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Political Women in History: The Grimké Sisters
Abolitionism is a political movement to end slavery. It was prominent in the United States during the 19th Century, before, during, and after the Civil War. A lot of women joined the abolitionist party, as a sort of precursor to the women’s movements that would follow. Interestingly, abolitionist men didn’t have a problem with women working to support the cause, but still didn’t allow them into most conventions and meetings.
Sarah and Angelina Grimké are two of the most famous female abolitionists from the 19th Century. They were from a slaveholding family, but spoke out and wrote in support of abolition. The sisters became the first female representatives of the American Anti-Slavery Society to tour and speak to audiences of both men and women. They defended their rights as women to free speech from within the abolitionist movement.
The sisters continued their work in the movement by relying on their religious devotion, which shows up in their writings. If you read examples of the Grimké sisters’ writing, you will see a critique of the relationship between state, church, and family. The sisters grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where their father was a legislator and judge. When he trained his sons for the law, he included his daughters in the exercises although they were only to receive formal educations that were traditional for girls (no Greek, Latin, or philosophy).
Injustices of Slavery
Both Sarah and Angelina were sensitive to the injustices of slavery. Sarah broke the law by teaching slaves how to read; and, Angelia held regular prayer meetings for her family’s slaves.
In 1821, Sarah went to Philadelphia to live among Quakers because she was impressed by their simplicity, piety, and refusal to own slaves. In 1829, Angelina joined her sister. While Sarah made a commitment to boycott all products made by slavery, Angelina joined the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society.
Angelina wrote a pamphlet, An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, which was popular and distributed widely. However, it was publicly burned in Charleston, the sisters’ hometown.
Touring as Agents
When the American Anti-Slavery Society organized a group of “Agents” to tour and speak about slavery, Angelina and Sarah Grimké were among them. Beginning in late 1836, both began speaking to women in private New York City parlors. By the end of the year, their audiences had grown so large that they had to hold their lectures in churches to accommodate everyone.
The sisters moved on to Boston in the middle of 1837, where intense debates between abolitionists were already in progress. Sarah wrote a series of essays that ended up as a pamphlet, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women. In summer of 1837, a “Pastoral Letter” was published by ministers of Massachusetts, attacking the politically active Grimké sisters as unwomanly. The sisters had always criticized slavery in the context of their religions faith; but after this attack, they began to claim that women were moral individuals with as much right to take political positions as men had.
The term feminist was not yet in use, but feminist ideas definitely shaped the beliefs of Sarah and Angelina Grimké.