Grimké, Sarah Moore (1792–1873)

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Grimké, Sarah Moore (1792–1873)

Southern-born American feminist and schoolteacher who lectured, wrote, and campaigned on the issues of women's rights and abolition. Name variations: Sally Grimke. Pronunciation: GRIM-kay. Born Sarah Moore Grimké on November 26, 1792, in Charleston, South Carolina; died in Hyde Park (now in Boston), Massachusetts, on December 23, 1873; daughter of the Honorable John Faucheraud Grimké (1752–1819, judge of Supreme Court of South Carolina) and Mary (Smith) Grimké; sister of Angelina E. Grimké (1805–1879); received education at home, attending brother Thomas Grimké's tutored lessons; never married; no children.

Made godmother to youngest sister (1805); accompanied father to Philadelphia and New Jersey, nursing him through a fatal illness (1819); moved to Philadelphia (1821); accepted into Philadelphia Society of Friends (1823); underwent training as abolitionist agent in New York City (1836); attended Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women (1837); engaged in antislavery speaking tour throughout New England (1837–38); moved to New Jersey and retired to private life (1839); concluded teaching career (1867).

Selected publications:

Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States (1836); Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (1838); Address to Free Colored Americans (1837). Translation: Alphonse M.L. de Prat de Lamartine's Joan of Arc: A Biography (1867). (With Angelina Emily Grimké) "A Sketch of Thomas Grimké's Life written by his Sisters in Philadelphia and sent to his Friends in Charleston for their Approbation," in The Calumet, magazine of the American Peace Society (1835).

The ideology of republican motherhood that had taken root in America during the Revolutionary War transformed the boundaries of the domestic world as experienced by respectable middle-class and elite women. The 19th-century American woman, portrayed in her role of mother and housewife, existed largely in a child-centered, private sphere. This prescription underscored the position of ascribed moral superiority occupied by respectable women within a society which considered them inferior in every other respect. A woman's usefulness and duty precluded both a political existence and the articulation of her legal rights, and the situation was exacerbated in the American South by an ideology which positioned respectable white women on a pedestal of inactivity.

In the closing decades of the 18th century, the Grimkés were respected elites within the Southern plantation society, in Charleston, South Carolina. Sarah Moore Grimké, born November 26, 1792, was the sixth child, and second daughter, of Judge John Faucheraud Grimké and Mary Smith Grimké . Sarah's father epitomized the masculine South Carolina elite in that he had fought in the Revolutionary War against British tyranny and then established himself as a planter, slaveholder, lawyer, politician and, eventually, an assistant judge of the South Carolina Supreme Court. Sarah's mother came from an Anglo-Irish Puritan background and was counted as a direct descendant of the colonial founder in South Carolina. In a society which valued wealth, family, and status, all these factors had daily significance.

After her christening at age four, Sarah grew up securely within the Charleston planter aristocracy, surrounded by a large number of household servants. The family's place of residence was largely dependent upon crops and seasons: from November until mid-May of each year (except carnival week, in February, spent in Charleston), they lived out at their plantation house; otherwise they were in town. As a matron of elevated social status, Sarah's mother spent little time with her children, leaving them under the supervision of house slaves; Sarah was like other children of her class in discovering quickly that even young daughters of the master could order these slaves around and expect to be obeyed. She also learned to fill the vacuum left by her mother's absence by attaching herself to her older brother Thomas, six years her senior. Their closeness evolved into inseparability, and, until the age of 12, Sarah spent as much time as she could manage in the boy's company.

Never regarded as pretty, even by her own family, Sarah was a healthy child, possessed of a quick intelligence, an outgoing spirit, and a generous disposition. In a society that placed considerable emphasis on the face and accomplishments of its young women, she received the stereotypical "polite education." Most of the lessons considered appropriate (reading, writing, arithmetic geared to household management, needlework styles, a bit of French meant to be sprinkled throughout her conversation, and the drawing, singing, piano, and manners suitable to her social status) were neither stimulating to her, nor mentally taxing. Years later, she would address the superficiality and anti-intellectuality of this approach in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman.

Sarah did have the good fortune to be allowed to share most of Thomas' lessons with his tutor. She thus gained exposure to some mathematics, history, geography, botany, natural science, and Greek, although her father refused to allow her to study Latin, which he considered unsuitable for an elite woman in Southern society. Judge Grimké did require that all his children be exposed to useful skills, however, and, as a result, Sarah learned how to spin and weave the coarse cloth used for slave clothing, to shuck corn, and even to pick cotton from the bushes in the field. At these tasks, she demonstrated an eagerness to be useful, as well as to be loved for her usefulness, while learning the role of the plantation woman.

The most perfect social system can only be attained where the laws which govern the sexes are based on justice and equality.

—Sarah Grimké

Because of her ability and "unusual interest," Sarah was included in the debates and discussions that Judge Grimké encouraged among his sons. According to biographer Gerda Lerner , the judge is alleged to have commented that "if Sarah had only been a boy, she would have made the greatest jurist in this country." In her late teens, when Sarah revealed her dream of becoming a lawyer, such an ambition was held too improper and too unfeminine for a 19th-century woman to be encouraged.

In later life, Sarah often recalled times she had cried as a child because of punishments inflicted on slaves at her family's plantation. She was also disturbed that the slaves were kept illiterate, and thus unable to read a Bible. By the time she was 13, she had reached a state of despondency that she later attributed to a resigned acceptance of her inability to help the slaves, combined with the limitations she encountered as a woman. In an attempt to "cure" her unhappiness at this time, she was made godmother to her youngest sister, Angelina E. Grimké , born in February 1805. Sarah called the baby Nina, and focused her love and energy on raising the child 13 years her junior, who in return called her "mother"; meanwhile, the older girl struggled to accept the situations she perceived she could not change.

Following the usual course of young women of her class, Sarah made her debut into Charleston society at age 16 and joined in the whirl of fashionable events surrounding the typical "Southern belle." She refused an early offer of marriage, and rather than shock her family and friends, she kept the majority of her dissenting opinions to herself. By 1816, she was regarded in Charleston as "an over-aged social butterfly," who held eccentric opinions and was likely to die an "old maid." Sarah herself was less disturbed by this possibility than were her family and the local society.

In the spring of 1819, Sarah left the Charleston area for the first time in her life, to travel with her father by boat to Philadelphia to consult a surgeon. When the judge was led to believe that his illness could be cured with rest and a change of climate, Sarah accompanied him to a New Jersey resort, where she became nurse to her dying father. In August 1819, she was the only family member present at his death and saw to his burial in the cemetery of a Methodist church.

The period of barely four months away from Charleston had served to liberate Sarah. Before going home, she returned to Philadelphia and stayed with a Quaker family for two months, leading to a correspondence, after she reached home, with Israel Morris, a Philadelphia merchant. Her own health appears to have deteriorated while caring for her father, and she spent a period of recuperation at the home of a maternal uncle in North Carolina, identifying her symptoms in predominantly religious terms.

A few years earlier, Sarah had left the Episcopal Church to become a Presbyterian, but this had not eased her spiritual malaise. She began to explore other denominations, particularly Catholicism and the Society of Friends, whose members are known as Quakers. Upon her second return to South Carolina, she attended Quaker meetings in an effort to redress her loneliness and sense of alienation. When she announced that she felt a "religious call" to go to the Northern states, the action was considered shocking for a woman of her status; nevertheless, she sailed for Philadelphia on May 15, 1821, with the intention of becoming a Quaker, and within two years she had been accepted into the Society of Friends.

In the years following her conversion, her sense of loneliness was not greatly eased. Sarah was not eager to undertake any type of mission activity, although the Quakers put considerable emphasis on doing useful work. At Quaker meetings, she initially felt pulled toward inspirational speaking, especially after hearing Lucretia Mott , but she was naturally shy around people she did not know well; also she tended to receive criticisms made in open discussion as personal condemnation. Twice, in September 1826, she refused offers of marriage from her former correspondent, Israel Morris, who was now widowed, possibly because of self-renunciation, or perhaps the potential domestic tyranny that marriage implied. In the depths of loneliness, she made a visit to her family in the winter of 1827 and found her views about the Society of Friends well received by her youngest sister, Angelina, who was also spiritually dissatisfied. Back in Philadelphia, Sarah Grimké encouraged her sister to visit for the summer and become acquainted with other Quakers; by 1831, Angelina had moved to Philadelphia and begun the evaluation process required for acceptance into the Society of Friends.

Despite the reunion with her beloved Nina, Grimké continued to be unhappy through the early 1830s. She was a regular reader of The Friend, a Quaker weekly publication, and took particular interest in its ongoing discussion of the position of women within society. In 1828–1829, the Englishwoman Frances Wright had made a speaking tour in the United States, during which she asserted the equality of women and men, but her position had been deemed radical and inappropriate to be voiced by a woman. Grimké did not read Wright's published writings; Quakers at this time did not always en-courage free intellectual inquiry and debate. She did meet the educator Catharine Beecher , who ran a female seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, and Beecher's arguments for improved standards of education for women, primarily because of their role as mothers, helped to rekindle her interest in women's socio-legal position.

In the years 1832–1834, cholera swept through the eastern United States. In November 1834, when Grimké received the news that her beloved brother Thomas had died of the disease, the loss marked the severance of her last real link with her family in South Carolina. In her grief, Grimké stopped making daily entries in her diary and burned all her letters; in her mourning, she and Angelina wrote a sketch of Thomas' life and accomplishments which appeared in The Calumet magazine in 1835.

At age 43, Sarah found herself emotionally stagnant—disillusioned, intellectually stifled, and desperate to be useful, but unsure of her true purpose. Then, much to her concern, her sister Angelina began to speak out against the practice of slavery, a topic that was rarely discussed in Philadelphia's Quaker community. Although she viewed Angelina's growing interest in abolitionism as "taking a temptation of the devil," she did go with her to a lecture given by the English abolitionist George Thompson in March 1835, and when she became an enthusiastic supporter of the Free Produce Movement, which boycotted all goods produced through the labor of any (not just American) slaves, the action set the tone, in effect, of her abolitionism: Angelina became the example that her sister followed.

By October 1836, Grimké was willing to go with her sister to New York City, to take a "training course" as antislavery agents. Though normally quiet in groups, Grimké felt compelled to relate her firsthand experience of slavery in the South, and after the training, the sisters began to speak together at antislavery meetings. Grimké preferred to address the moral and theological implications of the issue. In 1836, she wrote a pamphlet, Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States, that was grounded in Biblical and legal arguments, urging the clergy of the South to assume a position of moral leadership in the crusade against the institution. Her fascination with law and its workings since adolescence was evident in her reliance on Southern slave codes and debates from the Virginia House of Delegates in her arguments. Grimké also began teaching a free black Sunday School class and joined the Temperance Society in New York City.

During a return visit to Philadelphia, Sarah and Angelina were disowned by the local Quaker assembly on a technicality. Shortly afterward, in May 1837, Grimké attended the Antislavery Convention of American Women in New York City. Among the 71 women who came as delegates from eight states, she saw her longtime friend Lucretia Mott, and met Ann Warren Weston , Maria Chapman , and Lydia Maria Child . The objectives of these conventioneers included a campaign for one million signatures to an antislavery petition, and development of a fight against "race prejudice" in both the South and the North. Following this time, both Grimké and her sister began to compare the condition of white women with enslaved blacks, but this "new and bold reasoning" did not dominate Sarah's Address to Free Colored Americans, published by the convention. Two weeks later, the Grimké sisters went to Boston to prepare for a speaking tour throughout New England, supported by the belief of organizers for the antislavery movement that their combined effort would be "a unifying force" for abolitionism.

The New England speaking tour quickly changed from a novelty to very hard work. Neither meals nor rest were available with any semblance of regularity, and the sisters met with increasing hostility from their audiences, some of whom opposed them as abolitionists while others were critical of them as women speaking publicly, and in such a decidedly political fashion. While on tour, Grimké still worried over, and mothered her "baby sister," while lecturing, researching, and writing for the antislavery cause. While self-pity and a tendency toward martyrdom caused Grimké to disparage her own contributions to the campaign, she found a new concern gaining primacy within the realm of her interest in reform. Throughout New England, she was repeatedly struck by the plight of women and children who labored in Northern mills and factories under conditions as oppressive as Southern slavery. The journey became the beginning of a period of remarkable, though erratic, intellectual growth, as Grimké came to see the "woman question" as an issue separate from abolition. According to biographer Gerda Lerner, throughout 1837–1838 Grimké was "gradually developing a theory of woman's right to equality before the law and a concern with the abuses to which women, as a group, were subjected," which would draw such issues as the legal disabilities faced by American women into her focus.

While still on the New England speaking tour, Grimké wrote 12 "letters" which appeared in the New England Spectator in 1837. They were reprinted in The Liberator, the abolitionist paper of William Lloyd Garrison, and published collectively the following year as Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman, making their author one of the first Americans to be published in support of women's rights. In these epistles, Grimké refuted Biblical arguments as proof of women's inferiority, interpreted "man" as a generic term for woman and man in the creation story, criticized women's education as superficial and "marriagecentered," argued that women doing the same work as men should receive the same amount of wages, and stressed the dignity and worth that was inherent in all women. Grimké continued to compare woman-as-slave with slavewomen, and her arguments for improving the rights and status of women were both legally and theoretically sound, as well as far more original than any of the antislavery work she had done. Originally addressed to Mary S. Parker, president of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, the letters eloquently but urgently declared:

I ask no favours 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.

Elsewhere in the essays, Grimké questioned the accuracy of the translations and interpretations of the New Testament, while urging women to learn Greek and Hebrew to be able to read the original material for themselves.

Abolition organizer Theodore D. Weld viewed the women's rights cause as a lesser issue, compared to the eradication of slavery, and one which Grimké should leave to others to pursue so as not to dilute the impact the sisters' speaking tour was having on support for antislavery. Near the end of the tour, it was decided that both sisters would address the Massachusetts State Legislature, but Sarah Grimké became too ill with bronchitis to speak. Her formal speaking in public ended soon afterward, largely at the suggestion of her new brother-in-law, Weld, who married Angelina in May 1838. Grimké lived with the couple in their first home, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and moved with them to Belleville, New Jersey, in March 1840. By this time, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses had been published under the assigned authorship of Theodore Weld. Grimké's last public comment of any significance on the subject of slavery was her testimony for the work:

As I left my native state on account of slavery, and deserted the home of my fathers to escape the sound of the lash and the shrieks of tortured victims, I would gladly bury in oblivion the recollection of those scenes with which I have been familiar; but this may not, cannot be; they come over my memory like gory spectres, and implore me with resistless power, in the name of a God of mercy, in the name of a crucified Savior, in the name of humanity; for the sake of the slaveholder, as well as the slave, to bear witness to the horrors of the Southern prison house.

Effectively retired from both antislavery and women's rights work, and trying to adjust to "the daily lives of common women," Grimké turned down an invitation to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, England, scheduled for June 1840. Throughout the 1840s, the sisters essentially reversed roles in their shared home, as Sarah again became the stronger and healthier of the two. Living on a farm, they took in student boarders to help meet expenses, and when the Welds were invited to join Rarity Bay Union, a utopian community, Grimké began, at age 60, to plan her separation from her sister's family in favor of an independent life. Part of her independent work involved compiling laws concerning women in the various states, with the aim of revealing their unfairness and rousing the nation's conscience. Her approach was systematic, done in consultative correspondence with lawyers, and included research trips to Boston and Washington, D.C. In 1848, Grimké did not attend the famous Seneca Falls Convention in New York state, but her concern for women's rights did not diminish. Although her stance on divorce was morally conservative, she was clear and emphatic in her support of female suffrage and the need to remedy the economic plight which most working women faced, one that she interpreted as an "enormous evil." She subscribed to The Una and The Lily, two early feminist papers, and briefly wore the Bloomer costume before deciding that physical freedom was less of an issue than "mental bondage."

Sarah's second attempt at an independent life ceased with her acceptance in 1854 of Angelina's invitation to return to the Weld home and join them in teaching at Eagleswood School. Throughout the mid-1850s, although war was wholly at odds with her pacifist position, Sarah became increasingly convinced that slavery would not be abolished peacefully in the United States. Near the end of the Civil War, Grimké moved with the Welds again, to Hyde Park, Massachusetts, near Boston. All three taught at a girls' boarding school in nearby Lexington, where Grimké's subject was French, until the school closed in 1867.

Grimké's last years were occupied with increased management of the Weld household after her sister was partially paralyzed by strokes in the early 1870s. On December 23, 1873, Sarah Moore Grimké died in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, at 81. At her funeral service, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called her a "venerated and saintly woman" and summed up her life:

Here there is nothing to depress or deplore, nothing premature or startling, nothing to be supplemented or finished. It is the consummation of a long life, well rounded with charitable deeds, active sympathies, serviceable toils, loving ministrations, grand testimonies, and nobly self-sacrificing endeavors. For one, I feel this occasion to be one of exultation rather than of sorrow.


Koch, Adrienne. "The Significance of the Grimké Family," in Maryland Historian. Vol. 3, no. 1. Spring 1972, pp. 59–84.

Lerner, Gerda. The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

——. The Woman in American History. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1971.

Weld, Theodore Dwight. In Memory: Angelina Grimké Weld. Boston, MA: George H. Ellis, 1880.

suggested reading:

Barnes, G.H., and D.L. Dumond, eds. Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah Grimké, 1822–1844, 2 vols. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1965.

Birney, Catherine H. The Grimké Sisters. Sarah and Angelina Grimké: The First American Women Advocates of Abolition and Women's Rights, 1885 (reprinted NY: Haskell House, 1970).

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. "The Hysterical Women: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America," in Social Research. Vol. XXXIX, 1972, pp. 652–678.

Donna Beaudin , freelance writer in history, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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Grimké, Sarah Moore (1792–1873)

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