“I am confident not many years will roll by before the horrible traffic in human beings will be destroyed…my earnest prayers have been poured out that the Lord would be pleased to permit me to be instrumental of good to these degraded, oppressed and suffering fellow-creatures.”
When Angelina Grimke wrote this about slavery in her diary in 1835 she was expressing not only her own sentiments, but also those of her sister Sarah, and many of her fellow reformers. For as we know slavery was a major national issue at the time and of course played a part in the events leading up to and culminating in the Civil War. Also, slavery was an issue that naturally attracted reformers who called for its abolition – thus they became known as abolitionists – and there were many such reformers in the years before the Civil War. Among these were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone and while they are better known for their advocacy of legal rights for women they were also active abolitionists. However, whether they mounted the lecture platform for abolition or women’s rights, they followed two other women who preceded them, laying the foundation for the women reformers who followed them. These were Sarah and Angelina Grimke.
While the Grimke sisters were unique in that they grew up in the midst of slavery itself, what made them particularly distinctive was how they broke the barriers that denied women the right to speak in public.
The Grimke sisters were born in 1792 (Sarah) and 1805 (Angelina) in Charleston, South Carolina, into a family of wealthy slave-holding aristocrats, their father a prominent politician and lawyer who served as South Carolina’s chief judge. Since few girls at the time received the education given their brothers, the sisters received minimal schooling from private tutors.
Yet Sarah was not content with that and decided to not only become a lawyer like her father but also attend college with her brother. When her parents discovered this they were aghast and quickly derailed her plans. Despite their opposition, according to one report, Mr. Grimke is supposed to have remarked that if Sarah not been a woman she would have been a great jurist.
When Sarah was 26 she accompanied her father to Philadelphia for medical attention and there she became acquainted with the Society of Friends or the Quakers. She was intrigued with their piety, sincerity and simplicity but also by their opposition to slavery. Though she had grown up among slaves Sarah was uncomfortable with the institution and one experience was particularly memorably disturbing. It happened when at age 5 she witnessed a slave being whipped and it was so devastating to her that she later recounted how she had tried to board a steamer to travel where there was no slavery.
After her father’s death in 1818 Sarah left her Quaker friends in Philadelphia to return to Charleston, where she persuaded Angelina to became a Quaker. The new convert joined her sister in Philadelphia several years later. However, though the sisters had discovered sympathetic friends, there were still challenges with their new religious affiliation and their continued opposition to slavery.
Though the Society of Friends had banned slave ownership for their members, many Quakers felt abolitionists were too outspoken, even though some of the most prominent abolitionists were Friends. However, many Quakers differed about whether non-Quakers should own slaves and in fact Indiana Friends split on the issue. But in general none of the Quakers sought or even welcomed the public attention brought by some of the outspoken abolitionists. Soon this attitude affected the Grimkes.
It began when Angelina wrote a letter to the editor of The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper founded and operated by nationally known speaker/writer William Lloyd Garrison. Angelina’s letter was published without her permission and that brought censure from the Grimkes’ fellow Quakers. At that point the sisters had to choose – remain Quakers and stay silent or leave the group and be free to actively oppose slavery. They realized they had no choice but to leave. So as they withdrew from the Friends intending to speak freely against slavery they did so but in such a way that would have far reaching effects on abolitionism and other reform movements of the time. This happened when they ended up addressing public meetings, speaking to audiences of both men and women – together, something society decreed was inappropriate for “decent” women.
Presumably they never intended to cause any controversy, because they originally planed to speak only to women – which was permissible – in a private setting. But soon what happened forced a change of focus and it began in late 1836 after a Female Anti Slavery Society convention in New York.
Biographer Catherine H. Birney in her 1885 book Sarah and Angelina Grimke: The First American Women Advocates of Abolition and Women’s Rights relates what happened next: “ By the time the Convention was over, the sisters, and portions of their history, had become so well known to abolitionists, that the leaders felt they had secured invaluable champions in these two Quaker women… both distinguished by their ability to testify as eye-witnesses against the monstrous evils of slavery.
“It was proposed that they should begin to hold a series of parlor meetings, for women only, of course. But it was soon found that they had, in private conversations, made such an impression that no parlors would be large enough to accommodate all who desired to hear them speak more at length.” A local minister offered them a room at his church and the organization decided to hold their meetings there. They gave out notices at other churches without mentioning the speakers, but soon it became known that the Grimke sisters were to address the meeting. When this happened “…a shock went through the whole community. Not a word would have been said if they had restricted themselves to a private parlor meeting, but that it should be transferred to such a public parlor of a church made quite a different affair of it.” Their fellow abolitionists and even the sisters themselves were wary of proceeding, “Sarah and Angelina were appalled, the latter especially, feeling almost as if she was the bold creature she was represented to be. She declared her utter inability, in the face of such antagonism, to go on with the work she had undertaken, and the more she looked at it, the more unnatural and unwise it seemed to her…”
But Angelina “’called upon Him who has ever hearkened unto my cry…’” and decided to go ahead.
“’We went to the meeting at 3 o’clock and found about three hundred women there,’” Angelina wrote later “ ‘…After a moment, I arose and spoke about 40 minutes, feeling, I think, entirely embarrassed. Then dear sister did her part better than I did.’” The biographer continued: “This account of the first assembly of women, not Quakers, in a public place in America, addressed by American women, is deeply interesting and touching from its very simplicity.” She continued from an 1885 point of view: “We who are so accustomed to hear women speak to promiscuous audiences on any and every subject, and to hear them applauded, too, can scarcely realize the prejudice which, half a century back, sought to close the lips of two refined Christian ladies, desirous only of adding their testimony against the greatest evil of any age or country…”
What made this controversial was that even though their audience was all female, they were women in speaking in public. Then a year later they added to their audience – and to the controversy.
In June, 1837 there was held a convention of the Massachusetts Anti Slavery Society convention, attended by many the Grimkes as well as major abolitionist figures of the time. Birney’s biography takes up the account: “A series of public meetings was arranged for them as soon as the Convention adjourned, and the first was held in Dorchester, in the town hall, to which they repaired upon finding the number of those who wished to hear them too great to be accommodated in a private house. Their next was in Boston on the following afternoon…. It was at this meeting that a reverend gentleman set the example which was followed by two or three other men, of slyly sliding into a back seat to hear for himself what manner of thing this woman’s speaking was. Satisfied of its superior quality, and alarmed at its effects upon the audience, he shortly afterwards took great pains to prove that it was unscriptural for a woman to speak in public.” But soon more men began to attend – but not just to condemn but also because they were interested and even sympathetic to the subject.
As the sisters continued to speak to large groups, Angelina later wrote a friend, including details about the meetings. “’Before the end of the first week, she records: – Nearly thirty men present, pretty easy to speak.’ A few days later the number of men had increased to fifty, with ‘great openness on their part to hear.’” The biographer described one audience of over one thousand: “We are told that the men present listened in amazement. They were spellbound and impatient of the slightest noise which might cause the loss of word from the speakers. Another meeting was called for, and held the next evening. This was crowded to excess, many going away unable to get even standing-room. ’At least one hundred,’ Angelina writes, ‘stood around the doors, and, on the outside of each window, men stood with their heads above the lowered sash. Very easy speaking indeed.’”
The biographer continued: “But now the opposers of abolitionism and especially the clergy, began to be alarmed. It amounted to very little that (to borrow the language of one of the newspapers of the day) ‘two fanatical women…should, by the novelty of their course, draw to their meetings idle and curious women.’ But it became a different matter when men, the intelligent, respectable and cultivated citizens of every town, began to crowd to hear them, even following them from one place to another, and giving them loud and honest applause. Then they were adjudged immodest, and their conduct denounced as unwomanly and demoralizing…. Letters of reproval, admonition, and persuasion, some anonymous, some signed by good conscientious people, came to the sisters frequently. Clergymen denounced them from their pulpits, especially warning their women members against them. Municipal corporations refused the use of halls for their meetings and threats of personal violence came from various quarters.” But Sarah, writing to a friend, summarized their dedication to their cause: “’They think to frighten us from the field of duty; but they do not move us. God is our shield, and we do not fear what man can do to us.’” Gradually as more women took to the lecture platform the opposition lessened.
In addition to their public speaking, the sisters in 1839 the sisters published a compilation of articles from Southern newspapers under the title American Slavery as it is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. Reportedly Harriet Beecher Stowe used much of the content as resource material for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In 1838 Angelina married fellow reformer Theodore Weld and at first they both anticipated Angelina’s continuing to speak. However, with her growing family and household responsibilities she eventually retired from the lecture platform and was soon joined by Sarah who also retired and came to make her home with the Welds.
Gradually the sisters retired from public notice but in 1868 they had an opportunity to put their views into action.
About that time they learned that their brother Henry had fathered two sons by a slave woman, and the sisters welcomed these young men into their home. Archibald Henry Grimke and Francis Grimke attended Harvard, then Archibald became a lawyer and later ambassador to Haiti and Francis attended a prominent seminary and became a Presbyterian minister.
In their later years the sisters remained in retirement, but continued to support their causes from behind the scenes. Sarah died in 1873 and Angelina in 1879.
As advocates for abolition as well as other reforms, the Grimkes courageously overcame both the challenges of personal opposition as well as society disapproval. And by doing so they not only spoke about an important issue, but also inspired and encouraged women reformers to come.
Anne Adams is the author of “First of All, a Wife: Sketches of American First Ladies”.