Sarah Moore Grimké

Sarah Moore Grimké
Born November 26, 1792
Charleston, South Carolina
Died December 23, 1873(1873-12-23) (aged 81)
Occupation Abolitionist, writer, feminist
Relatives John Faucheraud Grimké (father)
Thomas Smith Grimké (brother)
Angelina Grimké (sister)

Sarah Moore Grimké (November 26, 1792 – December 23, 1873) was an American abolitionist, writer, and member of the women's suffrage movement. Born and reared in South Carolina to a prominent, wealthy planter family, she moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the 1820s where she became a Quaker. Her younger sister Angelina Grimké joined her there and they both became active in the abolition movement. They had to leave the Quakers, who opposed women conducting public speaking. The sisters began to speak on the abolitionist lecture circuit, among the first women to speak in public on political issues. They recounted their knowledge of slavery firsthand, urged abolition, and also became lawyers for women's rights.

Early life

Sarah Grimké her parents sometimes called her "Sally"[1] was born in South Carolina, the sixth[1] of 14 children and the second daughter[1] of Mary Smith and John Faucheraud Grimké. Their father was a rich planter, and an attorney and judge in South Carolina.

Sarah’s early experiences with education shaped her future as an abolitionist and feminist. Throughout her childhood, she was keenly aware of the inferiority of her own education when compared to her brothers’ classical one. Although her family recognized her remarkable intelligence, she was prevented from obtaining a substantive education or pursuing her dream of becoming an attorney, as these goals were considered "unwomanly."[2] She was educated by private tutors on subjects considered appropriate for a young southern woman of her class,[3] including French, painting with watercolors, playing the harpsichord, and doing embroidery.[4] Her father allowed Sarah to study geography, history and mathematics from the books in his library, and to read his law books; however, he drew the line at her learning Latin.[5]

Sarah’s mother Mary was a dedicated homemaker and an active member in the community. She was a leader in Charleston’s Ladies Benevolent Society. Mary was also an active Episcopalian and consequently often devoted herself to the poor and to women incarcerated in a nearby prison. Mary's beliefs were rigid; in addition, her many charitable activities kept her from developing affectionate relationships with her children.[6]

Feeling confined in her role, Sarah developed a connection to her family's slaves to an extent that unsettled her parents. From the time she was twelve years old, Sarah spent her Sunday afternoons teaching Bible classes to the young slaves on the plantation, an experience she found extremely frustrating. While she wanted desperately to teach them to read the scripture for themselves, and they had a longing for such learning, her parents prohibited this, as teaching slaves to read was illegal. Her parents also said that literacy would only make the slaves unhappy and rebellious, making them unfit for physical labor. Teaching slaves to read had been prohibited since 1740 in South Carolina.

Sarah secretly taught Hetty, her personal slave, to read and write, but when her parents discovered the young tutor at work, the vehemence of her father’s response proved alarming. He was furious and nearly had the young slave girl whipped. Fear of causing trouble for the slaves themselves prevented Sarah from undertaking such a task again. Years afterward, she reflected on the incident, writing "I took an almost malicious satisfaction in teaching my little waiting maid at night, when she was supposed to be occupied in combing and brushing my locks. The light was put out, the keyhole screened, and flat on our stomachs before the fire, with the spelling book under our eyes, we defied the laws of South Carolina."[7]

Sarah's brother Thomas went to Yale Law School in 1805.[8] During his visits back home, Thomas continued teaching Sarah new ideas about the dangers of Enlightenment and the importance of religion. These ideas, combined with her secret studies of the law, gave her some of the basis for her later work as an activist.[6] Her father told her that if she had been a man, she would have been the greatest lawyer in South Carolina.[9] Sarah believed her inability to get higher education was unfair. She wondered at the behavior of her family and neighbors, who encouraged slaves to be baptized and to attend worship services, but did not consider them true brothers and sisters in faith.

From her youth, Sarah believed that religion should take a more proactive role in improving the lives of those who suffered most. Her religious quest took her first to Presbyterianism she converted in 1817.[1] After moving to Philadelphia in 1821, she joined the Quakers, whom she had learned about in an earlier visit with her father.[1] There, she became an outspoken advocate for education and suffrage for African Americans and women.[10]

By 1817, Sarah's father was seriously ill, and the doctors of Charleston recommended he travel to Philadelphia to consult Philip Syng Physick. Despite her vehement objections, her father insisted that Sarah, then 26 years old, accompany him as his nursemaid. Sarah relented, and they left Charleston for the north in May, 1819. When Physick found he could not help, he suggested that they take in the sea air of the fishing village of Long Branch, New Jersey. The pair settled into a boardinghouse, where, after just a few weeks, John Faucheraud Grimké died.[11][12]

As a result of this experience, Sarah became more self-assured, independent, and morally responsible. She stayed in Philadelphia a few months after her father died and met Israel Morris, who would introduce her to Quakerism, specifically the writings of John Woolman.[2][13] She returned to Charleston, but decided that she would go back to Philadelphia to become a Quaker minister and leave her Episcopalian upbringing behind. She was stymied, however, when she was repeatedly ignored and shut out by the male-dominated council.[2] Becoming alienated, she later wrote, "I think no criminal under sentence of death can look more fearfully to the day of execution than I do towards our Yearly Meeting."[14]

She returned to Charleston in the spring of 1827 to “save” her sister Angelina from the limitations of the South. Angelina visited Sarah in Philadelphia from July to November of the same year and returned to Charleston committed to the Quaker faith. After leaving Charleston, Angelina and Sarah traveled around New England speaking on the abolitionist circuit, at first addressing women only in large parlors and small churches. Their speeches concerning abolition and women's rights reached thousands.[15] In November, 1829, Angelina joined her sister in Philadelphia.[16] They had long had a close relationship; for years, Angelina called Sarah "mother", as Sarah was both her godmother and primary caretaker.[13]

In 1868, Sarah discovered that her late brother had three illegitimate mixed-race sons by his personal slave. Welcoming them into the family, Sarah worked to provide funds to educate Archibald Grimké and Francis James Grimké, who went on to successful careers and marriages, and were leaders in the African-American community.[2] John, the youngest, was not interested in formal education and returned to the South to live.


See also: Grimké sisters

Sarah and Angelina had come to loathe slavery and all its degradations. They had hoped that their new faith would be more accepting of their abolitionist beliefs than their former had been. However, their initial attempts to attack slavery caused them difficulties in the Quaker community. The sisters persisted despite their belief that the fight for women's rights was as important as the fight to abolish slavery. They continued to be attacked, even by some abolitionists, who considered their position extreme. In 1836, Sarah published Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States. In 1837, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women was published serially in a Massachusetts newspaper, The Spectator, and immediately reprinted in The Liberator, the newspaper published by radical abolitionist and women's rights leader William Lloyd Garrison. The letters were published in book form in 1838.

When the sisters were together in Philadelphia, they devoted themselves to the Quakers' Society of Friends and other charity work. Sarah began working toward becoming a clergy member but was continually discouraged by male members of the church. Sarah realized that, though the church was something she agreed with in theory, it was not delivering on its promises. It was around this time that anti-slavery rhetoric began entering public discourse.

Joining her sister in the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1836, Sarah originally felt that she had found the place where she truly belonged, in which her thoughts and ideas were encouraged. However, as she and Angelina began speaking not only on abolition, but also on the importance of women's rights, they began to face much criticism. Their public speeches were seen as unwomanly because they spoke to mixed-gender audiences, called "promiscuous audiences" at the time. They also publicly debated men who disagreed with them. This was too much for the general public of 1837 and caused many harsh attacks on their womanhood; one line of thought suggested that they were both just poor "spinsters" displaying themselves in order to find any man who would be willing to take one.[2]

In 1838, Angelina married Theodore Weld, a leading abolitionist who had been a severe critic of their inclusion of women's rights into the abolition movement. She retired to the background of the movement while being a wife and mother, though not immediately. Sarah completely ceased to speak publicly. Apparently Weld had recently written her a letter detailing her inadequacies in speaking. He tried to explain that he wrote this out of love for her, but said that she was damaging the cause, not helping it, unlike her sister. However, as Sarah received many requests to speak over the following years (as did Angelina), it is questionable whether her "inadequacies" were as bad as he described.[2]

During the Civil War, Sarah wrote and lectured in support of President Abraham Lincoln.

Sarah Moore Grimké was the author of the first developed public argument for women's equality. She worked to rid the United States of slavery, Christian churches which had become “unchristian,” and prejudice against African Americans and women.[2]

Her writings gave suffrage workers such as Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott several arguments and ideas that they would need to help end slavery and begin the women’s suffrage movement.[2][17]

Sarah Grimke is categorized as not only an abolitionist but also a feminist because she challenged the Society for Friends, which touted women's inclusion but denied her. It was through her abolitionist pursuits that she became more sensitive to the restrictions on women. She so opposed being subject to men that she refused to marry. Both Sarah and Angelina became very involved in the anti-slavery movement and published volumes of literature and letters on the topic. When they became well known, they began lecturing around the country on the issue. At the time women did not speak in public meetings, so Sarah was viewed as a leader in feminist issues. She openly challenged women’s domestic roles.

She is remembered on the Boston Women's Heritage Trail.[18]

See also



  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Perry (2002), p. xi.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Lumpkin, Shirley. "American Women Prose Writers: 1820-1870" in Hudock, Amy E. and Rodier, Katharine. (eds.) Dictionary of Literary Biography v.239. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. From Literature Resource Center
  3. Taylor, Marion Ann and Heather E. Weir (2006). Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on Women in Genesis, Baylor University Press, p. 42.
  4. Sandra F. VanBurkleo, and Mary Jo Miles. Grimké, Sarah Moore, American National Biography Online, February 2000. Retrieved November 26, 2015.
  5. Perry (2002), p. 1.
  6. 1 2 Durso (2003).
  7. Perry (2002), p. 2.
  8. Perry (2002), p. 24.
  9. Perry (2002), p. 2. Lerner gives a somewhat different version, in which her father said "she would have made the greatest jurist in the country." Lerner (1998), p. 25.
  10. Grimké, Sarah. Letter addressed to Mary S. Parker, President of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, in Letters on the Equality of the Sexes.
  11. Perry (2002), pp. 34-37, 42.
  12. Ceplair (1989), p. xv.
  13. 1 2 Lerner (1998)
  14. Perry (2002), p. 84.
  15. Ritchie, Joy (2001). Available Means. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  16. Ceplair (1989).
  17. Million, Joelle, Woman's Voice, Woman's Place: Lucy Stone and the Birth of the Women's Rights Movement. Praeger, 2003. ISBN 0-275-97877-X, pp. 36, 68, 160.
  18. "Downtown". Boston Women's Heritage Trail.
  19. Salisbury, Stephen. "Painted Bride productions on 19th century women touch familiar issues", Philadelphia Inquirer (April 26, 2013)
  20. Bosman, Julie. "Oprah Winfrey Picks ‘Invention of Wings’ for Her Book Club", New York Times (December 10, 2013).


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