“Now, if I understand the real state of the case, woman’s rights are not the gifts of man—no! Nor the gifts of God. His gifts to her may be recalled at his good pleasure—but her rights are an integral part of her moral being; they cannot be withdrawn; they must live with her forever.”
Angelina Grimké was an early American activist and writer. Her two main concerns were women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. She and her elder sister, Sarah Grimké, wrote and spoke passionately on both of these topics, but they are best known for a speaking tour against slavery they undertook in 1837–38. This was a particularly unique occurrence, as it was highly unusual for women to speak publicly at the time, especially to a mixed audience of women and men. Angelina Grimké’s speaking tour culminated with an address to the Massachusetts legislature, the first given by a woman to a legislative body in the United States. During the same time period, she became involved in a public debate through a series of published letters to Catherine Beecher, who disagreed both with her views on slavery and on women’s rights. In these letters, Grimké made clear her belief in the equality of American women, views which she clearly shared with her sister Sarah, who had published her own Letters on the Equality of the Sexes around the same time.
The antebellum period of American history saw the young country trying to come to terms with a number of important social issues, including slavery and women’s rights. With the rapid expansion of the cotton industry in the Southern states, slavery also expanded rapidly. A plantation culture emerged in the South, which contrasted sharply with the culture of the North, where slavery was on the decline. Thus began the separation of ideologies and economies that ultimately fuelled the Civil War between the North and the South. The abolitionist, or antislavery movement, began in the North. Several prominent abolitionists were Quakers, whose faith was known for its emphasis on peace, simplicity, and spiritual equality for all.
Many women were drawn to the antislavery movement, as they increasingly saw parallels between the enslavement of African Americans and the treatment of women (more particularly, white women) in American society at the time. Women’s proper place within the antislavery movement, and therefore within the broader public life of America, soon became a point of discussion. The related concepts of the cult of true womanhood, which advocated a division of society into separate spheres for men and women, and of republican motherhood, which promoted women’s education only in order to further the education of future civic leaders (male) and their mothers, helped constrain women’s roles in society. Societal norms pressured women to stay within the private sphere—the domestic world of the family home—and to eschew the public sphere of politics and business, which was traditionally left to men. Within the antislavery movement, however, women were increasingly involved as organizers and speakers, which exposed them more and more to the public sphere. The revolutionary ideals of freedom and liberty were soon seen by many as only available to a certain class of American society: those who were white and male.
The years 1837 and 1838 were highlights in the lives and public careers of Angelina Grimké and her sister Sarah Grimké. By speaking to mixed audiences of men and women, the two sisters helped spark a debate on women’s roles, rights, and equality in America. When Catharine Beecher took issue with Angelina Grimké on women’s proper place in society, Grimké saw this as an opportunity to engage Beecher in a public debate on women’s rights as well as abolitionism, another issue on which the two women disagreed. Catharine Beecher was the elder sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a seminal antislavery novel. Grimké published her letters in the abolitionist newspapers The Liberator and The Emancipator, and they were then were reprinted in book form.
Angelina Grimké Weld was born on February 20, 1805, to John Grimké and Mary Smith Grimké. She was the sixth of fourteen children born into a traditional, upper-class Southern family that lived in Charleston, South Carolina, and were members of the Episcopal Church. While her father was a slave owner his entire life, Grimké and her elder sister Sarah both became enthusiastic antislavery advocates. Growing up in a slave-owning household, the two girls were exposed to its many inequities and cruelties first hand, which influenced their future abolitionist views. The two sisters, although separated in age by more than twelve years, were extremely close, and Sarah even successfully petitioned her parents to be Grimké’s godmother. Sarah took on a maternal role for her younger sister, to the point which Grimké often called her “mother.” It was Sarah who, in 1827, introduced Grimké to the Quaker religion, which included many leading abolitionists among its members. Grimké had left the Episcopal Church to convert to Presbyterianism, but became a Quaker like her sister and, in 1829, moved to Philadelphia to live with her.
Grimké’s views on abolition began to solidify during this time. In response to William Lloyd Garrison’s formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) in 1833, she wrote Garrison an impassioned letter, which he then published in his abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, without her permission. This catapulted Grimké and, by extension, her sister Sarah, into the public spotlight. As the Philadelphia Quakers disapproved of the Grimkés’ new public roles, the two sisters moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where the Quakers were more liberal about the public activities of women. In 1836, Grimké wrote an abolitionist pamphlet, An Appeal to the Christian Women of the Southern States; the following year, she and Sarah undertook a highly successful speaking tour of the northeast states as the first female agents of AASS. During the tour, Grimké discovered she was a powerful and persuasive orator—both impassioned and persuasive. She spoke to mixed gender audiences, which was frowned upon at the time. In 1837, she became the first woman to speak before a legislative body in the United States when she spoke to the Massachusetts legislature.
Grimké married a fellow abolitionist leader and author, Theodore Weld, in 1838. After one of her speeches ended in violence later that year, her career as a lecturer virtually ended. Over the next decades, Grimké and Weld, along with her sister, earned a modest living as teachers. They all strongly supported the Union during the Civil War, although Grimké had hoped violence could be avoided in ending slavery. She died on October 26, 1879, after having been paralyzed for some years due to strokes.
The letter under study here is one of a number of letters that Angelina Grimké wrote in response to Catharine Beecher’s Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females, which was published in 1837 and was directly addressed to Grimké. Grimké had once considered studying at Catharine Beecher’s academy for women in Hartford, Connecticut, but eventually decided against it. Still, she held Beecher in high esteem as a woman who had advanced women’s educational opportunities. When Beecher published her essay, Grimké, encouraged by her future husband Theodore Weld, decided to respond in a series of letters published in abolitionist newspapers. Her letters were each focused on one topic of rebuttal to Beecher’s essay. Her overall rhetorical style was to quote Beecher’s arguments, and then refute them point by point. In this letter, she targets Beecher’s argument that the limiting of women’s proper roles to the private sphere is divinely ordained. Grimké’s counterargument also leads her to the topic of women petitioning government officials. Women’s suffrage was still almost a century away, and so petitioning elected officials was one of the few ways women could make their political opinions publicly known at this time.
The difference in Grimké and Beecher’s views on women’s rights stemmed from their differences on how to solve the problem of slavery. Even among abolitionists there were divisions during the 1830s between the more conservative and respectable American Colonization Society (ACS) and the more radically egalitarian American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). The ACS believed that black people and white people could never live together in a multiracial country, and therefore the best way to end slavery would be for black people to gradually gain freedom and then emigrate to Africa. The AASS believed that slavery should be immediately ended and all freed slaves should be at liberty to make their own choices as to where to live and how to make a living. Beecher leaned more towards the ACS stance, while Grimké was strongly in the AASS camp, which meant yet another source of contention between the two women.
Grimké herself is clear on her rhetorical format for this letter and states it in the salutation. She will first quote from Beecher’s essay, then offer her “objections” to each point, and finally present her own ideas about the topic. This was an extremely effective way to refute Beecher’s arguments point by point, and Grimké’s letters were seen by her contemporaries as a thorough rhetorical victory for her.
Grimké begins by questioning Beecher’s assertion that there is one sex that is superior and one that is inferior, and that this system was established by “Heaven” or God. Grimké’s religious beliefs as a Quaker, particularly the belief in the spiritual equality of all persons, prompt her to take immediate issue with this statement. She dismisses it curtly as “an assertion without proof.” She then confronts Beecher’s further explanation that there is a difference in how men and women gain influence and exercise power. Women, in Beecher’s opinion, do this peacefully. Grimké is offended by Beecher’s idea that God preached the concept of peace only to women, while leaving men to use fear, shame, and physical force to influence others. She makes her point more forcefully by framing it in the form of a question, asking if Jesus had given two distinct “rule[s] of action” to men and to women. She ends this paragraph by turning Beecher’s point against her by saying that if she believed this to be the case, then it must be women, and not men, who should be considered the superior sex, by virtue of the fact that “moral power” outweighs mere “physical force.”
Grimké then moves on to Beecher’s point that women should “win everything by peace and love,” and that this should be women’s preferred method of winning influence over others. Grimké considers this influence to be hollow if it only reinforces the personality and views of the individual woman, and that it therefore borders on vanity. Rather, Grimké feels that women should aim to find and share the truth, which she defines as being “nearer . . . to Jesus Christ,” and not just their own views and opinions. This is especially true if a woman is able to influence and govern thousands. Without a “higher motive” or “higher leader” than herself, she will not lead her followers to the truth.
The next paragraph addresses the issue of separate spheres for women and men, and women’s relegation to the domestic sphere. Grimké’s next letter to Beecher develops her argument on this point more fully, but in this letter she refutes completely the fact that women have no public role. She supports her argument by citing the Bible, stating that four women of the Bible (Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Anna) had public roles. She also makes the point that women were present at Christ’s crucifixion at Mount Cavalry in a “most exposed situation,” but that Christ himself never told them it was wrong to leave their domestic sphere to do this. By referring back to the Bible itself, Grimké is able to supersede Beecher’s argument, which is informed only through the lens of the current American societal norms.
Seeing that her line of argument holds weight, Grimké stays with it. She cites that Philip had four daughters “which did prophesy” and then even cites even more concrete passages from the Bible to support her argument. She explains that women were told “how . . . to pray and prophesy in the assemblies of the people,” which clearly meant they did so in the public sphere. She also points to the fact that another woman mentioned in the Bible, Phoebe, was called a Diakonos, which can translate into “minister,” and which again is a highly public role.
Beecher’s point that women can be easily corrupted if allowed to become ambitious and powerful is easily and quickly refuted by Grimké, who reframes the point by posing a question. She asks if women are at risk of such corruption, are not men at the same risk?
Grimké saves some of her most contemptuous rebuttals for Beecher’s discussion on chivalry and women’s dependence on it as defenseless creatures. She does not hold back here, saying that Beecher’s argument is quite simply “beneath the dignity of any woman who names the name of Christ.” In essence, Grimké is insulted that Beecher views women as “defenceless” and in need of men’s protection. Grimké’s view of women is that they are “moral, intellectual, and accountable being[s],” and as such would be “insulted by such paltry sickening adulation.” This is strong language, and no doubt made a serious impression on her readers. Grimké moves to her favorite rhetorical method of asking if being defenseless does not apply equally to men and to women: “Was he created any less defenceless than she was?” She then again uses a rhetorical question to wonder if both men and women are not equally dependent on God.
When Beecher turns explicitly to the question of women’s rights, and how women are to receive these rights, Grimké again disputes her logic. To Beecher, women have no rights and can make no claims, except those that are gifted to her in the form of “honor, rectitude and love.” For Grimké, this passage makes little sense. It is a given fact to Grimké that women have rights, and they are an inherent part of her moral being. To Grimké, rights are not given out differently to men and to women. Instead, they are universal—in essence, she is talking here about the concept of universal human rights. In fact, Grimké seems not to even understand Beecher’s point, when she asks plainly: “What dost thou mean by saying, her rights are the gifts of honor, rectitude, and love?” Grimké believes rights cannot be given by man or God, and that they cannot be taken away, as can a gift. Rather, “they must live with her forever,” because they are an inherent part of each person.
Next, Grimké quickly dispenses with Beecher’s discussion of “appropriate offices” for, or moral duties of, women. Beecher states that women can seek help and support from other women when working in organizations dedicated to charity and piety. Grimké believes there are no appropriate offices designated as being solely for women. She asks Beecher for details of such offices and who decides what those offices should be. Again, to Grimké, there is no difference between men and women when it comes to their positions as “moral beings.”
Beecher also expressed serious misgivings about women petitioning elected officials. She does not believe women should become involved in sending such requests for political change, especially if men consider the requests to be “obtrusive, indecorous and unwise.” Grimké does not believe that men should be the judges of the content of such petitions; rather, she believes that God should be. Grimké’s clever use of appealing directly to God and bypassing men is designed once again to counter Beecher’s argument. Grimké then gives an example of a Southern senator expressing his concern that these petitions should be stopped before they gain momentum, as they are highly effective and could lead to the end of slavery in time. Grimké wholeheartedly agrees with the senator on the petitions’ effectiveness, as much as Beecher may not.
Beecher’s next point is that if women are allowed to petition, it could lead to their corruption due to partisanship and power. Grimké again falls back on her tried and true method of applying the argument that such partisanship should be avoided equally by men; “in all circumstances, and in both sexes.” Grimké is adamant that women should be allowed to petition their government about their own grievances, whatever they may be. In this, she clearly states that it is the only “political right” that women have, as they cannot vote, let alone run for election themselves. Grimké then reaches back to one of the key reasons for the American Revolution: taxation without representation. She makes the comparison that unmarried women with property face the same reality, and that therefore, the injustice is the same. What is worse is that women also do not have a say in crafting the laws that they are forced to live under. At the very least then, they should be allowed to complain about these laws. Grimké then directly confronts Beecher’s trust in and loyalty to other American women. She asks Beecher why she should not trust her sisters with the right to petition. She then follows that up with her own statement of strong belief that other women will use “common sense” and that they “will always use it wisely.” Her final sentence issues a challenge to Beecher to trust women with the right to petition: “I am not afraid to trust my sisters—not I.”
Grimké concludes by disagreeing with Beecher on her point that women should not be allowed to petition legislators that they have not themselves elected, and that such behavior falls outside of their domestic sphere. Grimké counters that is a “poor reason” for disallowing women to petition, and that it is particularly unfair as their numbers are counted towards the numbers of representatives allowed to be elected in state and federal electoral divisions. Again, it is with her final sentence that Grimké brings home her point with emotion: “If not, they [women] are mere slaves, known only through their masters.” Since both women were abolitionists, this assertion is particularly cutting.
Angelina Grimké’s response to Catharine Beecher, especially on the topic of women’s rights, set the tone for American feminism that would eventually flourish later in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Grimké’s perspective that women were equals in the eyes of God as moral beings and therefore should also be equal in the world he created, may have stemmed from her Quaker beliefs, but it was reinforced by her own experiences in life. By speaking publicly on a contentious social issue such as slavery, Grimké put herself squarely in the middle of the debate about the proper roles and rights of women in society.
In defending and advocating for equal rights for women, Grimké was following in the pioneering footsteps of women such as Frances Wright and Britain’s Mary Wollstonecraft. She was also influencing, and influenced by, her own sister, Sarah, who was writing on the subject at the same time. By publicly declaring her position that there should be no separate spheres for the sexes, she came out in direct opposition to another woman. To demand for women the right to petition their elected representatives, and to then to compare it to the revolutionary ideals of taxation without representation and then slavery itself, she was clearly writing to provoke thought and heighten emotion.
Many in the abolitionist movement were worried about the encroachment of women’s rights into their own movement. Many others outside of the movement were offended that the sisters spoke in public, and that they spoke and wrote about women’s rights. The two were controversial figures, but Angelina and Sarah Grimké were only publicly active for a short period of time in the late 1830s. After that, they virtually retired from public life. But their ideas and influence continued, and were taken up by a new generation of American feminists decades later. The ideas they espoused were further explained and articulated by Margaret Fuller in Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1845 and by activists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights in 1848. To many, the Grimké sisters appeared ahead of their time. It was fitting that they lived long enough to see the end of slavery, and also to witness a new generation of women’s right activists who were determined to ensure that women not only had the right to petition their legislators, but had the right to both elect and become legislators as well.
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