Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sarah Moore Grimké: Abolitionist, Social Activist, Suffragist

Sarah Moore Grimké, American abolitionist (7 July 1878)

Earlier in the year, on 20 February, I posted an entry on the abolitionist Angelina Grimké, and in that essay, I included a fair amount about her older sister, Sarah Moore Grimké. The two were both social activists, working for the abolition of slavery and for women's rights. 

For once I haven't indicated the significance of the date in the heading to this post--it's complicated. This is certainly not the most obvious date for Grimké.

She was born on 26 November 1792 and died on 23 December 1873, so it's not that we don't know when she was born and when she died, basic information that is unknown for many of the women I've been writing about. 

There are other significant dates in her life as well--my original plan was to write about Grimké later this week, on 11 July, which was the date of the first of her letters "on the equality of the sexes." But if I did that, I wouldn't be able to write about Delarivier Manley on that day!

So here I am, with a roundabout date for Grimké: on 7 July 1878, almost five years after Sarah's death, her nephew, Francis J. Grimké, was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Why is that so special? 

Francis J. Grimké was the son of Henry Grimké, Sarah and Angelina's brother. Henry was a wealthy planter in Charleston. But Francis was not the son of Henry and his wife, Selina Simmons, but of Henry and his slave, a woman named Nancy Weston.

Henry Grimké educated the three sons that Weston bore him and freed them in his 1852 will, placing the boys under the guardianship of their white half-brother, Montague. But Montague did not treat his half-siblings well, and in 1860, he threatened to sell Francis, then ten years old, into slavery. The boy ran away, and when he returned, Montague made good his threat. Francis was not free until the end of the Civil War.

Both Grimké sisters had left the South long before the death of their brother, unable to live with the horrors of slavery. Sarah had gone with her father to Philadelphia in 1819 so he could consult medical professionals there, and she had then gone with him to New Jersey. She had returned to Philadelphia after her father died in August of 1819 and then spent some time in Charleston before returning finally to Philadelphia. She went back to Charleston again in 1827, when she "rescued" her younger sister, Angelina. By 1829, both Grimké sisters were in Philadelphia, committed to the cause of fighting against slavery and for women.

It wasn't until after the Civil War, in 1868, that Sarah Grimké learned of her brother's three children by Nancy Weston. While reading an article in The Anti-Slavery Standard, Angelina Grimké noted that the writer referred to a young man named Archibald Grimké, "just out of slavery." After telling her sister Sarah about the coincidence, Angelina wrote to Archibald, wondering if there were a connection.

He responded, and for the first time the two Grimké sisters learned about Archibald, Francis, and John, her brother's children; she and Sarah publicly acknowledged the three boys as their nephews. With their connections and support, Francis was educated at the Lincoln University and then at Princeton Theological Seminary. He graduated and was ordained on 7 July 1878.

So 7 July is a roundabout date for this post, but it adds a critical element to the story of the Grimké sisters.

As for Sarah, more specifically, she published a series of letters on women's equality, written in 1837, each of the fifteen letters devoted to one particular aspect of women's situation, among them: "The Original Equality of Woman"; "Woman Subject Only To God"; "Social Intercourse of the Sexes"; "Women in Asia and Africa"; "On the Condition of Women in the United States"; "Heroism of Women--Women in Authority"; Intellect of Woman"; "Dress of Women"; "Legal Disabilities of Women"; "Relation of Husband and Wife"; "Ministry of Women"; and "Man Equally Guilty with Woman in the Fall,"

The letters were published in 1838 as Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman; you can read them online at various sites, but I'll link you to the first edition, available at Google Books.

And I love the way she signs off at the end of each letter: "Thine for the oppressed in the bonds of womanhood" and its variation, "Thine in the bonds of womanhood."

For an online biographical essay about Angelina and Sarah Grimké posted at the Women's Rights National Historical Park website, click here. (Did you even know there was a Women's Rights National Historical Park? I sure didn't!) 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.

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