Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

SARAH M. GRIMKÉ
(1792-1873), author of first U.S. woman's rights treatise

KRISTIN S. VONNEGUT

Sarah Moore Grimké played an essential but neglected role in the abolition and woman's rights movements in the United States. Because nearly all her speeches have been lost and only a few essays still exist, some have considered her rhetorically insignificant. Furthermore, the relative brevity of her public career may have caused her to be overlooked. Grimké is best known for her work on slavery and woman's rights in the years 1836 through 1838. Although she was active as a reformer only briefly, she was the first U.S. woman to write an important treatise on woman's rights.


BACKGROUND

Grimké's training as a wealthy southern lady was usual for nineteenth-century females of her class. As the daughter of Judge John Faucheraud and Mary Smith Grimké, South Carolina plantation owners, she studied in the company of her older brother Thomas, but when he began to study Latin and the law, she was excluded. Unlike other upper class southern women, however, she partially overcame the societal norms that limited female education by studying law secretly. Of that period, she wrote:

I was naturally independent, longed for an education that would elevate me above the low pursuits of sense, but I was a girl & altho' well educated as such, yet the powers of my mind were not called into exercise. I looked with longing eyes on my brother's superior advantages & wondered why the simple fact of being a girl should shut me up to the necessity of being a doll. (WGM, Box 10)

Grimké's dissatisfaction with the life of a southern lady led her at age twenty- eight to leave South Carolina and to join a Quaker meeting in Philadelphia. It was unusual for an unmarried young woman to leave her family, but her need for independence was a force stronger than nineteenth-century notions of propriety. For nearly fifteen years, she struggled to become a minister in the Society of Friends, but her path was blocked by self-doubt and obstacles raised by fellow Quakers. In 1836, she chose to leave Philadelphia and move with her younger sister, Angelina, to New York. There, the Grimké sisters began a two-year stint as the first female lecturers for the American Anti-Slavery Society.

The sisters' lectures were well attended by both men and women, which disturbed some religious leaders. Even some members of the American Anti- slavery Society wanted to "protect" them from male intruders during their lectures ( Barnes 1957:153-160). Moreover, as the Grimkés became more familiar

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