Biography of Sarah Grimké, Antislavery Feminist

Sarah Grimke

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Sarah Moore Grimké (November 26, 1792–December 23, 1873) was the elder of two sisters working against slavery and for women's rights. Sarah and Angelina Grimké were also known for their first-hand knowledge of slavery as members of a South Carolina slaveholding family, and for their experience with being criticized as women for speaking publicly.

Fast Fact: Sarah Moore Grimké

  • Known For: Pre-Civil War abolitionist who also fought for women's rights
  • Also Known As: Sarah Moore Grimké
  • Born: November 26, 1792 in Charleston, South Carolina
  • Parents: Mary Smith Grimke, John Faucheraud Grimke
  • Died: December 23, 1873 in Boston
  • Published Works: Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States (1836), Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women (1837). The pieces were first published in Massachusetts-based abolitionist publications The Spectator and The Liberator, and later as a book.
  • Notable Quote: "I ask no favors for my sex, I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on the ground which God has designed us to occupy."

Early Life

Sarah Moore Grimké was born in Charleston, South Carolina on November 26, 1792, as the sixth child of Mary Smith Grimke and John Faucheraud Grimke. Mary Smith Grimke was the daughter of a wealthy South Carolina family. John Grimke, an Oxford-educated judge who had been a captain in the Continental Army in the American Revolution, had been elected to South Carolina's House of Representatives. In his service as a judge, he served as the chief justice for the state.

The family lived during summers in Charleston and the rest of the year on their Beaufort plantation. The plantation had once grown rice, but with the invention of the cotton gin, the family turned to cotton as the main crop.

The family owned many slaves who worked in the fields and in the house. Sarah, like all her siblings, had a nursemaid who was a slave and also had a "companion," a slave her own age who was her special servant and playmate. Sarah's companion died when Sarah was 8, and she refused to have another one assigned to her.

Sarah saw her older brother Thomas—six years her elder and the second-born of the siblings—as a role model who followed their father into law, politics, and social reform. Sarah argued politics and other topics with her brothers at home and studied from Thomas' lessons. When Thomas went away to Yale Law School, Sarah gave up her dream of equal education.

Another brother, Frederick Grimké, also graduated from Yale University, and then moved to Ohio and became a judge there.

Angelina Grimké

The year after Thomas left, Sarah's sister Angelina was born. Angelina was the 14th child in the family; three had not survived infancy. Sarah, then 13, convinced her parents to permit her to be Angelina's godmother, and Sarah became like a second mother to her youngest sibling.

Sarah, who taught Bible lessons at church, was caught and punished for teaching a maid to read—and the maid was whipped. After that experience, Sarah did not teach reading to any of the other slaves. Angelina, who was able to attend a girls' school for daughters of the elite, was also horrified at the sight of whip marks on a slave boy she saw at school. Sarah was the one who comforted her sister after the experience.

Northern Exposure

When Sarah was 26, Judge Grimké traveled to Philadelphia and then to the Atlantic seashore to try to recover his health. Sarah accompanied him on this trip and cared for her father. When the attempt at a cure failed and he died, she stayed in Philadelphia for several more months. All told, she spent nearly a full year away from the South. This long exposure to Northern culture was a turning point for Sarah Grimké.

In Philadelphia on her own, Sarah encountered Quakers—members of the Society of Friends. She read books by the Quaker leader John Woolman and considered joining this group that opposed slavery and included women in leadership roles, but first she wanted to return home.

Sarah returned to Charleston, and in less than a month she moved back to Philadelphia, intending it to be a permanent relocation. Her mother opposed her move. In Philadelphia, Sarah joined the Society of Friends and began to wear simple Quaker clothing. Sarah Grimke returned again in 1827 for a short visit to her family in Charleston. By this time, Angelina was in charge of caring for their mother and managing the household. Angelina decided to become a Quaker like Sarah, thinking she could convert others around Charleston.

By 1829, Angelina had given up on converting others in the South to the anti-slavery cause, so she joined Sarah in Philadelphia. The sisters pursued their own education—and found that they did not have the support of their church or society. Sarah gave up her hope of becoming a clergy person and Angelina gave up her dream of studying at Catherine Beecher's school.

Antislavery Efforts

Following these changes in their lives, Sarah and Angelina got involved with the abolitionist movement, which moved beyond the American Colonization Society. The sisters joined the American Anti-Slavery Society soon after its 1830 founding. They also became active in an organization working to boycott food produced with slave labor.

On Aug. 30, 1835, Angelina wrote to abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison of her interest in the antislavery effort, including mention of what she'd learned from her first-hand knowledge of slavery. Without her permission, Garrison published the letter, and Angelina found herself famous (and for some, infamous). The letter was widely reprinted.

Their Quaker meeting was hesitant about supporting immediate emancipation, as the abolitionists did, and was also not supportive of women speaking out in public. So in 1836, the sisters moved to Rhode Island where Quakers were more accepting of their activism.

That year, Angelina published her track, "An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South," arguing for their support to end slavery through the force of persuasion. Sarah wrote "An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States," in which she confronted and argued against the typical Biblical arguments used to justify slavery. Both publications argued against slavery on strong Christian grounds. Sarah followed that with "An Address to Free Colored Americans."

Speaking Tour

The publication of those two works led to many invitations to speak. Sarah and Angelina toured for 23 weeks in 1837, using their own money and visiting 67 cities. Sarah was to speak to the Massachusetts Legislature on abolition; she became ill and Angelina spoke for her. Also that year, Angelina wrote her "Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States," and the two sisters spoke before the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women.

Women's Rights

Congregational ministers in Massachusetts denounced the sisters for speaking before assemblies including males and for questioning men's interpretation of Scripture. The "epistle" from the ministers was published by Garrison in 1838.

Inspired by the criticism of women speaking publicly which was directed against the sisters, Sarah came out for women's rights. She published "Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women." In this work, Sarah Grimke advocated for both a continued domestic role for women and the ability to speak out about public issues.

Angelina gave a speech in Philadelphia before a group that included women and men. A mob, angry about this violation of the cultural taboo of women speaking before such mixed groups, attacked the building, and the building was burned down the next day.

Theodore Weld and Family Life

In 1838, Angelina married Theodore Dwight Weld, another abolitionist and lecturer, before an interracial group of friends and acquaintances. Because Weld was not a Quaker, Angelina was voted out (expelled) of their Quaker meeting; Sarah was also voted out because she had attended the wedding.

Sarah moved with Angelina and Theodore to a New Jersey farm and they focused on Angelina's three children, the first of whom was born in 1839, for some years. Other reformers, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her husband, stayed with them at times. The three supported themselves by taking in boarders and opening a boarding school.

Later Years and Death

After the Civil War, Sarah remained active in the women's rights movement. By 1868, Sarah, Angelina, and Theodore were all serving as officers of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association. On March 7, 1870, the sisters deliberately flouted the suffrage laws by voting along with 42 others.

Sarah remained active in the suffrage movement until her death in Boston in 1873.

Legacy

Sarah and her sister continued to write letters of support to other activists on women's and slavery issues for the rest of their lives. (Angelina died just a few years after her sister, on Oct. 26, 1879.) Sarah Grimké's longest epistle, "Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women," had a profound effect on the women's rights movement because it is considered the first developed public argument for women's equality in the U.S.

Generations of advocates would take up the mantle of women's rights in later years—from Susan B. Anthony to Betty Friedan, who were both considered pioneers in the fight for women's suffrage and feminism—but Grimké was the very first to give full throat, in public fashion, to the argument that women should have equal rights with men.

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