Sarah Moore Grimke attempted to accomplish and how successful she was in her efforts.
The social, economic, political and religious currents that shaped her experiences and how she fitted into the Pre-Colonial to 1877 time period.
What did Sarah Moore Grimke Attempt to Accomplish and the Outcome of her Efforts?
Sarah Moore Grimke (1792-1873) was a truly remarkable woman who wanted to accomplish a number of noble things in her life -- including a proper education for herself, to supervise the intellectual development of her younger sister, to study theology seriously, to improve the lives of the black slaves and to end slavery, and most of all -- to change the lives of her fellow women for the better. She succeeded in only some of these goals during her lifetime but her brave attempt to defy the odds left a legacy that inspired others in the coming generations to work towards her ideals.
Sarah was born in an aristocratic slave holding family of South Carolina. Her father, John Grimke, was a brilliant lawyer and a judge on the South Carolina Supreme Court who owned hundreds of slaves. Sarah, therefore, observed the evils of slavery and black bondage at an early age; she was deeply affected by what she saw and developed a deep sympathy for the poor slaves which she retained throughout her life
. Even as an eight-year-old girl she secretly taught her maid (a black slave girl of a similar age) to read and was severely reprimanded by her father for doing so when he found out.
She was an intelligent young woman and passionately wanted to study law and become a lawyer just as her brother, Thomas, was planning to do. However, there was no such college for women at the time (early 1800s) and when her parents found out about her interest in studying law, they forbade her to pick up a book on Latin, Greek or law ever again. Thus, Sarah's ambition to get a proper education was nipped in the bud and it remained a bitter disappointment for her to the end of her life. (Nies, 11)
Having been thwarted in her personal ambition, Sarah insisted on becoming godmother to her youngest sister Angelina, who was 13 years younger than Sarah. Sarah took over the responsibility fro Angelina's upbringing helping her to develop into a confident, independent and emotionally stable woman and played a crucial role in Sarah's own personal development as an individual. Angelina went on to become a great champion of abolition and the Grimke sisters carried on their campaign with the mutual support of each other. Angelina's development as a person was one of the proudest accomplishments of Sarah's life.
The death of her father in 1818 proved another turning point in Sarah's life. Following his illness with an undiagnosed disease, John Grimke (Sarah's father), asked Sarah
to accompany him to Philadelphia where he wanted to consult a specialist doctor. Sarah nursed her father until he succumbed to his fatal illness. Sarah, though terribly saddened, was in some ways liberated by her father's death -- set free from the burden of her father's patriarchal view of life. By taking her to Philadelphia on his final journey in preference to any of his sons, her father too, perhaps, acknowledged the inner strength of his daughter and fueled her independence. Sarah was introduced to the Quaker religion in Philadelphia where she had boarded with a Quaker family and the seed of her future direction in life was sowed. After a period of depression and introspection during which she converted to the Quaker faith, Sarah got a "calling from God" to move to the north. She devoted herself to the new faith for the next 15 years -- living in Philadelphia, working for charities, studying theology and striving, futilely, to become a Quaker minister
. The most important part of her eventful life, however, still ahead.
Angelina had grown into an independent and confident young woman over the years. She, too, had converted to the Quaker faith and at the age of twenty three decided to move North to Philadelphia with her sister. After sometime in Philadelphia, Angelina got frustrated by the restricted Quaker life, and joined an anti-slavery organization founded by Lucretia Mott. She soon gained prominence as an effective speaker and was invited by the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York to become a speaker for them. This provided an opportunity to Sarah to break free from the Quaker restrictions as she decided to accompany her younger sister as her chaperone. It was the start of the two sisters' career as spokespersons for the abolition cause. It also provided an opportunity for Sarah to introduce a cause to the public which was even closer to her heart -- equality for women. In her doctrine expressed through her writings in the Boston Spectator, particularly her "Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman" (1838), Sarah drew an important parallel between the deprivations of slaves and that of women and attracted even greater opposition and controversy than the idea of freeing the slaves.
Sarah's promising career as a women's rights activist was cut short due to her one shortcoming -- a lack of confidence. This vulnerability of Sarah was exploited to the hilt by Theodore Weld -- Angelina's fiance (and later husband). Weld, who was a highly opinionated person believed that Sarah's linkage of abolition and women's right detracted from the cause of ending slavery. After failing to convince Sarah to stop her advocacy of women's rights -- he hit her where she was most vulnerable. His criticism of her speaking ability shook her confidence so badly that she withdrew from public life for most of the rest of her life and was unable to accomplish what she had most wanted to achieve for herself and her fellow women during her lifetime -- equality.
The Social, Economic, Political and Religious Currents that Shaped Sarah's Experiences
Sarah Grimke was born and lived in a period in which the 'proper' place for all 'respectable' women was their home. The only prescribed roles assigned for them in a patriarchal society were that of a daughter, wife and mother. The roles for an upper-class Southern girl such as Sarah were even more restricted. Their only concerns in life were supposed to be finding a husband and rearing children. Any education outside the prescribed 'womanly' ones -- learning a bit of French, a few painting techniques, music lessons or embroidery -- was out of question. There were no colleges for woman and any 'unwomanly' ambitions by girls were frowned upon.
Such unhealthy ideas about the proper role of the woman's place in the society were endorsed by the clergy and since the society of the time was deeply religious, the religious views on women's role carried a lot of weight. And the conventional religious theory of the time was St. Paul's teaching about women: "Let your women keep silence ... I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence." (Ibid., 3)
As for the 'rights' of women in law, they were almost non-existent. For example, if a woman was married to a violent drunk, the law upheld the man's right to beat his wife. (Ibid. 7) The property of a married woman rightfully belonged to the husband who could sell or gamble it away, if he so wished and if a wife worked the husband could keep all her earnings.
In addition, the society of the period in question (pre-colonial to 1877) was grossly hypocritical. While it purported to have high moral standards and paid lip-service to the 'honor' and 'dignity' of the white women, in practice the owners of the slaves were free to have sex with the slave women under the noses of their wives. They would feel no shame in begetting half-white children by their relations with slave girls and giving them the status of the slaves. The 'respectable' press also had no compunction in attacking the character of women who dared to defy the conventional wisdom of the times as is evident in the vitriolic attacks against Sarah Grimke in the press when she spoke about women's rights.
It was in such a social background that Sarah Grimke was born, grew up and lived her life. Slavery was the dominant political issue, especially in the Southern states of the Union, in the 18th and 19th centuries, where the economy was largely based on slave labor and South Carolina (the state of Sarah's birth) was at the center of the slave politics.
Because of its slave-based economy, the feelings against abolitionists were particularly strong in the South. The extent of these feelings can be judged from the issuance of warrants of arrest for Angelina when she wrote the antislavery tract "An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South."
For girls born in slave-owning, upper-class families such as the Grimke…