Today is International Women’s Day. It’s been a day to recognize the sheroes of the past and all others still speaking for women’s and other human rights. We need to know about those early seekers of social justice who can still speak to us today.
I’ve chosen the Grimke sisters – Sarah and Angelina, born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1792 and 1805. Their father, John, was a state supreme court judge, a wealthy planter, and a former Revolutionary War officer. Their mother, Mary Smith, was from one of the oldest families in South Carolina. Their father had many slaves on his Beaufort plantation and at his large house in Charleston. Theirs was a life of white privilege.
Sarah was the fifth of fourteen children, Angelina the last. Sarah asked to be her sister’s godmother though only 13. She was to “guide and protect” her little sister, a task she took very seriously. The girls were always quite close. They experienced slavery primarily from the owner’s side. Both had two servants – a nurse maid and a companion of the child’s age. Sarah’s father was very strict and sometimes punished her by sending her to the fields to shell corn and pick cotton to show her how lucky she was. She saw the hardships and brutality of slavery and grew to detest it.
At five or six, she saw a slave being whipped. She burst into tears and ran away from home down to the wharf. She met a kindly sea captain and asked him to take her any place where there was no slavery. He listened kindly, but turned her over to her nurse maid Mauna who hurried to her home. As soon as she could read, she taught her companion and others to read and write and held Sunday school classes as well until her father stopped her. At eight, when her companion died, she refused to have another one. Otherwise, she was a kind, cheerful child, who loved to learn and had a questioning curiosity. Sometimes her strong opinions and different ideas got her into trouble.
Both girls were very religious. Perhaps it was Sarah who taught Angelina that slavery was a sin. Angelina worried daily that her parents were not going to heaven because they were slave owners. Sarah came to think slavery was not only sinful but wrong. She was sad that she could do nothing about slavery and felt it an albatross around her neck. She wanted to be a lawyer and learn everything her older brother Thomas was learning, but her father told her women did not need that much education. So, she got Thomas to teach her from his lessons. She read through her father’s library. Undoubtedly, she passed on her knowledge to Angelina.
In 1819, Sarah went to Philadelphia with her father who was seeking medical treatment. There, she met some Quakers, who were caring for her father. She was drawn to their simplicity and integrity in worship and their stands for gender equality and against slavery. When her father died, she returned to Charleston but found her dislike for slavery too strong and soon returned to Philadelphia. She joined the Quaker meeting and became involved in their work. Angelina reunited with her several years later and also joined the Quaker meeting. Being among Quakers helped remove “the canker” that gnawed at her soul.
Angelina was more aggressive in her open fight against slavery and wrote a letter to The Liberator declaring that getting rid of slavery was a cause she was willing to die for if necessary. Quakers in her meeting felt she had not seasoned her leading sufficiently with the community and criticized her for the strong words she, a woman, used in her writing and speaking. This was in spite of Quaker recognition of both men and women as vocal ministers. Angelina continued to speak out and wrote a strong “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” encouraging them to work against slavery. Sarah supported her sister’s activities and wrote her own ” Letter to the Clergymen of the Southern States” and “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes.” She defended women’s right to speak and their moral and intellectual equality. She held that women needed to be educated in order to live up to their God given potential and be the equal, not subservient, companions and helpmates of men.
Sarah and Angelina extended this equality to their social relationships with African Americans. They encouraged bonds between races and had a wide circle of black women friends. They were close to the women of the Forten and Bustill/Douglass families and had other black friends in the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Sarah was especially close to Sarah Mapps Douglass and advised her on her concerns for the prejudice of the Arch Street Quakers and their treatment of black attenders at worship. Sarah tried several times to sit with her friend on the “back black benches,” a practice for which she was chastised. The two often talked about the intimacies of their private lives.
When the sisters learned their brother Henry had fathered three sons with the enslaved Nancy Westin, they welcomed the boys into their family and helped support their education and introduce them to their black friends. The oldest, Francis, married Charlotte Forten, the author granddaughter of James Forten, patriarch of the wealthy black business family. When Angelina married Theodore Weld, an abolitionist, they had two ministers, one white, one black and many interracial guests. For marrying a non-Quaker, Angelina was disowned by her Quaker meeting; Sarah was also disowned for attending the wedding. This saddened them but freed both to continue to speak for women’s rights and against the evils of slavery.
Angelina and Sarah traveled to many cities to speak. Their upbringing as children of slave owners caused people to listen to what they had to say about the harms of slavery, the need for slavery to end, and the hope for the training and education of freed blacks to become full citizens. They held that if all men are created equal, no man can hold another in bondage. Angelina was the first woman to speak to the Massachusetts legislature for the “20,000 women” of that state. To pay for these speaking tours, Angelina and Theodore started several schools, inviting their abolitionist friends to send their children. Elizabeth Cady Stanton sent her children to one of their New Jersey schools. Sarah lived with them and supported their efforts while continuing to help others still traveling like Lucy Stone, Maria Stewart, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony.
Sarah’s famous words are still remembered by those who work for women’s rights and human rights in 2019:
I make no claim for favors for women, but claim only equality and for men to take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright on ground which God destined us to occupy.
Books and resources:
- The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina by Grace Lerner – an excellent adult resource
- The Grimke Sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke by Catherine Birney
- Sisters Against Slavery by Stephanie McPherson
- Lift Up Thy Voice by Mark Perry
- The Power of Woman: Sarah Grimke by Pamela R. Durso
- Turning the World Upside Down: the Story of Sarah and Angelina Grimke by William and Patricia Willimon
- https://wn.com/grimke_sisters – an hour of several videos on sisters
- http://utclath.virginia.edu/abolitn/abesaegat.html – complete copy of “Letter to Christian Women in the South”
Questions to consider:
- Why did the Grimke sisters’ upbringing in Charleston cause people to listen to them so closely?
- Have you ever believed in something so strongly that you had to support it no matter what? What did you do? How did you get others to support you?
- Although both sisters were saddened by their being asked to leave their Quaker meeting, what things did they find difficult during their time with Quakers?
- Angelina was a stronger speaker; Sarah was a more prolific writer. Do you have talents different from your siblings and friends? How do you use them to help yourself and others?