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Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké Weld: Abolitionists and Feminists


The American women’s rights movement was born in the bosom of the abolitionist movement. The 19th-century abolitionists and feminists Sarah (1792–1873) and Angelina Grimké (1805–1879) were the first female agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society, as well as pioneers of the American women’s rights movement. Their arguments for women’s rights anticipated many of John Stuart Mill’s arguments in The Subjection of Women. It is interesting that many Muslim feminists in Islamic countries and in the West are now making similar arguments for women’s rights, so I will conclude with a brief discussion of their efforts.

The Grimkés’ feminism arose largely out of the hurdles they encountered as abolitionists. Those hurdles were put up not only by defenders of slavery in the North who profited from the cheap cotton produced by the South, but also by abolitionists who deemed it improper for women to appear on the public stage. They were vilified and even threatened with violence for their public appearances. Their struggle for the right to speak out against slavery publicly shows how radically culture can oppress people even in the absence of legal oppression. Drawing on The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina, by Gerda Lerner, I will start with a brief biographical note on the Grimkés.

Sarah and Angelina Grimké were born into a prominent slave-holding family in Charleston, South Carolina. Their independent spirits were evident even in their early years. Like most children, they hated slavery when they were little. But unlike most children, Sarah and Angelina did not gradually come to accept it as normal. At a young age, Sarah was given a little slave girl of her own as a birthday present. She hated the idea, and treated the girl like a friend instead of a slave. She also violated the law by teaching her to read and write late at night in her bedroom, till she was discovered by her father. When the girl died a few years later, Sarah was inconsolable, to her mother’s great mystification, for weren’t there plenty of little slave girls to replace the one who had died?

When Sarah was 26, she accompanied her ill father to Philadelphia to consult a doctor. There she became acquainted with some Quakers, whose condemnation of slavery revived her anti-slavery sentiments. In 1821, she left Charleston for good for Philadelphia. Angelina, who had often protested against slavery to her mother, joined Sarah a few years later. Both had realized that there was little they could do about slavery as long as they lived in Charleston. After all, they had failed to influence even their own family members. Sarah and Angelina Grimké converted to Quakerism and spent the early 1830s doing social work with the Quakers, before eventually becoming active in the cause of abolition, and then feminism.

Abolitionism and feminism

Their activism started in 1835, when Angelina sent William Lloyd Garrison a passionate letter about the evils of slavery, and expressing her distress at the opposition to abolition in the North, and her appreciation of Garrison for standing up to the mobs and public denunciations. Garrison published her letter in his magazine The Liberator, without her knowledge. That put Angelina squarely in the public eye, and she started attending female anti-slavery meetings and speaking about slavery to women in sewing circles and private parlors. After initially disapproving of her action, Sarah joined her in attending anti-slavery meetings. The Female Anti-Slavery Society had several free colored men and women as members, including Sarah Douglass and her mother, Grace, who became lifelong friends of the Grimké sisters.

In 1836 Angelina and Sarah became the first women to receive training as abolitionist agents at the Agents’ Convention of the American Anti-Slavery Convention. They started giving talks at female anti-slavery meetings in New York, Boston, and surrounding towns and villages. But soon they were addressing mixed audiences at the American Anti-Slavery Society and other organizations, inviting the disapproval of many, including their Quaker friends, their abolitionist friends, and the churches, for their unwomanly activities. Some urged the sisters not to divert attention from the great wrong being done to slaves “in a selfish crusade against some paltry grievances,” a complaint familiar to feminists of every age. To which Angelina replied, “If we have no right to act, then may we well be termed ‘the white slaves of the North,’ for like our brethren in bonds, we must seal our lips in silence and despair.” In the same spirit, John Stuart Mill was to remark many years later, “There remain no legal slaves [in England], except the mistress of every house.”

Angelina believed that women “ought to feel a peculiar sympathy in the colored man’s wrong, for, like him, she has been accused of mental inferiority, and denied the privileges of a liberal education.” On a more theoretical level, she saw that all rights are connected and had the same justification, and hoped that “the ultimate result will be the breaking of every yoke.” The sisters were thus naturally led to join their work on abolition with a crusade for women’s rights.

In 1836, Angelina published An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, in which she drew upon the Bible to argue that slavery was immoral, in direct contradiction to the Southern clergy’s use of the Bible to claim the exact opposite. One of her arguments dealt with what looked like God’s condemnation of Canaanites to perpetual servitude, an argument that apologists for slavery often used to justify the practice. Angelina argued that God was merely prophesying what would happen, not commanding what ought to happen. After all, the Bible also prophesies sin, without condoning it. Moreover, God gave Adam dominion over all things and animals, but not over other human beings.

Angelina exhorted Southern women to read the Declaration of Independence and the Bible to see for themselves that slavery was wrong, and then to persuade their husbands, fathers, and sons of its evils. After all, she pointed out, British women had spread the gospel of emancipation with their pens, paint brushes, and needles, and helped bring about the Emancipation Bill of Great Britain. And American women were now doing the same in the North.

Unfortunately, Southern women never got to read Angelina’s Appeal, because it was publicly burned by the postmaster of South Carolina. But Angelina’s argumentative strategy was used by Sarah Grimké in her fight for women’s rights. By the late 1830s the Grimké sisters were known not only as abolitionists but also as defenders of women’s rights. Although they were not the first women to lecture publicly on the emancipation of women, they were the first to link emancipation of women to emancipation of slaves, and the first to speak publicly to mixed audiences. They were also more influential than their predecessors.

Their influence, however, was dearly bought. They were often threatened by mobs who threw bricks into the windows of the lecture halls, ridiculed by the media, and denounced by churches. Garrison was the only prominent abolitionist who wholeheartedly supported the Grimkés from the beginning, publishing their letters and appeals for women’s rights as well as for abolition. But Garrison’s promotion of women’s rights within the anti-slavery movement split the abolition movement, because some of his close associates disagreed with the fusion of the two issues.

Like Angelina, Sarah also took her stand on the Declaration of Independence that all humans have an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and used the Bible to refute the advocates of female subordination. In her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1837), Sarah said that she didn’t trust the King James translation, because it had been translated by men living in a patriarchal culture, so she would use the Hebrew version. (Of course, the Hebrew Bible was also written by men in a patriarchal culture, but perhaps Sarah thought that the translation had added another layer of anti-female bias to the text.)

The Bible presented two main challenges. One was that Eve was clearly inferior to Adam, since it was she who had given in to the serpent’s temptation and, in turn, tempted Adam. Nonsense, replied Sarah, given that Adam simply followed his wife in her transgression! Not exactly an example of strength of mind! The other main challenge lay in God’s seeming commandment to Eve: “Thou wilt be subject unto thy husband, and he will rule over thee” [Gen 3:16]. Sarah met this challenge head-on, arguing, as Angelina had done with the statement about the servitude of Canaanites, that the statement was a prophecy, not a command. She pointed out that Hebrew uses the same word for “will” and “shall,” and translators have simply expressed their prejudices in translating it as “shall.” The Bible also states that Adam and Eve will have to contend with thorns and thistles in their earthly abode. Imagine translating that as a command instead of a prophecy!

Sarah did not ask for special favors for women. All she wanted, she said, was that men “take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.” That would give women the chance to prove that they really were equal. And if they weren’t, they would “soon give evidence of … their inferiority, and shrink back into … obscurity….”

But why go through this rigmarole? Isn’t it obvious that woman is intellectually and morally inferior to men? Well, says Sarah, if she is, it’s because man has “done all he could do to debase and enslave her mind; and now he looks triumphantly on the ruin he has wrought, and says, the being he has thus deeply injured is his inferior.”

The same argument, of course, had been made by slaveholders: look at these people — they are intellectually and morally deficient and not fit for anything else! They are slaves because they are slave-like! Slavery is good not only for us but also for them.

Sarah also pointed out the harm done to women’s intellect and character by the denial of equal rights. “Woman” has become used to being treated like a doll, “a plaything to please his eye and amuse his hours of leisure.” The adage, “Rule by obedience and by submission sway,” teaches women to be hypocrites, to “pretend to submit” in order to gain their point. Women’s loss of the right to property after marriage, and lack of a right to custody of their children, she said, “are one of the greatest outrages,” fostering “loss of self-respect, independence and degradation.” The men, for their part, shut “themselves up in the self made circle of their superiority.”

In his three autobiographies and other work, Frederick Douglass made similar arguments about the negative effects of slavery on the character of both slaves and slaveholders.

To women, Sarah said: Stop going along with your own degradation and realize that “whatsoever it is morally right for a man to do, it is morally right for a woman to do.” Inequality of rights “creates antagonism” between the two sexes, equality will bring them closer together. Further, equal rights to person and property “will release woman from the horrors of forced maternity.”

The historian Gerda Lerner claims that “forced maternity” is a euphemism for marital rape, an issue common among 19th-century feminists. It’s sobering to recall that marital rape was criminalized in all 50 states of the United States only in 1993.

John Stuart Mill was later to give many of the arguments that Sarah Grimké first gave for women’s liberation in The Subjection of Women: recognizing women’s equal rights would allow women to show that they were not inherently inferior to men, whatever inferiority they exhibited as a group was due to their oppression, and such oppression harmed women’s characters as well as those of men, who were given to self-worship and a self-deluded sense of superiority just for being men. Mill also argued that, since women had no right to refuse to have sex with their husbands, they were sexual slaves. All this added up to marriages devoid of true intimacy and friendship.

Moral concerns

An important aspect of the Grimkés’ fight for equal rights is that it was grounded in their realization that their unequal status prevented them from expressing their moral concerns.

As Angelina said in her address to a committee of the Massachusetts legislature (February, 1838) — the first time a woman had addressed any legislative body in America — as citizens, women are partners “in a nation’s guilt and shame.” Their “honor, happiness and well-being are bound up in its politics, government and laws.” And as moral beings, they “owe it to the suffering slave and to the deluded master” to do all they can “to overturn a system of complicated crimes.”

Another important aspect of the Grimkés’ fight is that they didn’t focus only on changing the law and the attitudes of men. They also recognized — and urged — the importance of women making an attempt to grow psychologically and morally by their own efforts, to feel and act confidently in the company of men, and to see themselves as moral agents who were responsible for themselves. In this, they have much to teach some contemporary feminists in the West who have adopted the strategy or ideology of victimhood to change the law and social attitudes.

The Grimkés’ holistic approach to women’s rights was in keeping with their approach to abolition, where they argued not only for an immediate emancipation of slaves (against gradualism) and legal equality for free blacks, but also their full integration within American society (against colonization), and thus for a psychological and moral change in whites, including abolitionists. For even in the North, where slavery had been abolished, race prejudice continued strong, and it was race prejudice that had led to segregation of free blacks and the plan for colonizing them in Liberia.

Western women have won all the legal freedoms that the Grimkés and later feminists fought for. The lot of Muslim women in most Muslim countries is, however, even more dire than that of Western women in the 19th century. Some people have criticized contemporary Western feminists for focusing exclusively on their own relatively minor grievances instead of fighting for the rights of Muslim women. But that assumes that Muslim women would welcome such a move, or that it would be a helpful move. Both assumptions are doubtful. In any case, there is a nascent feminist movement in some Muslim countries, a movement that bears some resemblance to the 19th-century feminist movement in the United States. As Elizabeth Segran pointed out in “The Rise of the Islamic Feminists” in the December 4, 2013, issue of The Nation, in 2008 the Malaysian feminist Zainah Anwar established Sisters of Islam, and in 2009, she and other women from different Muslim countries established Musawah (meaning “equality” in Arabic). They work with scholars to find Islamic justifications for equality for women, organize workshops, and produce educational materials.

Their main argument is similar to that of the Grimkés:  the Koran does not justify women’s subordination to men; it has been interpreted to do so by its male readers. For example, the word “iddribuhunna” in Arabic has a double meaning: to beat, and to go their own separate ways. Men have taken it to mean that they have a right to beat their wives, but it’s better understood as saying that men and women can go their own separate ways if a marriage is not working out. So there is no good reason to think that the Koran sanctions wife-beating, and doesn’t sanction a woman’s right to a divorce. The important point is that Sharia laws have not come down from God; they are interpretations of God’s word. As Anwar says, “Human engagement with the divine text produces laws that are fallible and open to change.” Because women were excluded from the writing of family law, family law heavily favors men. Even the Pakistani judge Muhammad Khalid Masud agrees that because Islamic scriptures were written in a patriarchal culture, the Koran “must be historicized” before it can be applied to modern issues.

Then there are secular feminists who eschew the Koran and argue for equality within the framework of the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW, of course, is a far cry from the Declaration of Independence, inflated as it is with a wish-list of all desirable things rather than merely equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Nevertheless, Muslim feminists have won some promising changes. In 2004, Morocco passed a law that states that spouses are equal partners, and gives women the right to divorce. Saudi Arabia recently passed a law against domestic abuse and gave women legal permission to drive. These legal successes are pathetic for the 21st century, but they constitute progress all the same. Perhaps the Grimké sisters will provide inspiration to Muslim women.

This article was originally published in the November 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Neera K. Badhwar is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and is affiliated with the Departments of Philosophy and Economics at George Mason University. She is author of Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life (Oxford University Press, 2014), has published widely in philosophy journals, and is the editor of Friendship: A Philosophical Reader (Cornell University Press).