Grimké, Sarah Moore
GRIMKÉ, Sarah Moore
Daughter of John F. and Mary Smith Grimké
Sarah Moore Grimké made her impact upon American history and literature as an abolitionist and advocate of women's rights. Her first publication was a pamphlet, An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States (1836). In it, Grimké stresses the inherent conflict between slavery and Christianity, basing her argument against slavery on the premise that God had created all men equal. Referring to state laws and practices, she effectively demonstrates how the law kept ministers from meeting religious obligations to slaves, and she calls on the Southern clergy to act as moral leaders against slavery.
Grimké's second publication came out of an antislavery lecture tour of New England in 1837 and 1838. Because Grimké and her sister Angelina lectured publicly on abolition to both men and women, they were sharply criticized, especially by the Congregationalist Ministerial Association of Massachusetts. Grimké responded with 15 letters, first published serially in 1837 in the New England Spectator and later collected as a book.
In the Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1838), Grimké rejects indignantly the contention that women should not speak publicly on moral issues, asserting that as morally responsible individuals, they cannot do otherwise. She further argues women should themselves become ministers. She went on to develop a full-fledged argument for women's equality. Again, she started with the religious premise. God had created man and woman with equal moral rights and duties; original equality and responsibility remained unaltered by the Fall. Nor did Christ distinguish between male and female virtues. The biblical message is clear: "Whatever is right for man to do, is right for woman."
Grimké contrasted this original equality with the oppression women historically have endured around the world. Throughout history man has imposed his authority over woman. In non-Western countries, he treats woman as a slave or a toy to amuse himself. In America and Europe, male dominance is generally cloaked in terms of protection, but the oppression is no less real. The weight of inequality varies according to women's social status. In America, Grimké argued, working women felt economic consequences most keenly; for middle class women, legal disabilities and intellectual deprivation were the crucial problems.
After the Letters, Grimké largely withdrew from writing. She collaborated with her sister and brother-in-law in compiling American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839); she wrote occasionally for newspapers and did a translation of Alphonse de Lamartine's Joan of Arc (1867).
Of the two publications of 1836-38, the Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States is essentially a minor work. It added little to the antislavery argument, and the often turgid style of writing further limited its appeal. The Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, on the other hand, is a significant pioneering work written with power and originality. In it her style is forthright and lucid, the tone grave and dispassionate. Her arguments are lit with occasional flashes of ironic humor and anger.
In explaining women's historical inequality, Grimké particularly stressed the environmentalist argument. She contrasted the role women in general were allowed to play with the role women in authority showed themselves capable of fulfilling. Especially she denounced the deliberate efforts to "debase and enslave" women's intellect. "All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright." Only then can the validity of male assumptions about women's nature and abilities be tested. Grimké also used the American revolutionary tradition of protest against usurpation of rights. She thus offered a basis for attacking inequality that the women of Seneca Falls would utilize in 1848.
Above all, Grimké recognized the importance of putting the argument for equality in religious terms, which were the terms most crucial for her own generation. She boldly staked out the claim that equality itself was God's will, built into creation. As God's gift, this equality could and must be reclaimed. The Letters on the Equality of the Sexes stands as a major achievement, the first significant defense of women's rights by an American woman.
Barnes, G. H., and D. L. Dumond, eds., Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld, and Sarah Grimké: 1822-1844 (2 vols., 1934). Bartlett, E. A., ed., Sarah Grimké: Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and Other Essays (1988). Birney, C., The Grimké Sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimké: The First Women Advocates of Abolition and Woman's Rights (1885). Ceplair, L., ed., The Public Years of Sarah and Angelina Grimké: Selected Writings, 1835-1839 (1989). Hull, G. T., Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (1987). Lerner, G., The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (1967).
DAB. NAW (1971). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).