The National Women’s History Project salutes “countless millions of women who planned, organized, lectured, wrote, marched, petitioned, lobbied, paraded, and broke new ground in every field imaginable, [making] our world…irrevocably changed. Women and men in our generation, and the ones that will follow us, are living the legacy of women’s rights won against staggering odds in a revolution achieved without violence.”
For women’s history month, I have confined my selection of heroines to those who lived in 19th century America. That eliminates some of my favorite women like Alice Paul and Inez Milholland, who were both so instrumental in the second generation of suffragists that brought the movement through the final years before the woman suffrage amendment finally passed in 1920.
This is a special year for New York State, where women earned suffrage on state matters in 1917. Unfortunately New York State resident Susan B. Anthony did not live to exercise her right to vote legally in either her state or her country, for she died in 1906. Indeed, even though the entire country revered her late in life, her home state in 1894 ignored 600,000 petitions for woman suffrage, and the following year it formed an association opposed to woman suffrage. The only states that allowed women to vote in Susan’s lifetime were Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah and Idaho (1896).
To offset this sad showing for New York State, today I am highlighting two female reformers who blazed their way across the empire state so brightly that they inspired the young Miss Anthony. They were Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who made themselves unpopular in their native Charleston by championing slavery, as memorialized in Sue Monk Kidd’s excellent historical novel The Invention of Wings. The sisters grew up as privileged daughters of a judge and plantation owner, with their slaves sleeping on the floor of their bedroom.
In an article about the sisters’ Charleston home, author Louise Knight also gives background on the economic dependence of that slaveowning city on slavery.
The striking elegance of the Grimké home reflected both the sophistication of the city they lived in and the family’s fabulous prosperity. Charleston in the early years of the nineteenth century was one of the new nation’s great metropolises. In 1810, with a population of roughly 24,711, it was the fourth largest city in the United States and possessed enormous wealth. The white community numbered 11,568. Charleston was a majority black city, with 13,143 Africans and people of African descent. In 1810, 89 percent of the black population—11,570 people—was enslaved, toiling in the households or the family stables or hiring out to work in the trades. Their unpaid labor across the city—combined with the unpaid labor of those working on plantations across the state—created Charleston’s wealth. The remaining 11 percent of the black population—some 1,430 African Americans—formed the free black community, whose skills in the trades and at the docks kept the city functioning.
Sarah and Angelina witnessed their mother’s arbitrary and cruel punishment of slaves in the “sugar house,” a place of such barbarism that its walls were soundproofed to muffle the screams of tortured persons within. Sarah taught her slave to read and would probably have been a lawyer had she been female. Angelina wrote a pamphlet entitled “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” in which she wrote:
I appeal to you, my friends, as mothers; Are you willing to enslave your children? You start back with horror and indignation at such a question. But why, if slavery is no wrong to those upon whom it is imposed? Why, if as has often been said, slaves are happier than their masters, free from the cares and perplexities of providing for themselves and their families? Why not place your children in the way of being supported without your having the trouble to provide for them, or they for themselves? Do you not perceive that as soon as this golden rule of action is applied to yourselves that you involuntarily shrink from the test; as soon as your actions are weighed in this balance of the sanctuary that you are found wanting?
Her pamphlet was burned in Charleston. Soon after, the Grimke sisters undertook a 67-city speaking tour of the Northeast (including New York), where they amazed crowds by addressed mixed audiences, not just women—a practice that was considered scandalous because the sexes were supposed to be kept separate and women were not supposed to speak in public.
Sarah and Angelina Grimke paved the way for Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and others to speak in public about abolition and on women’s rights, as well.