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A Family Divided
The Grimké sisters forsook their heritage to fight for abolition. Then, many years later, their brother’s terrible sin came back to haunt them.
April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
The first Female Anti-Slavery Society in America was formed, and Angelina and Sarah were appointed agents. Calls for the sisters came in from all over the city, and then the state. They spoke at first only to women, but more and more often men appeared at their meetings. At first they were asked politely to leave, but one evening in a Negro church in Poughkeepsie the sisters “felt easy” to speak to “our colored brethren on whose behalf we are laboring.”
Next they responded to calls for their services in New England. Men came to the meetings in greater numbers now, and did not always leave when asked. One evening in Lynn, Massachusetts, the sisters spoke to “over a thousand people, packed into the meeting house at some danger to the joists of the flooring.” There were more men than women in the crowd. “Yet the heavens did not open to rain thunderbolts on their impious heads!” the local editor remarked, with irony.
What the heavens did not do, some of the New England clergy tried to do for them. Certain clergymen whose congregations had invited the sisters threatened to resign. Sometimes when the sisters arrived at a meeting, they found the church door locked, and had to adjourn to a hall, a home, or a barn. On one occasion, small boys pelted them with apples.
One Reverend Nehemiah Adams grew so incensed that he composed a pastoral letter that was passed as a resolution by the General Association of Evangelical Clergymen, meeting in Brookfield, Massachusetts. It invited attention to
the dangers which at present seem to threaten the female character with widespread and permanent injury. When a woman assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer, our care and protection of her seems unnecessary; we put ourselves in self-defense against her; she yields that power which God has given her for protection, and her character becomes unnatural.”
The poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who had become a devoted friend of the sisters, was moved to one of his rare satirical verses in rebuttal:
And now came an attack from an unexpected direction. Catharine Beecher, daughter of the great Lyman, sister of Henry and of Harriet (who had yet to write her best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin), wrote a cutting criticism of the Grimkes’ radicalism. Angelina took time off—it must have been stolen from sleep, for she had no idle hours—to answer Miss Beecher in a series of thirteen letters, which Garrison published in the Liberator. She was neither gentle nor tactful. “Oh, my very soul is grieved,” she wrote at the end of one, “to find a Northern woman thus ‘sewing pillows under all armholes,’ framing and fitting soft excuses for the slaveholder’s conscience, whilst with the same pen she is professing to regard slavery as a sin. An open enemy is better than such a secret friend!”
Sarah was also writing letters to the newspapers that winter. Her series on “The Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women,” which appeared in the Boston Spectator and later as a small book, stated her view of the case so forthrightly that fence-straddlers were forced to take sides. But those who were in opposition were not in time to damp the fire the sisters were kindling.
When the Grimkés went through New England, such was the overpowering influence with which they swept the churches that men did not remember the dogma [that women should be silent] till after they had gone. When they left, and the spell weakened, some woke to the idea that it was wrong for a woman to speak to a public assembly. The wakening of old prejudice to its combat with new convictions was a fearful storm.
In February of 1838, before the storm broke, Angelina wound up her New England tour with the most extraordinary exploit of all: she addressed the legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.