Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging--Sarah and Angelina Grimké

The early nineteenth century was the end of the revolutionary era in American history. It was still a time when one could think for themselves about the key questions of American life without too much condemnation from the neighbors. Jefferson, Adams, and Madison were all still alive and while America was hardening into a country that was hardly tolerant on race relations and other social questions, people could still openly question whether we should be a slave nation. Even in South Carolina this was still an open question among certain members of the educated class. Sarah and Angelina Grimké were born into the class in 1792 and 1805 respectively. By the time Angelina reached adulthood, the South and South Carolina especially had come out fully in favor of a proactive slave agenda that meant to expand slavery to every reach of the country. But coming from an elite, slaveholding family, they were allowed to think freely on this issue and both Sarah and Angelina turned against the key institution of their nation and became some of America's most ardent and outspoken abolitionists, despite the fact that their father was an ardent slaveholder and held no sympathy for either black or women's rights. It's hard to see how women growing up 20 years later could have had the opportunity to develop similar views in the social and racial climate of South Carolina.

That they took this stance meant ever greater hardship than what male abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison faced. They were women and therefore connected women's rights with the rights of slaves, arguing that both needed to be free and equal citizens of the nation. This caused great contempt among many, though by no means all, of the leading abolitionists in the nation.

In the 1820s, Sarah fell in with the Quakers in Philadelphia where she ran into Garrison. When Garrison published an antislavery letter of hers, the Quakers kicked them both out of the church. But what was no doubt a striking blow at the time became a key event in both of their lives as they turned their energies ever more toward abolition.

However, while both sisters played major roles in antislavery, women's rights, and the other social movements of the Jacksonian Era, ultimately they fell victim to the patriarchal ways of their time. Angelina married the abolitionist Theodore Weld in 1838 and quickly retired from public life to raise her family while Weld remained in the forefront of the movement. Sarah moved in with the her sister and also faded from view.

This doesn't mean they changed their views and after the Civil War, both sisters tried to vote as a challenge to the 15th Amendment. But the male-dominated public life of the Victorian Era set in and even women as powerful as the Grimkés could not resist this. None of this however should take away from what they did accomplish. Coming out in the 1830s and publishing Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women as Sarah did or their co-edited book American Slavery as it is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses from 1839 demonstrates their bravery and committment to social justice in the antebellum era.

America at its worst produced some of the most powerful advocates for social justice we have ever seen. The Grimkés remain both some of the most important and most forgotten of these brave people.