The Grimke sisters of Charleston, SC: abolitionist and feminist leaders.

AuthorMcCandless, Amy Thompson


The elite white culture of antebellum South Carolina which was the Grimkes' heritage posited a paternalist view of society. The Southern plantation was compared to a family, where a benevolent father cared lovingly for his white and black dependents. As the knightly lords of yore, he expected obedience in return for his protection. Gender and race were seamlessly interwoven in the fabric of Southern society: paternalism was used to justify the subjugation of women and of blacks. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese argued in Within the Plantation Household, "The distinctive forms of male dominance in the South developed in conjunction with the development of slavery..." (1) Apologists contended that this patriarchal social hierarchy reflected God's natural order. Slaves were enjoined by Scriptures to obey their masters and women to honor and obey their fathers and husbands. (2) As abolitionist and feminist leaders in the 1830s, the Grimke sisters would challenge this dominant chivalric ideology and its Biblical premises.

Bearing Testimony

Given their family background and the plantation society into which they were born, the Grimke sisters seemed unlikely challengers to the status quo. Their father, John Faucheraud Grimke, was a wealthy planter and judge; their mother, Mary Smith Grimke, the descendant of prominent planters and politicians. Both were pillars in the Episcopal Church. The daughters were educated, first by tutors on the family plantation, and then in the female academies of Charleston. Such schools, educational historians have contended, reinforced the patriarchal hierarchy of plantation society by rewarding conformity, dependence, and piety and by stressing social and domestic rather than intellectual accomplishments. Biographer Gerda Lerner, describing Sarah Grimke's education "at one of the numerous institutions provided for the daughters of wealthy Charleston," observed that "The most important thing to learn was manners, the proper way for a young lady to comport herself in company. It was a curriculum offering a little of everything and not very much of anything, designed not to tax excessively the gentle female mind." (3)

Sarah Grimke's earliest education, albeit brief, exposed her to much more than manners, however. Because she was first tutored with her older brother Thomas, she was exposed to "knowledge...considered food too strong for the intellect of a girl"--i.e., subjects like mathematics, natural science, geography, and Latin. Judge Grimke allowed Sarah to attend most of Thomas' lessons and even let her participate in the family debates intended to prepare the boys for the profession of law, but he drew the line when Sarah asked to study Latin; it simply was not appropriate for her sex. (4) Although John Grimke recognized her intellectual gifts--once commenting that "if Sarah had only been a boy, she would have made the greatest jurist in the country"--his veneration for the traditions of aristocratic culture was too strong to provide a man's education for his daughter. (5) Thomas was eventually sent to Yale and Sarah to a private academy in Charleston where "Painting, poetry, [and] general reading [not Latin or law] occupied her leisure time." (6)

Sarah's disappointment with her own education is revealed in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women. She described women's training as "miserably deficient," designed only to give girls enough "external charms" to catch a husband and consisting "almost exclusively [of] culinary and other manual operations." She compared those men who "would limit a woman's library to a Bible and cookery book" to "the slaveholder, who says that men will be better slaves, if they are not permitted to learn to read." (7) And Sarah clearly disagreed with the latter. Although chastised by her father for teaching her "little waiting-maid" to read in violation of state law, she continued her instruction secretly. In her co-biography of the sisters, Gerda Lerner speculates whether Sarah was not already drawing parallels between racial and gender discrimination: "the very books of law cited against her were the books denied her because she was a girl, denied her maid because she was a slave." (8)

Sarah's younger sister Angelina wrote little about the substance of her early schooling, although she dated her loathing of slavery from her days at a female academy in Charleston where '"nearly all the aristocracy' sent their daughters." (9) Here Angelina first learned of the horrors of the Charleston workhouse where blacks were sent to be punished by their masters. The young enslaved boy who worked at her school was constant evidence of its brutality: "his back and legs were scarred by whip-marks...encrusted with blood and scabs." As she later told an assembly of abolitionists, "As a Southerner I feel that it is my duty to bear testimony against slavery...! know it has horrors that can never be described. I was brought up under its wing: I witnessed for many years its demoralizing influences, and its destructiveness to human happiness." (10)

The sisters' vociferous reading in the family library compensated for their lack of formal training. In a lecture to the South Carolina Historical Association, historian F. Dudley Jones asserted that Sarah and Angelina's egalitarianism followed naturally from their reading. They took the statement "all men are born equal" and applied it to their lives' work. Dudley noted that "Before Sarah was ten she had been initiated into the realms and uses of books. By the time she was sixteen she had rebelled against the narrowness of education for women and somewhat scandalized her father by wishing to become a lawyer. She kept up her industry in study to the end of her life. At sixty-two she learned French in order to teach in a girl's school and subsequently translated and abridged de Lamartine's Joan of Arc." The story of Joan of Arc would surely have resonated with Sarah as she recalled Angelina and her experiences as abolitionist and feminist leaders in the 1830s. (11)

Sarah and later Angelina would leave the Episcopal Church of their parents, turning first to Presbyterianism and then to Quakerism in a search for meaning and purpose. Eventually, both would also leave South Carolina and settle permanently in the North, joining the Fourth and Arch Street Meeting of Quakers in Philadelphia. Although the Quakers opposed slavery, the Orthodox branch to which the sisters belonged also opposed political action. Orthodox Quakers were less supportive of women than the Hicksite Quakers, frustrating Sarah's intention to be recognized as a minister. And the Fourth and Arch Street Meeting shared the racism of the larger society, delegating free persons of color to a separate bench at the back of the hall.

Dissatisfied with the Society's lack of social activism, the sisters turned their interest to abolitionist literature and activities. In spring 1835 Angelina joined the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and in September 1835 penned the letter to William Lloyd Garrison that would bring her to the attention of pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces alike. Without asking her permission, Garrison published the letter in his abolitionist journal The Liberator. Angelina identified herself as coming from "a land of slavery, where rests the darkness of Egypt, and where is found the sin of Sodom" and declared that the abolition of slavery was "a cause worth dying for." (12)

At first Sarah was horrified at Angelina's public outing and humiliated by the criticism of their fellow Quakers. But within months Sarah "concluded that her participation in the antislavery movement was the will of God." She left the Philadelphia Quakers and traveled with Angelina to the home of abolitionist friends Abraham and Abby Cox in New York. Here the sisters participated in the founding of a national Female Anti-Slavery Society and agreed to become the first women agents for the American Anti-Slavery Society. After attending the Agents' Convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society (they were the only two women present) in December 1836, they set off for New York City to give parlor talks on abolition. Their lectures were so popular that the venue for their talks soon shifted from parlors to church session rooms to church sanctuaries to public lecture halls. By the end of January 1837 men began to attend the gatherings. (13) As William Francis Guess remarked in his history of South Carolina, "patrician Angelina [and Sarah].had committed not one but two unforgivable sins: [they] had befouled the parent nest by attacking the peculiar institution, and...had befouled the name of Carolina womanhood by screeching [their] libels in public." (14)

Nor were Southern men the only ones shocked by this flouting of gender conventions. The Northern reformer Catharine Beecher criticized the sisters' sponsorship of antislavery petitions. "Petitions to Congress," she informed them, fell "entirely without the sphere of female duty. Men are the proper persons to make appeals to the rulers whom they appoint." (15) But the harshest criticism came from the Northern churches. In July 1837 the Reverend Nehemiah Adams of Boston wrote a "Pastoral Letter of the General Association of Massachusetts to the Congregational Churches under their Care" attacking the presence of women generally in the abolitionist movement and that of the Grimkes in particular. The letter deplored "the mistaken conduct of those who encourage females to bear an obtrusive and ostentatious part in measures of reform, and countenance any of that sex who so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and teachers." Women's power, the letter reminded congregants, was "in her dependence, flowing from the consciousness of that weakness which God has given her for her protection...,." (16) In the view of Adams and many of...

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