Letters on the Equality of the Sexes
LETTERS ON THE EQUALITY OF THE SEXES
The 1830s proved to be among the most explosive decades in American history. Racial tensions had reached unprecedented levels of intensity, abolitionists and their critics alike were discovering new ways of getting their voices heard, and riots erupted with increasing frequency across the country's major cities. The epicenter of this furor was Boston and its environs; there William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) and his supporters orchestrated a national campaign to end slavery—not gradually, not in good time, but immediately. Although small in number and poor in resources, the abolitionists attracted the attention of a broad range of reform interests, including moral crusaders, pacifists, free speech proponents, and early women's rights activists. Such a diverse and combustible mixture of cultural energies could not but struggle to retain its focus, and soon enough the movement found itself battling not only external opposition but internal strife as well. By decade's end, abolitionism itself came to wear an altogether new aspect.
BACKGROUND: THE ABOLITIONIST–WOMEN'S RIGHTS NEXUS
Among the chief catalysts for this transformation was Sarah Moore Grimké (1792–1873). Daughter of a prominent South Carolina jurist and slaveholder, older sister of Angelina Grimké (1805–1879), Sarah had left her native South to join a Quaker sect in Philadelphia while still a young woman. The early years of her self-imposed exile from slavery were spent in deeply spiritual, sometimes mystical, reflections on the state of her soul and the world. By the mid-1830s Sarah came to realize that the salvation of both were intertwined, and she resolved with Angelina to join the antislavery host. Together they would lift up their voices and testify as few could against the benighted system. In the process Sarah and Angelina harnessed the forces unleashed by abolitionism to revolutionize the prospects of women's rights.
Abolition leaders in New York and Boston were quick to recognize the unique possibilities presented by Sarah and her sister. They knew slavery as others did not, knew it firsthand, had grown up under its wing. At the encouragement of Theodore Dwight Weld (1803–1895) and others, the Grimkés underwent training in New York City, where they practiced the antislavery message before small, largely female audiences. By the late spring of 1837 the sisters were judged ready for larger things and were called to a series of lectures in the greater Boston area. Before crowds ranging from several hundred to well over a thousand, the Grimkés traveled from town to town, in all addressing more than forty thousand curious, supportive, and sometimes hostile listeners. Inevitably, perhaps, with such fame must come infamy, and by midsummer of 1837 the forces of opposition were ready to put a stop to the spectacle. And little wonder: what had started out as a protest against slavery appeared now to justify women's claim that they, too, had a public role to play in the affairs of the nation.
The Reverend Nehemiah Adams (1806–1878) was not an unreasonable man by most standards. But he, like many other New England clerics, was becoming ever more exasperated by the abolitionists and their ways. The religious leaders were not in principle antiabolition, and certainly they were not proslavery. But they were above all men of the cloth, whose office it was to minister the Word to the faithful in buildings constructed for that purpose and that purpose only. To have their churches set upon by antislavery agitators, their doors opened and halls filled by crowds stirring up social unrest, to have the flock exposed to the sight of women speaking in public was more than they could tolerate. It fell to Reverend Adams, accordingly, to publish on 28 June 1837 "A Pastoral Letter of the General Association to the Congregational Churches under Their Care." In tightly composed and uncompromising language, the "Pastoral Letter" set forth the case of the clergy and admonished its readers on three main points. First, such controversial subjects as abolitionism were not to be imposed on the faithful as fit matter for debate. Second, the letter warned ministers to avoid talking to or otherwise accommodating those who would so impose upon the good offices of the church. And finally, it attacked in no uncertain terms the involvement of women—especially women speakers—in matters of public controversy. The "Pastoral Letter" was in turn followed by two "Clerical Appeals," which specifically targeted Garrison and the unseemly actions of women who took it upon themselves to operate outside their divinely appointed spheres of influence.
The stage was thus set. The Grimké sisters had heard much of this before publication of the "Pastoral Letter"; indeed such opposition had hounded them throughout their New England tour. By early July Sarah decided to respond. In a series of fifteen letters, written between 11 July and 20 October 1837 and published in the New England Spectator (and reprinted in Garrison's Liberator), Grimké trained her formidable powers of argument against those seeking to silence women's role in abolition specifically and the work of public moral reform generally. The result was a stunning display of rhetorical ingenuity and moral force. "Sarah sought to reevaluate the very root of Christianity's devaluation of woman," writes one historian of the period, and in doing so, "she rewrote woman's role in cosmic history" (Abzug, p. 215).
Sarah Grimké was no match for her sister as an orator; she was not as widely engaged by other social issues and political problems as were some of her fellow women writers, such as Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880); nor was she an organizer along the lines of Mary S. Parker, president of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, to whom the Letters were nominally addressed. But she was without peer as a student of biblical scripture and the meaning it held for women's status as individuals and as citizens. This erudition, combined with a direct, forceful, and often elegant prose style, is evident throughout the series. The missives are topically arranged in the following chronological order:
- I. The Original Equality of Woman
- II. Woman Subject Only to God
- III. The Pastoral Letter of the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts
- IV. Social Intercourse of the Sexes
- V. Condition in Asia and Africa
- VI. Women in Asia and Africa
- VII. Condition in Some Parts of Europe and America
- VIII. On the Condition of Women in the United States
- IX. Heroism of Women—Women in Authority
- X. Intellect of Woman
- XI. Dress of Women
- XII. Legal Disabilities of Women
- XIII. Relation of Husband and Wife
- XIV. Ministry of Women
- XV. Man Equally Guilty with Woman in the Fall
Together, the letters constitute a comprehensive critique of women's subjugation, especially as it was justified by conventional appropriations of Holy Scripture. Broadly rendered, Grimké's arguments may be grouped as they appeal respectively to (1) Holy Writ; (2) geographical history; and (3) law. Notably Grimké criticizes not only patriarchal practices, although that is her focus, but also certain practices among women themselves, particularly with respect to their complicity in long-standing conventions of dress and marriage relations. Underwriting all these observations is an insistent appeal to the meaning and portent of the Bible, from which she draws virtually all her interpretive authority, many of her examples, and her rhetorical inspiration. The following provides a brief exposition of the three argumentative appeals.
At the heart of Grimké's reading of scripture is the conviction that man and woman were created equal. Interpretations to the contrary, she argues, are a result not of biblical evidence but of translations rendered by men for purposes advantageous to men. This stress on the corruption to which the Bible has been subjected and the attendant need to reinterpret its meaning represents a radical and early effort that will bear additional fruit later in the century with Elizabeth Cady Stanton's (1815–1902) Woman's Bible (1895, 1898). Grimké's insight eliminates any rationale for women's inferiority as scripturally given. "God created us equal," she insists, "he created us free agents; he is our Lawgiver, our King, and our Judge, and to him alone is woman bound to be in subjection, and to him alone is she accountable for the use of those talents with which her Heavenly Father has entrusted her" (Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, p. 34). To the extent that women are subjected, it is because of men and men only. Still, Grimké concludes: "I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren, is that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy" (Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, p. 35).
Having established her scriptural premises, Grimké then undertakes a survey of the condition of women from a historical and global point of view. In this she was materially assisted by the previous work of Lydia Maria Child, whose History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations (1835) similarly sought to examine the question from what might now be called a multicultural perspective. Although Grimké finds exceptions to the general rule, she reports a disturbing familiarity in the relationship between the sexes across time and space. Casting her eye over Asia and Africa, for example, Grimké finds that "men, in the exercise of their usurped dominion over woman, have almost invariably done one of two things. They have either made slaves of the creatures whom God designed to be their companions and their coadjucators in every moral and intellectual improvement, or they have dressed them like dolls, and used them as toys to amuse their hours of recreation" (Grimké, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, p. 44). And what of woman's condition in America? Only the same, a fact made more poignant and painful in view of her own country's vaunted ideals of human equality.
Grimké's treatment of women's legal disabilities is particularly interesting for several reasons. Daughter to the famed South Carolina jurist John F. Grimké, Sarah frequently sat with her father in his study and discussed the law; indeed Sarah had been told by him that if she were a son, she would have made a great lawyer herself. Her sharp eye for legal issues did not dim in adulthood, as the Letters make clear; if anything, she developed a particularly well-informed and subtle analysis of women's subjugation before the law. It is worth observing in this regard that her argument in the Letters antedates many similar points made more than a decade later at the Seneca Falls Convention (1848). Although Grimké does not explicitly call for woman suffrage, she attacks directly the legal conditions that in effect prevent women from being genuine citizens. "Woman has no political existence," Grimké declares. "With the single exception of presenting a petition to the legislative body, she is a cipher in the nation" (Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, p. 72). Drawing from William Blackstone (1723–1780) and a number of legal authorities and precedents, Grimké exposes the effect that law has on women generally, married women, property, labor, and religion. The result, she writes, is to debase women to the status of slaves, and until "such laws are annulled, woman can never occupy that exalted station for which she was intended by her Maker" (Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, p. 77).
The combined forces of history, patriarchy, geography, and law thus collaborate in the systematic subjugation of women. Grimké's Letters include a great many additional targets not addressed here. It is important to note, however, that Grimké's efforts are not entirely devoted to negative critique, nor does she at any point give way to despair or cynicism. The rhetorical strategy at work in the Letters is rather designed to first expose the problem and then summon her readers to solve it. The final letter accordingly takes up the "Duties of Women." Here Grimké is not concerned to itemize a list but to examine the conditions under which the imperative to act for the common good may be realized. Among the barriers to action is the attitude expressed by the "Pastoral Letter" enjoining women from public ministry. The call to duty, she argues, overrides any and all such false contrivances. "Now to me it is perfectly clear, that whatsoever it is morally right for a man to do, it is morally right for a woman to do; and that confusion must exist in the moral world, until woman takes her stand on the same platform with man, and feels that she is clothed by her Maker with the same rights, and, of course, that upon her devolve the same duties" (Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, p. 100).
Taken together, the fifteen letters represent a major contribution to the early women's movement. Written at a moment of unprecedented excitement and alarm over the role of women in public moral reform, the Letters may be seen as a testament to Grimké's overall point; that is, they are a perfect example of what women were capable of doing once they acknowledged their agency as free moral beings. To be sure, with action comes risk, and it must be said that the Letters helped to put at risk the prospects of abolitionism and women's reform by fanning the fires of opposition. But it was a risk worth taking, as Grimké and many others realized; and indeed the two sisters continued to speak before large audiences, provoke yet more resistance, and galvanize supporters for decades to come. For this reason, Grimké's Letters must be accorded a prominent and unique place in the story of women's march toward freedom.
Grimké, Sarah. The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimké. Edited by Gerda Lerner. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Abzug, Robert H. Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Lerner, Gerda. The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina:Pioneers for Women's Rights and Abolition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Stephen Howard Browne