Gerda Lerner, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, revised and expanded edition, 2004)
What a wonderful biography. Gerda Lerner’s 1967 portrayal of the Grimke sisters is both heart rending and astute. She has wrangled a mountain of evidence into a knowing assessment of the abolition movement and the internal tension of the women’s movement growing within it. And her portrait contains a highly satisfactory analysis of religion as a force in American politics and society.
Sarah and Angelina Grimke, exemplars personal as political, suffered the crushing fate of true pioneers. The two girls, thirteen years apart, grew up in the large household of Charleston elites, and a key to their personalities and behaviors is how they were raised. Judge Grimke took Sarah in hand and through him she was exposed to the world of law, yet she was frustrated by the social order that prevented her from actually partaking of a legal education. Stifled, Sarah spent her youth disinterestedly engaged in the usual activities of socialites and confining her intellectual endeavors to ecclesiastical thinking. Young Sarah’s world is a place of might-have-beens, before Southern religion and politics became actively pro-slavery and intolerant of dissenters. Perhaps her parents restricted her aspirations, but they and her siblings possessed a remarkable desire to explore, reason, and debate issues of the time. Brother Thomas, of course, remained conservative, but evinced a lifelong predilection to reconsider assumptions. (His famous opposition to the Nullifiers and later consideration of liberal ideas demonstrate alternative, tragically unfulfilled, possibilities for the South, and made him the Grimke sisters’ truest earthly idol.) Sarah’s flight to Quakerism never did allow her the intellectual freedom she desired and she spent her life in frustrated meekness, devoted, seemingly, to chronic personal surrender.
Sarah raised Angelina in the latter’s formative years, and allowed her younger sister a childhood of love and encouragement. Therefore, Angelina came up confident, assertive, and optimistic, and frequently clashed with her mother and brothers over slavery and religious considerations. Her exile to Philadelphia following her sister seemed inevitable.
Neither of the Grimke sisters jumped directly into abolitionist activity in the North. Sarah, for instance, spent many years in a futile effort to train for the ministry. Yet in these years (and even in their devotional efforts in Charleston) we see clearly the strong religious imperative to improve the self, to be an example of Christianity in the practice of everyday life. This was, of course, not new, but in Nineteenth Century America, protestant Christians placed a heavy reliance on love and charity in interpersonal relationships for the sake of the soul. This lent itself perfectly to the Grimke sisters’ particularly unique critique of slavery concerning not only the treatment of men and women, but the ways that behavior encourages hate and tyranny in the oppressor’s heart, no matter how kind a master he or she might be. The Grimke sisters offered other unique critiques of slavery. Of greatest importance was the insistence that slavery could not be brought down without attacking the underlying racist assumptions it was based on. For these basic points (and their spectacular 1837 lecture tour and influential publications) Sarah and Angelina might be well remembered as bright lights in the constellation of American thinkers and reformers. Yet they did more.
Sarah, particularly, turned her analysis of power relations of the slave/master relationship to a critical examination of sexual relations and the logic of unequal power seemed the same in slavery as it did in marriage. (The Grimkes were always quick not to compare the oppression of white married women to the scourge of slavery.) The solution, of course, was the legal and intellectual emancipation of women through equitable laws and educational opportunity. These considerations frequently put the Grimkes at odds with more conservative abolitionists in regard to office holding and vote wielding in various associations. The willingness of the Garrisonian wing to embrace their feminist ideals ensured that they remained loyal to that faction. However, the schism in the abolitionist movement was less troublesome to the Grimkes than their entrance into domestic life when Angelina married Theodore Weld and they family of three felt the pressure of proving that emancipated women could still act within a traditional family environment. The experience physically and intellectually crushed the ageing women.
The Grimkes lived bound, yet freed, by Christian principles. Their continual attempts at the imitation of Christ lead them down a variety of reform paths popular at mid-century, some enduring, some painfully odd. The mix of feminism, dress reform, the Graham diet, homeopathy, water cures, no-human government, temperance, and spiritualism demonstrated the limits of societal reform in a rapidly changing American landscape of territorial expansion, labor consciousness, developing business interests, scientific discovery, war, and racial and political revolution.
Lerner has deployed her novelist’s training to creating compelling characterizations and drawing out mood. Also evident is her involvement with the Grimke papers, as demonstrated by the fact that nearly every sentence—usually uncited—is based on a thorough understanding of the Sisters’ activities and relationships, and a nuanced reading of their disappointments and aspirations. Of which there were many.