Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Grimke Sisters of Charleston, SC: Abolitionist and Feminist Leaders

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Grimke Sisters of Charleston, SC: Abolitionist and Feminist Leaders

Article excerpt


The elite white culture of antebellum South Carolina which was the Grimkes' heritage posited a paternalist view of society. The Southern plantation was compared to a family, where a benevolent father cared lovingly for his white and black dependents. As the knightly lords of yore, he expected obedience in return for his protection. Gender and race were seamlessly interwoven in the fabric of Southern society: paternalism was used to justify the subjugation of women and of blacks. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese argued in Within the Plantation Household, "The distinctive forms of male dominance in the South developed in conjunction with the development of slavery..." (1) Apologists contended that this patriarchal social hierarchy reflected God's natural order. Slaves were enjoined by Scriptures to obey their masters and women to honor and obey their fathers and husbands. (2) As abolitionist and feminist leaders in the 1830s, the Grimke sisters would challenge this dominant chivalric ideology and its Biblical premises.

Bearing Testimony

Given their family background and the plantation society into which they were born, the Grimke sisters seemed unlikely challengers to the status quo. Their father, John Faucheraud Grimke, was a wealthy planter and judge; their mother, Mary Smith Grimke, the descendant of prominent planters and politicians. Both were pillars in the Episcopal Church. The daughters were educated, first by tutors on the family plantation, and then in the female academies of Charleston. Such schools, educational historians have contended, reinforced the patriarchal hierarchy of plantation society by rewarding conformity, dependence, and piety and by stressing social and domestic rather than intellectual accomplishments. Biographer Gerda Lerner, describing Sarah Grimke's education "at one of the numerous institutions provided for the daughters of wealthy Charleston," observed that "The most important thing to learn was manners, the proper way for a young lady to comport herself in company. It was a curriculum offering a little of everything and not very much of anything, designed not to tax excessively the gentle female mind." (3)

Sarah Grimke's earliest education, albeit brief, exposed her to much more than manners, however. Because she was first tutored with her older brother Thomas, she was exposed to "knowledge...considered food too strong for the intellect of a girl"--i.e., subjects like mathematics, natural science, geography, and Latin. Judge Grimke allowed Sarah to attend most of Thomas' lessons and even let her participate in the family debates intended to prepare the boys for the profession of law, but he drew the line when Sarah asked to study Latin; it simply was not appropriate for her sex. (4) Although John Grimke recognized her intellectual gifts--once commenting that "if Sarah had only been a boy, she would have made the greatest jurist in the country"--his veneration for the traditions of aristocratic culture was too strong to provide a man's education for his daughter. (5) Thomas was eventually sent to Yale and Sarah to a private academy in Charleston where "Painting, poetry, [and] general reading [not Latin or law] occupied her leisure time." (6)

Sarah's disappointment with her own education is revealed in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women. She described women's training as "miserably deficient," designed only to give girls enough "external charms" to catch a husband and consisting "almost exclusively [of] culinary and other manual operations." She compared those men who "would limit a woman's library to a Bible and cookery book" to "the slaveholder, who says that men will be better slaves, if they are not permitted to learn to read." (7) And Sarah clearly disagreed with the latter. Although chastised by her father for teaching her "little waiting-maid" to read in violation of state law, she continued her instruction secretly. …

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