The Grimké sisters were raised like Scarlett and her sisters in Gone with the Wind, but, unlike the fictional characters, grew up hating slavery. The privileged duo, two of twelve children, had all the southern advantages of private tutors and training in the arts at their palatial Charleston, South Carolina, home and were brought up to be good, high church Episcopalians. But they first showed their abolitionist spunk when Sarah was twelve; she was caught teaching a slave to read and write, a criminal offense. Because Angelica supported her, they were both punished.
As soon as they could, they high-tailed it out of there. Sarah bailed in 1821, moving north to The City of Brotherly Love and converting to Quakerism because of its antislavery beliefs. Angelina followed eight years later and repeated her sister’s religious switch and “lefty” leanings, going so far as to join the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society.
Angelina had a nose for publicity and got her passionate condemnation of slavery published in William Lloyd Garrison’s magazine The Liberator. Spurred by this break, Angelina followed up with a pamphlet entitled “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” which tried to appeal to women’s consciences in opposing slavery: “But, perhaps you will be ready to query, why appeal to women on this subject? We do not make the law which perpetuates slavery. No legislative power is vested in us; we can do nothing to overthrow the system, even if we wished to do so. To this I reply, I know you do not make the laws, but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and the daughters of those who do; and if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow slavery, you are greatly mistaken…1st. You can read on this subject. 2nd. You can pray over this subject. 3rd. You can speak on this subject. 4th. You can act on this subject.”
Her appeal created a storm of controversy. In her hometown of Charleston, the postmaster burned all copies and put out a warning that Angelina better never show her face again in the South. At that point, sister Sarah took up the charge and attacked the slavers with a shot below their biblical belts with a refutation of the lame excuse that slavery was “OK” according to the Bible in her “Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States.”
The fearless siblings took their abolitionist act on the road, speaking to mixed crowds of both men and women. This really raised the dander of so-called “proper” society—ladies were not supposed to appear in public with men who were not their husbands and women were not supposed to lecture or preach—and they returned fire with a printed attack from the Massachusetts clergy that was preached to every available congregation in 1837. The clergy condemned women reformers and preachers, issuing a caution regarding any female who “assumed the place and tone of man as public reformer…her character becomes unnatural.” This was followed by other pious publications assaulting the Grimké sisters for overstepping their place.
As a result of the churches’ attack, the sisters found themselves in the middle of the women’s rights movement and are generally credited with being the first to make a link between the abolitionist cause and women’s rights. The irrepressible duo fired back in grand style with letters in the Spectator and in Sarah’s book, published in 1838, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women where she took the panty-waisted preachers down with her brilliant manifesto declaring women as absolutely and naturally endowed with equal rights, and that the only “unnatural” behaviors being performed in American society were those of men suppressing women!
Later, Angelina became the first woman in America to speak to a legislature with the presentation of her antislavery petition signed by 20,000 women to the Massachusetts state legislative body. The Grimkés were ahead of their time in many other ways as well, embracing new health fads and intellectual movements and running with a pretty arty crowd, including Henry David Thoreau who was intrigued by their up-to-the-minute fashion sense, describing them as “two elderly gray-haired ladies, the former in extreme Bloomer costume, which was what you might call remarkable.” Go Grimkés!
“I ask for no favors for my sex. I surrender no claim to equality. All I ask our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright on the ground which God designed us to occupy.”— Sarah Moore Grimké