The Indomitable Grimké Sisters

Grimké sisters

Before women had the vote, they had petitions, and they used them to great effect. The biographer and historian Louise Knight, who spoke at the Radcliffe Institute in late February, described the sustained efforts of Sarah and Angelina Grimké of South Carolina, who joined a national campaign to use petitions in the fight to end slavery. They were the only southern white women to serve as agents and organizers for the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Knight, who has written two biographies of Jane Addams, is writing American Sisters: Sarah and Angelina Grimké and the First Fight for Human Rights, to be published by Flatiron Books, a new imprint of Macmillan, in 2018.

In her introduction of Knight, the historian Susan Ware AM ’73, PhD ’78, who has served as a senior advisor to the Schlesinger Library since September 2014, observed that many people know the Grimké sisters through the work of Gerda Lerner, a women’s history pioneer whose papers are housed at the Schlesinger.

Lerner wrote her dissertation on the Grimké sisters and followed up by publishing a best-selling biography titled The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (Houghton Mifflin, 1967). Although Lerner’s biography strongly influenced feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, the sisters have not been widely discussed in recent years. That is, until Sue Monk Kidd published The Invention of Wings (Viking, 2014), a best-selling novel based on the early lives of the elder sister, Sarah, and her slave. The popularity of Kidd’s book created a buzz that had publishers vying to sign up Knight’s biography.

Born in Charleston to a wealthy family that owned several plantations, the Grimké sisters had nine brothers and sisters. Their father, who served as chief judge of the state’s supreme court, encouraged his daughters to learn, though within strict bounds. After studying her father’s and brothers’ law books, Sarah longed to become a lawyer. When her father told her that this wouldn’t be possible, she was heartbroken. He is reputed to have said that if she had only been a boy, she would have made the greatest jurist in the country.

Defying her father and South Carolina law, Sarah taught her black maid to read. “I took an almost malicious satisfaction in teaching my little waiting-maid at night, when she was supposed to be occupied in combing and brushing my long locks,” Sarah wrote in her diary, quoted by Lerner.

Sarah was 12 when Angelina was born, and her baby sister became Sarah’s charge. Not surprisingly, the two grew up to be of like mind—rebellious, religious, and determined. Seeking a faith that believed slaveholding was a sin, first Sarah and then Angelina became a Quaker and moved to Philadelphia. By 1829, both were living there.

In 1836 the American Anti-Slavery Society invited the Grimké sisters to New York City for a two-week training conference for antislavery agents. “The national leadership had noticed the remarkable fact that some two-thirds of the signatures on the petitions being submitted to Congress were women’s,” Knight said in her talk. Angelina’s name was familiar to abolitionists because the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison had published a letter she wrote to him, saying abolition was “a cause worth dying for.” After the American Anti-Slavery Society asked Angelina to come to New York, she requested that it invite her older sister as well.

Everyone assumed that the sisters would speak “only in parlors or homes and only to women,” Knight said. But the Grimkés—defying convention—spoke to large audiences that sometimes included men in New York City and New Jersey, believing that their campaign to end slavery served God’s will.

The following year, the Grimké sisters helped organize the first ever national convention of women in the United States. When the interracial Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women met in New York City in the spring of 1837, approximately 200 women from seven northern states attended. The sisters “gave some of the most stirring speeches and proposed some of the most controversially feminist resolutions,” Knight said.

The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society wasted no time in recruiting Sarah and Angelina to do some organizing in Massachusetts. Arriving in Boston in late May, the sisters followed an arduous schedule, speaking at one meeting and soon two meetings nearly every day. “Everywhere they went,” Knight said, “the crowds turned out, some all white, some all black, and some racially integrated.”

From the Boston area they began traveling in a wider arc: to Salem, where they spoke to a gathering of 600; to Lynn, with 800 in the audience; and to Lowell, before 1,500. In Newburyport, Knight said, 1,800 people showed up. Many of the venues were churches, where people crowded the aisles and stairs and windows.

Wherever they went, the sisters collected names on petitions. In Dorchester, for example, 325 women signed after the Grimké sisters spoke. And the number of antislavery societies in the state almost doubled. By the end of 1837, Massachusetts had 47 female antislavery societies, far more than any other state. In 1837–1838, 80 percent of the signatures on Massachusetts petitions to Congress were women’s, and Bay State women led those of other northern states by a wide margin.

In these campaigns, “the women of Massachusetts embraced a new role for themselves in national politics,” Knight said. “Ignoring not only their lack of the vote, but their lack of standing in the public square and the firm barriers of custom that blocked their participation in civic debate, the women of Massachusetts organized themselves to press for political change.”

Digital Website of Antislavery Petitions

Petitions generated by Angelina and Sarah Grimké’s Massachusetts lecture tour of 1837 are newly accessible in a Harvard database, The Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions.

Daniel Carpenter, the Allie S. Freed Professor of Government and the director of the social sciences program in Academic Ventures at Radcliffe, has launched a digital website of almost 4,000 antislavery and antisegregation petitions submitted to the Massachusetts state legislature.

Many of these petitions were thought to be lost but had been lying uncataloged at the Massachusetts State Archives for more than 150 years.

Scholars will now be able to study these petitions to improve our understanding of women’s political activism and the history of the antislavery movement. And genealogists may find that their Massachusetts foremothers signed antislavery petitions.

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