Women Of Liberty: The Grimke Sisters
Acton Institute Powerblog

Women Of Liberty: The Grimke Sisters

March is Women’s History Month, and during this month the Acton PowerBlog will be highlighting a number of women who have helped advance the cause of liberty and a free and virtuous society.

A month or so ago, I read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, which is a fictionalized account (in part) of the lives of the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina. When I realized it was based on two real-life women, it gave me the impetus to learn more regarding these two amazing women.

Sarah (the elder of the two) and Angelina Grimke were abolitionists and suffragettes. Born just over 12 years apart (Sarah in 1792, Angelina in 1805), the two women were from a wealthy family. Their father, John, was an officer in the Revolutionary War, and a South Carolina plantation owner and representative in that state’s House of Representatives. Sarah was said to have a brilliant mind; her father remarked that she would make a formidable attorney, were it not for the fact she were female. She took advantage of her father’s library, and begged to study with her older brother, but was officially educated only in the feminine arts of music, sketching, needlework and other activities a young lady of her bearing would need to know.

Sarah’s anti-slavery sentiments came at an early age: she witnessed several incidents of torture and even death meted out to slaves. She herself was punished for teaching her own slave to read, and for teaching the black children at Sunday School the alphabet.

Angelina was Sarah’s dear sister. From her birth, Sarah asked to take charge of the young girl. She was made her godmother, and since the girls’ mother’s health was poor, Sarah was given much responsibility in raising Angelina. She instilled much of her passion for fighting for the rights of slaves in her younger sister. The sisters were raised in the Episcopalian faith, but moved to the Quakers, who were known for their strong anti-slavery stance. However, as time passed, the sisters more radical views left them out of favor with the Quakers.

Sarah tended towards more spiritual thoughts, and Angelina to the political. Under the tutelage of Theodore Weld (whom Angelina would eventually marry), the sisters learned to craft their passions in thoughts, words and speech. (In an act that would foreshadow the work of those who work today to stop human trafficking, Weld and Angelina’s wedding cake was made with “slave-free” sugar.)

The sisters, along with Weld, anonymously published a volume, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. They had gleaned stories from newspapers, detailing the horrors of slavery. The book sold 100,000 copies in its first  year, and is said to have inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The sisters were great friends with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the great suffragette. Angelina once proclaimed, “Women ought to feel a peculiar sympathy in the colored man’s wrong, for, like him, she has been accused of mental inferiority, and denied the privileges of a liberal education.”

In the words of author and historian, John Blundell:

The Grimke Sisters were principled and steadfast and made huge personal sacrificies. They were courageous, generous and caring. They were also gifted writers and public speakers, and clever strategist. But above all they were driven by an abhorrence of the idea that on individual could own another. (from Blundell’s book, Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History)

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.