Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, February 20, 2015

Angelina Emily Grimké: Abolitionist and Suffragist

Angelina Emily Grimké Weld (born 20 February 1805)

Before the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and before Susan B. Anthony began working with Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the suffrage movement, the political activists Angelina Grimké and her older sister, Sarah, dedicated themselves to the pursuit of social justice.

Born to a slave-holding family in South Carolina, Angelina Grimké resisted the values of her family and her class. As a child, she noted the violence inflicted on the bodies and minds of the slaves around her and reacted strongly to their suffering.

She also demonstrated her strength in her convictions; when she was thirteen, she found that she was unable to take the pledge required for her as part of the Episcopalian confirmation, and she refused to participate.

She converted to Presbyterianism, then to Quakerism. By 1829 she had decided she could no longer live in the slave-holding South and joined Sarah in Philadelphia, where she began attending anti-slavery meetings.

William Lloyd Garrison's publication of one of Grimké's letters in The Liberator in 1835 launched her public career in the abolitionist movement. 

Grimké frequently spoke to crowds of both men and women, and in so doing, violated a sense of "appropriate" female behavior. In 1838, she addressed a state legislative committee in Massachusetts, not only speaking against slavery but in support of women's right--and obligation--to oppose injustice: “I stand before you,” she said, “on behalf of the 20,000 women of Massachusetts whose names are enrolled on petitions [which] relate to the great and solemn subject of slavery.”

Grimké was the first woman in the United States to address a legislative body. As historian Gerda Lerner notes, “It never occurred to [Grimké] that she should abide by the superior judgment of her male relatives or that anyone might consider her inferior" for being a woman. 

After she married Theodore Weld in 1838, Grimké's public visibility declined, although her personal commitment never flagged. She died in 1879.

Angelina Grimké's An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836) is available through Project Gutenberg by clicking here.

In 1837, Catherine Beecher replied to Grimké in An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism with Reference to the Duty of American Female, arguing against women's participation in the abolitionist movement. As "subordinate" creatures, women are "out of their place" if they attempt to take an active role--they should leave the arguments to men.

Grimké's 1838 Letters to Catharine Beecher is a series of essays addressing Beecher's objections. In Letter XI, "The Sphere of Man and Woman as Moral Beings the Same," Grimké turns her attention from a focus on abolition to equality between the sexes, an argument and analysis she continues in the twelfth essay.

In Letter XII, "Human Rights Not Founded on Sex," Grimké writes, "When human beings are regarded as moral beings, sex, instead of being enthroned upon the summit, administering upon rights and responsibilities, sinks into insignificance and nothingness. My doctrine then is, that whatever it is morally right for man to do, it is morally right for woman to do." The differences between men and women are not due to different natures or abilities, but to social expectations and norms:
man has been converted into the warrior and clothed with sternness and those other kindred qualities, which in common estimation belong to his character as a man, whilst woman has been taught to lean upon an arm of flesh, to sit as a doll arrayed in "gold, and pearls, and costly array" [1 Timothy 2:9], to be admired for her personal charms, and caressed and humored like a spoiled child, or converted into a mere drudge to suit the convenience of her lord and master. Thus have all the diversified relations of life been filled with "confusion and every evil work" [James 3:16]. This principle has given to man a charter for the exercise of tyranny and selfishness, pride and arrogance, lust and brutal violence. It has robbed woman of essential rights, the right to think and speak and act on all great moral questions, just as men think and speak and act; the right to share their responsibilities, perils and toils; the right to fulfill the great end of her being, as a moral, intellectual, and immortal creature, and of glorifying God in her body and her spirit which are his. Hitherto, instead of being a help meet to man in the highest, noblest sense of the term as a companion, a co-worker, an equal, she has been a mere appendage of his being an instrument of his convenience and pleasure, the pretty toy with which he wiled away his leisure moments, or the pet animal whom he humored into playfulness and submission. Woman, instead of being regarded as the equal of man, has uniformly been looked down upon as his inferior, a mere gift to fill up the measure of his happiness. In "the poetry of romantic gallantry" [here Grimké is quoting Beecher's Essay], it is true, she has been called "the last best gift of God to man" [Paradise Lost 6.19];  but I believe I speak forth the words of truth and soberness when I affirm, that woman never was given to man. She was created, like him, in the image of God, and crowned with glory and honor; created only a little lower than the angels—not, as is almost universally assumed, a little lower than man. . . .*
For an online biographical essay about Angelina and Sarah Grimké by historian Carol Berkin, click here. For a biography and analysis, I suggest Gerda Lerner's The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women's Rights and Abolition.

Update, 21 January 2023: Keri Greenidge's The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in America has appeared on a number of "notable books" lists for 2022. Described as a "stunning counternarrative of the legendary abolitionist Grimke sisters that finally reclaims the forgotten Black members of their family." For more, here is Michael Jeffries's New York Times Review.

*In quoting from Grimké's letter, I have added the sources of her quotations and regularized the spelling, punctuation, and capitalization of the nineteenth-century original.

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