Judith Neis' writes of Sarah Moore Grimke, "It is not accidental that it was a Southern woman, born in the heart of the Southern aristocratic ideal, who first traced the pattern of racial and sexual prejudice in America," (30). Grimke's remarkable life is recounted in Neis' brief biography. Grimke grew up in a wealthy slaveholding family in South Carolina. Her father, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, owned hundreds of slaves and several different properties throughout the state. Sarah's mother likewise came from a gentrified class, forging a power marriage that thrust Sarah into the way of life of an aristocratic southern female. However, from an early age Sarah mistrusted and rebelled against slavery. Her first overt act of disobedience against the established order was when, at eight years old, she started to teacher her black servant how to read and write. "She was disobeying the laws of South Carolina ... It was not easy for an eight-year-old to understand that she had committed crimes against the state," (9). Her father's scolding did nothing to alleviate the tension Sarah felt and the sense that there was "something sinister about the way nonwhite people were treated," (9). When her father grew ill and asked Sarah to accompany him to Philadelphia where he would seek medical treatment, Sarah leapt at the opportunity to extricate herself from Southern society.
Once her father passed away Sarah was faced with a confounding problem: how to survive alone in a man's world. "To undertake a journey in 1821 to a city where there were no relatives was unthinkable," but Sarah would not return to South Carolina and to a culture that supported a social system she did not believe in (15). Grimke turned to religion for solace and found in the Quaker Society a network of caring individuals who were likewise interested in abolition. Although Orthodox Quakers were "opposed to any participation in political causes," Sarah pursued an interest in the abolitionist movement (18). Moreover, Sarah saw in the Quaker faith the potential for full egalitarianism: they were "the only religious sect in the country which permitted women preachers," (14). As a result, the Quakers were "considered quite strange," even "radical," (14). Sarah fit right in and used her faith as a vehicle for the accomplishment of her goals.
Religion was to be a driving force in Sarah Grimke's life. She "rotated between a gay social life and a life of religious devotion, finding herself equally unfulfilled in both," (13). Her brand of spirituality was personal, in line with Quaker views. Moreover, Sarah delved into theology, where she would find considerable support for her views on human equality. "Theology was the intellectual currency of the age," and the Bible was considered to be "the source for knowledge about human nature," (17). Rather than lambaste the Bible for encouraging sexism, Grimke instead turned to it as a source of inspiration, strength, and communication with her Christian American fellows. She infused her work "Letters on the Equality of the Sexes" with theological discourse, depending on the Bible to show that both slavery and sexism diverged from central Christian values. Her approach ran counter to the common approach of using the Bible to reinforce patriarchy and justify slavery. Sarah and her sister Angelina would view their respective causes as essential parts of their "Christian duty," (4).
Although she suffered from a lack of self-confidence, which Neis calls her "greatest weakness," Sarah Grimke wrote consistently about gender equality and began to deliver public talks (28). Public speaking was not a woman's job in the early nineteenth century, and Sarah met with considerable hostility not only for the content of her speeches but also for the gender that delivered them. "Women in the early nineteenth century did not speak in public ... men and women alike believed that a woman who displayed herself on a public platform before an audience of both sexes committed an act of religious heresy and betrayed a total lack of shame," (3). Moreover, Sarah Grimke's writing and speaking style were viewed as unfeminine, inappropriate for a woman in her day. Sarah was "direct, forceful, matter of fact, she delivered her material in much the way a lawyer presented a case before a jury," (5).
The content of the Grimke speeches led to some severe reactions. A Congressional Clergy denounced the Grimke sisters after they gave a speech in Lynn, Massachusetts, forbidding members of their congregations to see or hear them speak. Moreover, both Sarah and Angelina Grimke "were under threat of arrest if they returned to the South," (4). So entrenched was slavery in the social and political system that to speak out against it was a crime.
In spite of all the personal and political obstacles that Sarah Grimke endured, her efforts were highly successful in shaping an emerging social revolution. A seminal feminist and instrumental abolitionist, Sarah Grimke spoke out against injustice everywhere. She accomplished all this without the aide of a man, even a man's last name, for Sarah never married. The success of Sarah's efforts can be witnessed in part by the increased attention being afforded the women's movement even during her lifetime. "Despite the disapproval of husbands and fathers the women of New England continued to walk six and eight miles" to hear Sarah and her sister Angelina speak (6). Furthermore, Sarah Grimke did not pay lip service to equality and did not hold anything back; she proposed a radical equality that most women of her time could not accept. Neis suggests that Sarah's decision not to marry in many ways reflects her total commitment to remaining independent and to proving that women do not need men.
Angelina Grimke, fourteen years Sarah's junior, was less passionately devoted to the feminist movement that her older sister inspired. Angelina wrapped herself fully in the abolitionist cause but like most other abolitionists could not see the connection that Sarah tried to make between the enslavement of blacks and the subjugation of women. "Most abolitionists believed that the abolition of slavery was a legal and economic problem," not a matter of sex and gender," (25). Angelina also married a Quaker abolitionist who developed a sort of resentment against her older sister. Theodore Weld fought for freedom of the slaves but did not believe that feminism had a place in abolition discourse. He criticized Sarah Grimke harshly and sapped what little self-confidence she had.
Sarah's ideas were influential, but her dreams would not be realized during her lifetime, a period during which "it was generally believed, and buttressed by appropriate Biblical quotes, that women had smaller brains and inferior intelligence," (21). Even the Quakers discouraged Sarah's efforts to promote full, total equality of the sexes; her message was more radical than Quaker authority could bear. Still, her writings and speeches did have some "immediate effect" on American society; Grimke "posed the basic questions of human equality for most of the century," (24). Her ideas prompted a revolution that would eventually earn women the right to vote.
Sarah Grimke was successful in her ability to transform public discourse and draw attention to the fundamental ills of patriarchy, ills that extended to any disenfranchised group whether people of color or women. Some prominent abolitionists did embrace her ideas and helped make them more mainstream. For instance, William Lloyd Garrison supported her and helped her publish some of her articles, defending her against her detractors (25). Thus, Sarah Grimke made considerable headway in transforming American consciousness. Through her own actions, Grimke proved that hers was not lip service. After Angelina got married, they invited two illegitimate sons, products of their younger brother Harry's relationship with a slave woman, to live with them. One of them became the first black to graduate from…