duke University. Her most recent book is Fireweed: A Political Autobiography.
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