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Early Visionaries

Sarah and Angelina Grimke may look dour in photos, but they were very animated and sprung to life when they were advocating for the rights of slaves and women. While I have known about them as rather obscure Quakers and trouble makers for a long time I was recently reintroduced to them in Sue Monk Kidd’s book, The Invention of Wings. I highly recommend the book for some real insights into not only slavery but the history of women’s rights. It is a novel, but based on facts. These women worked tirelessly for the causes of abolition and women’s rights. Along with Lucretia Mott, they were among the first women to speak publicly against slavery, defying gender norms and risking violence in doing so. Beyond ending slavery, their mission—highly radical for the times—was to promote racial and gender equality. They were the only white, Southern women to do so.

Sarah was born in Charleston, South Carolina on November 26, 1792 and Angelina also in Charleston on the family plantation on February 20, 1805. Sara was the sixth child of Judge John Faucheraud Grimke a Supreme Court Justice of South Carolina, and Angelina was the thirteenth. He had fourteen children with his wife (three died in infancy) and at least three children with slaves that he impregnated. Their father was a plantation owner, a wealthy planter and a strong advocate of slavery and the subordination of women. He owned over one hundred slaves. Later in his life, on his deathbed, he confessed to being a proud may who let greed and pride get in the way of his true beliefs.

When Sarah was five she witnessed, at her mother’s command, a slave being whipped. She ran away and sought passage on a steamer hoping to be carried to a place where there was no slavery. Of course, she was brought back home before that could happen. She was given a slave as a birthday gift on her eleventh birthday. She attempted to give her back, then attempted to free the child, both efforts thwarted by her parents. She promised to do everything she could to free this child slave and the one thing she could do was teach her to read, which in violation of the law, she did.

Sarah wanted to further her education and follow in her father and her brother’s footsteps studying law, and becoming a lawyer. She raided her father’s study constantly, teaching herself history, geography and math. Her father prohibited her from further study. Her brother, Thomas went to Yale and earned a law degree and told her that had she been a man, she would have been the greatest lawyer in South Carolina. Both her brother and her father recognized her keen intelligence, both lamented that she was not a man. Sarah flailed that these ideas and often said: “Whatsoever it is morally right for a man to do, it is morally right for a woman to do. She is clothed by her Maker with the same rights, the same duties.”

Sarah’s mother delivered a girl child late in her life and Sarah at almost thirteen years of age, was granted her wish to become the child’s godmother. This was probably to distract her from the desire for further education. She became almost a surrogate mother and certainly a role model for this sister, Angelina. The two remained close for their entire lives, often living together and campaigning together for their causes of abolition and women’s rights. The two left the south eventually and stilted in Pennsylvania and later Boston, Massachusetts. They both became Quakers and staunch abolitionists. So staunch that they were sanctioned even by the Quakers for their passion.

At first they spoke to small groups of women in parlor talks. Gradually they grew in popularity and were soon addressing hundreds of people in large auditoriums. As the numbers increased, men also attended. Angelina wrote her plea to women of the south in 1836 entitled “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South.” She encouraged women to join the movement for the very sake of white womanhood as well as that of the black slaves. She prostnelsized that slavery was contrary to the Declaration of Independence and the very teachings of Jesus Christ. She advocated education and freedom for slaves. She urged her readers to ignore the unjust laws that prohibited both of these things and do what was right. “Consequences, my friends, belong no more to you than they did to the apostles. Duty is ours and events are gods…arise and gird yourselves for this great moral conflict.”

The sisters continued their battle for both abolition and women’s rights well into old age. Sarah is quoted as saying: "I ask for no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Everywhere they went large crowds gathered, some all white, some all black and some racially integrated. Aisles were crowded and people filled stairs and windows too. Wherever they went they collected names on petitions. In Dorchester, for example, 325 women signed after the Grimké sisters spoke. And the number of antislavery societies in the state almost doubled. By the end of 1837, Massachusetts had 47 female antislavery societies, far more than any other state. In 1837–1838, 80 percent of the signatures on Massachusetts petitions to Congress were women’s, and Bay State women led those of other northern states by a wide margin.

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