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People & Ideas: Angelina and Sarah Grimké

Angelina and Sarah Grimké

Source: Library of Congress

With 13 years between them, sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké were born into a plantation-owning, slave-holding family in South Carolina. Sarah, the elder sister, 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.

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 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.

In Pennsylvania, Sarah was introduced to the Society of Friends, or the Quakers. The Quakers' views on slavery and gender equality resonated with her. She returned to South Carolina but moved permanently to Philadelphia in 1820. Angelina joined Sarah in 1829, and the sisters became active members in the Society of Friends.

The sisters entered the national spotlight as abolitionists when Angelina wrote a letter against slavery to William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. Garrison published Angelina's letter, which included her volunteering to help in the cause. "This is a cause worth dying for," she wrote.

Within a year, Angelina issued her most famous pamphlet, titled "Appeal to the Christian Women of the South," urging white Southern women to help end the scourge of slavery:

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.

The sisters' public speaking and involvement in the political sphere drew condemnation from religious leaders and traditionalists who did not believe that it was a woman's place to speak in public. The sisters soon found themselves fighting for equality of the sexes and women's rights, following women like Sojourner Truth in linking the rights of blacks and women.

After a long correspondence of letters, many including both forceful arguments for equality and tender hints of kinship, Angelina Grimké and fellow abolitionist Theodore Weld married in 1838. Weld was not a Quaker, and Angelina was expelled from the Society of Friends in Philadelphia for marrying him. Sarah was also expelled for attending the wedding.

The sisters continued to live together, fighting for the rights of women, until Sarah's death in 1873.

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Published October 11, 2010

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