“But 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 …”
Sarah Grimké’s story absolutely breaks my heart. Her entire life was limited and defined by sexism.
Her abhorrence of the slavery and racism that she witnessed growing up as the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner in the state of South Carolina in the United States before the Civil War, caused her to make the conscious choice to leave her home, family and religion of origin and move north to Pennsylvania. There she became a Quaker. The Quakers were against slavery, engaged in fighting for abolition and women had a bit more power and voice than in the church she grew up in. Sarah felt perhaps she could live or create a life that was worth living nestled inside this religion and belief system.
But within the Quaker system, where women were allowed to speak at the women’s meetings, Sarah’s voice was again discounted and discouraged. When the abolitionist movement asked her and her sister Angelina to speak out publicly on abolition, this was frowned upon by the Quaker sect the sisters had committed themselves to.
The Grimké sisters decided to speak out publicly in spite of this disapproval. But they were again met with sexism, backlash and outrage from the larger public sphere, because it was not proper for women to speak aloud in front of crowds of people at that time. Many churches and town halls where the sisters had been booked for their public speeches about abolition refused to host them because of this scandalous, unladylike behavior.
Feeling the sting of sexism when she was trying to address the atrocity of racism, Sarah began to speak out about the need for equal rights for women as well. She was soon told by the abolitionist movement to tone it down because she was doing that cause a disservice by bringing up the “woman question.” Leave the woman issue out of it, you are upsetting our base (heard that one before), she was told.
But she felt it so keenly, (and had all her life) and now, being told that she could not speak to her beliefs around racism and slavery because she was a woman and that she also must silence her opinions on the inequity of the sexes, only added more salt to the already open and gaping wound.
“It was Sarah who began to be more and more concerned with the “woman question” as a separate issue. While both sisters made it a point to avoid all issues other than slavery and abolition in their lectures, Sarah was gradually developing a theory of woman’s right to equality before the law and a concern with the abuses to which women, as a group, were subjected”(GSSC 121).
Through her experiences and frustrations she became one of the first American women to write about and speak openly on the issue of women’s rights or lack thereof.
“It was Sarah Grimké with her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman who ’preached up woman’s rights most nobly and fearlessly.’ While the sisters undoubtedly developed and discussed their ideas on women with each other, as they did on most other subjects, it is Sarah who should be credited with developing the first comprehensive feminist argument presented by an American woman, ten years before the Seneca Falls convention and six years before the publication of Margaret Fuller’s Women in the Nineteenth Century”(GSSC 134).
One thing that Sarah was able to achieve in her lifetime that was successful and rewarding to her was to be a mentor and guide to her younger sister Angelina (13 years her junior). Angelina’s life was easier and more successful because of her elder sister’s attention and guidance. From a young age, Sarah took it upon herself to be a second mother to this younger sister, to educate her, guide her and model for her.
Angelina followed in her sister’s footsteps and then became one of the greatest orators on the issues of abolition and racism in this country at the time. Together the sisters’ work on abolition took the nation by storm and in this Sarah could see great strides being made for the cause that was so important to her. Angelina experienced more confidence and happiness than Sarah who was constantly wracked with self-doubt and reproach. Sarah, who did not have such mentorship and guidance, was hard on herself and internalized difficult experiences often as weakness in herself.
This illustrates how one woman mentoring another woman is meaningful and effective. It helps that younger woman aspire to and achieve more than the woman who mentored her, simply through the gift of such mentoring. This is a lesson for us to take away from the life and work of Sarah Grimké as well as all the work she accomplished that garners recognition and the respect it deserved only today.
The Grimké sisters’ work in the abolitionist movement led to the emancipation of slaves. However, their warnings that the root of slavery is racism, and that only when racism is addressed and eliminated will there be true freedom for the people brought to this country as slaves and their descendants, is work that still needs carrying forth today. We can easily see that this part of their argument is still unachieved in the current climate of these United States.
“…Sarah took the step into social analysis by showing that wherever power is exercised over a group of people someone benefits and someone is exploited. She had learned this from living within the slave system; now she made the intellectual leap of reasoning from the power/oppression model of slavery to the power/oppression model of woman. This is quite different from the use of the metaphor of “white woman” as sister to the slave woman, which was often used by abolitionists and has recently been the focus of much attention by contemporary analysts.
Sarah Grimké here managed to construct social theory on the basis of comparing two kinds of systems of oppression. She never made the mistake of equating white woman’s position with that of the slave, and she always emphasized the greater suffering, exploitation and oppression of the black woman. But her description of the process by which the depravation of women is reinforced by prejudice and justified by observing the very results of that deprivation applies with equal force to victims of racism”(GSSC 137).
Sarah, a white woman, born into privilege, in 1792 in Charleston, S.C. had a hunger for learning from a young age but was denied the opportunity. When she was twelve, one of her brothers left for Yale.
“She, a mere girl, would have to continue frittering away her energies at stitching and lessons in deportment. The schooling Sarah Grimké received was considered good in her time, but she would regret for the rest of her days that her education had been inadequate and superficial and would resent her unfulfilled talents and thwarted dreams”(GSSC 16).
This would haunt her all her life right up into her 60s when she wanted to go to school and become a lawyer but was still, alas, denied the opportunity because she was a woman.
“Sarah Grimké’s feminist thought had leaped far ahead of her generation, even her century. Seen in the light of twentieth-century feminist theory, her accomplishment is remarkable: she offered the best and most coherent Bible argument for woman’s equality yet written by a woman; she identified and characterized the distinction between sex and gender; she took class and race into consideration; and she tied the subordination of woman both to educational deprivation and sexual oppression. She identified men, individually and as a group, as having benefitted from the subordination of woman. Above all, she understood that women must acquire feminist consciousness by conscious effort and that they must practice asserting their rights in order to think more appropriately” (GSSC xix).
She went on to write about the need for equal educational opportunities for women, the need for equal pay for equal work, the inherent inequality in the institution of marriage, women’s health issues, women’s reproductive rights, sexual freedom, issues of class and race in the women’s movement, suffrage and more. She studied and kept up with the work of other feminists of her time and their works and continued to fight to end racism after emancipation.
“All history attests that man has subjected woman to his will, used her as a means to promote his selfish gratification, to minister to his sensual pleasures, to be instrumental in promoting his comfort; but never has he desired to elevate her to the rank she was created to fill. He has done all he could to debase and enslave her mind; and now he looks triumphantly on the ruin he has wrought, and says, the being he has thus deeply injured is inferior”(GSSC quoting her book Letters on the Equality of the Sexes 136).
Sarah Grimké is a #NastyWomanWriter and Activist
©Theresa C. Dintino 2019
Lerner, Gerda. The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimké, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Lerner, Gerda. The Grimké Sisters of South Carolina, Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1967, 2004.
Schneir, Miriam. Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings, New York: Random House, 1972.