Angelina Grimké Weld (1805-1879) and Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873)
Contributing Editor: Jean Fagan Yellin
Angelina Grimké's Appeal to the Christian Women of the South is filled with biblical quotations and allusions; it is written as an evangelical appeal, as the appeal of a Christian woman to other Christian women to act to end chattel slavery. Not only is the language that of evangelical abolitionism, but the logic is as tightly constructed as a Christian sermon. In short, it is difficult to read. In like manner, the language in Sarah M. Grimké's Letters on the Equality is Latinate, stiff, and formal. Her language, too, makes slow going for the modern reader.
Try teaching Angelina Grimké's Appeal to the Christian Women of the South as a religious argument. The informing notion here is that slavery is sin, and that immediate abolition of slavery means immediate abolition of sin, perhaps immediate salvation. Grimké's tactic is to legitimize--using biblical references--the unprecedented involvement of American women in the public controversy over chattel slavery. She is arguing that slavery is sin and must be ended immediately; and she is arguing that women not only can end it, but that they are duty-bound as Christians to do so.
Read Angelina Grimké's Letters to Catharine Beecher as a completely different version of the same argument. Where Appeal was couched in religious rhetoric and theological argument, Letters is written from a political perspective. It is useful to compare/contrast these, to see Grimké moving, both intellectually and formally, toward a secular stance and toward a straightforward assertion of women's political rights.
Consider the following approach with Sarah Grimké's Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman, Addressed to Mary S. Parker, President of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society: Help students discover that the title suggests the letter's central ideas: first concerning the equality of the sexes, which, Grimké argues, was created by God, and second concerning the condition of woman, which, she argues, is oppressive and which was imposed not by God but by man. The full title concludes with the phrase Addressed to Mary S. Parker, President of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. This points toward Grimké's suggestion that the way to rectify the current sinful situation is by women uniting, organizing, and acting, as in the Boston FASS under the leadership of Parker. The title spells out the argument of the Letters; it is basically a theological argument for women's rights.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
In a letter she had impulsively written to the abolitionist Garrison, Angelina Grimké had aligned herself with the abolitionists. Garrison published the letter without her consent, and she was condemned by her meeting (she had become a Quaker [Orthodox]) and even by her sister, her main emotional support. She stuck by her guns. However, although she refused to recant, she was for a time unable to decide what action she should next take. Writing the Appeal to the Christian Women of the South was the first public abolitionist document that Angelina Grimké wrote as a public document, to be printed with her name on it. Here she commits herself, as a southern woman of the slave-holding class, to abolitionism--and to an investigation of women's activism in the anti-slavery cause.
A. E. Grimké wrote the Letters to Catharine Beecher for the weekly press during the summer of 1837, while she was traveling and lecturing as an "agent" of the American Anti-Slavery Society. She wrote them to answer Catharine Beecher's attack on her lecturing that had been published as An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females, Addressed to A. E. Grimké. Beecher, a leading educator, developed the notion of the moral superiority of females and, asserting the importance of the home, argued that women should oppose slavery within the domestic circle but should not enter the public political sphere--as Angelina Grimké was doing. In her Letters, Angelina Grimké defends her almost unprecedented behavior by arguing for women's political rights. The Letters should also be read in relation to the abolitionists' petitions--to local, state, and national legislative bodies--to end slavery and to outlaw various racist practices. These petitions were circulated by men and, as Grimké urges here, by women as well. Historians have traced the later petition campaigns of the feminists to these anti-slavery petition campaigns.
In Letters, Sarah Grimké raises a whole range of feminist issues-- the value of housework, wage differentials between men and women, women's education, fashion, and the demand that women be allowed to preach. (She was bitter that she had not been permitted to do so.) Furthermore, she discusses the special oppression of black women and of women held in slavery.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Angelina Grimké's Letters should be read and contrasted with her Appeal, then with other writings by nineteenth-century feminists, both black and white.
Similarly, Sarah Grimké's Letters should be read and contrasted with pre-1848 feminists like Margaret Fuller, then with Stanton, et. al. This text marks a beginning. American feminist discourse emerges from this root.
Angelina Grimké's Appeal: Audience is stated as the Christian women of the South; by this Grimké means the free white women--many of them slave-holders, as she herself had been--who profess Christianity. It is worthwhile examining the ways in which she defines these women, and exploring the similarities and differences between her approach to them and the patriarchal definition of true womanhood generally endorsed at the time. The patriarchy was projecting "true womanhood" as piety, purity, domesticity, and obedience. Angelina Grimké urges her readers to break the law if the law is immoral--to be obedient not to fathers, husbands, and human laws, but to a Higher Law that condemns slavery. And she urges them to act not only within the "domestic sphere" allocated to women, but also within the "public sphere" that was exclusively male territory.
Angelina Grimké's Letters: Written directly to Catharine Beecher, these were published weekly in the abolitionist press, then compiled into a pamphlet that became an abolitionist staple and stands as an early expression of the notions that would inform the feminist movement in 1848.
Sarah Grimké's Letters on the Equality, like Angelina's Letters to Catharine Beecher, were published in the weekly press, then collected and published as a pamphlet.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Compare Angelina Grimké's Appeal with Child's Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans. Compare both with African-American anti-slavery writings by Walker, Garnet, Truth, Harper, Jacobs, Douglass, and Brown. As suggested above, Angelina Grimké's Appeal and her Letters to Catharine Beecher present an interesting comparison. Both might be read in connection with the writings on women by Fuller, Child, Stanton, and Fern, as well as in connection with the responses to chattel slavery by white women like the southerner Chesnut and northerners like Child and Stowe, as well as by African-American women like Truth, Jacobs, and Harper.
Sarah Grimké's Letters should be read in relation to the writings of other nineteenth-century feminists like Stanton and in relation to anti-feminist polemics, as well as in relation to depictions of women in nineteenth-century literature by writers such as Hawthorne, Stowe, Cary, and Stoddard.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
Direct students' attention to the epigraph to Angelina Grimké's Appeal. Why Queen Esther? In what ways do Grimké's Letters differ from her Appeal? How is the argument different? How is the style different? What are the consequences of these differences? In what ways do Sarah Grimké's Letters differ from her sister's writings? Why did the later feminists designate Sarah Grimké's Letters on the Equality an important precursor?
See the primary and secondary works listed in headnote.