Race in Women's Movements
Angelina Grimké's Last Speech
On 16 May 1838, Angelina Grimké took the podium at the newly opened Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia. Outside, mobs hurled rocks through the windows and threatened to burn the building down. Inside, 3000 abolitionists hanged on every word from the woman in the front of the room. We must not "shrink in the time of peril," she warned, "or feel unwilling to sacrifice ourselves, on behalf of the slave." The violence raging outside offered proof of the justice of their cause, she argued. In fact, abolitionists should be grateful for the anger directed against them, for it showed "that there is yet life enough to feel the truth. . . that conscience is not so completely seared as to be unmoved by the truth of the living God."21
Grimké's inspiring speech, capping a year of activism, helped galvanize the growing antislavery movement and braced its members for the fight ahead. Yet, Grimké did not speak in public for another 25 years. She retired from public life, and abolitionism and feminism lost a powerful and groundbreaking voice.
The Evolution of an Activist
Angelina Grimké was born into a prominent, slave-owning South Carolina family. From an early age she was uncomfortable with slavery, but intensely religious, she poured her intellectual energies into Biblical study and self-introspection through early adulthood. She left her Episcopal Church to become a Presbyterian at age 21, then separated from the Presbyterians to become a Quaker at age 24. Preoccupied with her own sin, and the sins of those surrounding her, she engaged in constant battles with family members over their behavior. She raged most often against the vanity and superficiality of her siblings and mother; when her mother redecorated the parlor, Angelina condemned the vain exercise and vowed never to enter the room.
Grimké's battles with herself and her family took their toll on the young woman. While often self-righteous and confident, she often slipped into religious despair--one moment confronting her family with their many shortcomings, the next reeling under a crushing sense of her own sin and mired in clinical depression. Grimké was not yet the clear-sighted abolitionist and feminist that she would become. But within her obsession with sin, her combative intolerance of imperfection in herself and others, we can see the temperament that would drive her later work.
Grimké's real introduction to anti-slavery occurred in Philadelphia. She had moved there in 1829 to live with her sister Sarah among Quakers. For her first two years in Philadelphia, she lost herself in a hopeless romantic obsession with a man, then poured herself into Biblical research before she began attending anti-slavery meetings in 1835. In August of that year, she made a life-changing decision to dedicate herself to the cause of the slave. This hard-thinking, introspective and driven woman wrote a letter to abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison in which she pledged her willingness to suffer in the abolitionist cause, for "this is a cause worth dying for."22
Garrison published Grimké's letter in the Liberator, and she followed up with an anti-slavery article entitled "An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South." These writings impressed high-ranking abolitionists, but more important to them, Angelina was a southern woman and the daughter of a prominent slave-owning judge. Her denunciation of slavery offered the struggling movement with a star—a headline-grabbing figure capable of drawing attention and supporters to the cause. Thus, the movement put her to work immediately.
From Abolitionist to Feminist
The American Anti-Slavery Society arranged a series of speaking engagements for Grimké, first in New York and then in New England. During 1837, she delivered more than 70 talks to an estimated 40,000 people. But controversy soon swirled around these efforts. Her talks were originally intended for just women, but her star power drew many curious male listeners, too. And as her audiences filled with men as well as women, traditionalists condemned the impropriety of it all.
Just a few years earlier, evangelical ministers had wrestled with a major challenge when women rose to publically testify and bear witness during prayer meetings attended by both men and women. Orthodox clergy had condemned the risqué practice, but many had tolerated these female prayers, moved as they were by the spirit. Grimké's lecturing, however, was more problematic. Her talks were not spontaneous gushings of the Holy Spirit; they were planned and advertised public gatherings. For a woman to speak in these sorts of "promiscuous assemblies" was, for many at the time, outrageous. The orthodox clergy issued a letter condemning her "unnatural" behavior. Even innovative female educator Catherine Beecher criticized Grimké for stepping outside her "appropriate sphere" and violating woman's traditional role as reconciler and peacemaker.23
The controversy only increased Grimké's audiences and broadened her understanding of the world surrounding her. She was soon coupling her remarks on the oppression of slaves to a defense of women's right to speak in public—to join in God's work to advance the reforms needed to bring on His kingdom. Even more provocatively, she labeled women "the white slaves of the north," for, like the slave, "we must seal our lips in silence and despair."24
As the feminist portion of her anti-slavery lectures grew, complaints rose from within the abolitionist circle. All of the controversy was distracting, they complained; it was increasing the hostility directed against them. Some abolitionists urged her to restrict her audiences, as originally planned, to just women. Others demanded that she eliminate the feminist commentary within her lectures—that she stop comparing the conditions of women and slaves. Abolitionist and poet John Greenleaf Whittier complained that it was absurd to compare her own "trifling oppression" to that of the "poor and miserable slave." In launching into these feminist tangents, she abandoned a noble war against slavery, he argued, for a "selfish crusade against some paltry grievance."25
Even Theodore Weld, the abolitionist leader who would soon become Grimké's husband, urged her to tone down her rhetoric and wait for a more suitable time to launch this secondary reform. Women's rights, he argued, were merely a "derivative cause," nothing more than "one of those gusty side winds" that might capsize the far greater cause for which they fought.26
But Grimké would have none of this hairsplitting. She admonished Weld to "abandon the law of expediency now," and pushed ahead with her speaking engagements. Sin was sin, she said, and injustice was injustice. "Suppose Paul and Peter had preached against particular sins and no others: would this have been preaching the gospel or a part of it?" she asked.27 She continued to speak before mixed audiences, and she turned her defense of a woman's right to speak, first directed against Catherine Beecher, into a broader book of essays on women's rights. Furthermore, she assisted her sister in preparing Sarah's Letters on the Province of Woman.
By 1838, Grimké was speaking in some of the largest venues in the North, before mixed audiences of several thousand people. In February of that year, she was invited to testify before a committee of the Massachusetts state legislature—the first woman to receive such an invitation. And in May, two days after marrying Weld, she was the featured speaker at Philadelphia's newly opened Pennsylvania Hall.
Old Demons Return
Grimké's public speaking had been transformative. Personally, she had changed from a somewhat self-absorbed, Bible studying Quaker into a powerful speaker with a national audience. Philosophically, she had grown more fully aware of the constraints placed on women and the intransigence of conventional gender beliefs. She had been harshly confronted with the philosophical blind-spots within the abolitionist movement and the limited capacity for change among its male leaders. Even some of America's most open-minded intellectuals, like Whittier, and most influential women, like Beecher, were stuck in sexist philosophical traps. Psychologically, the year was also transformative for Grimké. As her speaking tour began, she was energized by her work. Always intellectually and spiritually intense, the opportunity to engage in real, meaningful work left her exhilarated.
But as the year wore on, the demons and self-doubts of her past returned. In the beginning, her speaking engagements had thrilled her; now she felt "crushed by them." Earlier, she was buoyed by a sense of noble service; now she felt "never as near the gates of despair." And as her spirit-breaking sense of personal sin returned, she drifted toward yet another bout with depression. She chastised herself as a "poor, miserable sinner, a worm of the dust," and she looked forward to the impending marriage that would save her from public life and restore her to "the lowest, private condition."28
These tendencies had not been entirely absent during her path-breaking year on the lecture circuit. In fact, these tendencies had helped shape her approach to abolition. Unsatisfied with the half measures of other abolitionists, she castigated them for not digging deeper into the trenches to fight for the slaves and the poor. Suspicious of the motives of seemingly half-hearted reformers, she pushed them toward a more thorough exploration of their principles. Linking the nation's sins to her own personal sins, she was driven to rid the nation of its greatest evil and, in the process, find some degree of redemption for herself.
But in the end, it was too much for her. By the spring of 1838, even as her reputation grew and more speaking invitations poured in, she was looking for a way out. And so after appearing before the abolitionists at Pennsylvania Hall, after climaxing a year of activism with her most dramatic and memorable performance, she retired.
Grimké's fans within the movement regretted her departure. Most simply could not understand it. They begged her to return to the field and carry on the fight. She explained that the demands of married life, and the children that soon followed, took all of her time. The physical and emotional trials that confronted her during the first years of her marriage were indeed great, but the truth of the matter is that Grimké was psychologically exhausted even before her children arrived, and the depression that plagued her from early adulthood onward could not be held forever at bay.
It is tantalizing to consider how Grimké's life might have played out had she been able to continue her work, and what further contributions she might have made to abolitionism and women's rights. But the sad fact of the matter is that both Grimké's greatness and her early retirement were tied to the same intellectual and mental traits. Her crushing sense of sin led her into reform. Her combative intolerance for imperfection in herself and others prompted her to stretch the reform community toward a more complete development of their principles. But these same traits drove her into periodic depression, into dark and prolonged periods of despair and hopelessness. The sad fact is that Angelina Grimké could not have been great without these powerful traits—and with them she could not be great for long.