Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Feb. 20: "This is a cause worth dying for..."

Do you know who this is?
-She was threatened with arrest if she ever returned to her native state.
-She was the first woman to speak to a state legislature.
-She first became famous because of a letter she wrote.

She was born in South Carolina but was ostracized from Antebellum South’s society. She became a Quaker, but was expelled from that religion because of her marriage to a non-Quaker.

Angelina Emily Grimke was born on February 20, 1805, in South Carolina to a privileged caste: her father, John Grimaldi, had been an officer in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, was a distinguished jurist; cotton plantation owner; a member of the state legislature; a man of wealth and culture – and a slave owner. Angelina and her older sister Sarah would grow up in the South, but after their father died in 1819 they would find themselves dissatisfied with the Anglican Church and with the slave system that existed. One reason for their anti-slavery stance was because they saw the injustice of slavery through the actions of their father – who fathered fourteen children, both white and mulatto. They also saw the physical abuses on slavery – whippings, beatings, and death – all of which caused them to rebel against the established system of the South. In 1821 Sarah would become a member of the Society of Friends (Quaker), with Angelina following in 1829. They would form a team fighting for equal rights for the rest of their lives.

Angelina would be the first of the sisters to grow into a belief of immediate abolition. She wrote a letter that would change her life and the life of her sister forever and would shock many of her Quaker brethren. The letter was written to William Lloyd Garrison after he formed the American Anti-Slavery Society, the first interracial organization in the country. Soon after the Society was formed, riots began breaking out in many of the East Coast cities – because the divisive topic of abolition was now brought to the forefront. Angelina’s letter, titled “8th Month, 30th, 1835”, was printed by William Lloyd Garrison in the Liberator – without Angelina’s permission. Angelina started her letter with: "I can hardly express to thee the deep and solemn interest with which I have viewed the violent proceedings of the last few weeks." She told Garrison to keep up the fight and volunteered to join him, saying, "This is a cause worth dying for". Angelina’s letter would be reprinted throughout the North in all of the major reform newspapers of the day. This letter would thrust Angelina and her older sister into the front lines of the abolition movement.

“The denial of our duty to act in this case is a denial of our right to act; and if we have no right to act, then may we well be termed the white slaves of the North, for like our brethren in bonds, we must seal our lips in silence and despair.” Angelina Grimke
The following year – 1836 – she wrote her Appeal to the Christian Women of the South – addressed to Southern women by a Southern woman - and began giving private – then public – talks on slavery. By 1837 Angelina and her sister had to secure the use of large halls to hold the crowds that came to see the curiosity of women as public speakers. Most shocking of all – in the cultural norms of the day – what that their audiences were ‘mixed’, made up of both men and women. The sisters also published regularly in The Liberator, the Boston Spectator, and other newspapers. All of these activities put Angelina and her sister in the middle of the women’s rights debates, and earned them the rebuke of many ministers for their ‘unwomanly behavior.’ She also became the first women in US history to address a state legislature when in 1838 she was invited to address the Massachusetts State Legislature on the issue of slavery.

The reaction to Angelina’s public speaking was not always positive. The General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts called on the clergy to close their churches to ‘women exhorters’.

In 1838 Angelina married Theodore Dwight Weld, a reformer and abolition orator and pamphleteer. He spoke on the abolitionist lecture circuit for a while, but then lost his voice in 1836. He turned to becoming an editor for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Angelina and her husband – joined by Sarah – lived in New Jersey, and in 1854 conducted a school for black and white alike at Eagleswood, New Jersey. Angelina would end her public speaking career with her marriage, except once, two days after her marriage – at Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia, which was destroyed by a mob immediately after her address there. She would spend her time assisting her husband and teaching.

“I trust the time is coming, when the occupation of an instructor to children will be deemed the most honorable of human employment.” -Angelina Grimke
Angelina and her sister still had occasional forays into the public eye. One of the most famous was on March 7, 1870, when Angelina – age sixty six – and her sister – age seventy nine – declared that women had the right to vote under the fourteenth amendment, marched in a procession with forty-two other women in a fierce snowstorm to the polling place, and cast their ballots. Onlookers jeered but, because of their age, they were not arrested and while this gesture did not change the law against women voting, it did receive a lot of publicity, inspire the women’s suffrage movement, and move the nation a bit closer to the nineteenth Amendment – guaranteeing women the right to vote.

Sarah would die in 1873, and Angelina would suffer several strokes after Sarah’s death, which would leave her paralyzed for the last six years of her life. She died on October 26, 1879, survived by her husband Theodore. Both Angelina and her sister are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Boston.

Angelina and her sister had an effect on American history through their unrelenting and fluent promotion of equality of the races and the equality of women under our legal system. They saw what should be, and strove to make the nation aware of that vision through their writing and their lives. As Angelina once said: “We Abolition Women are turning the world upside down.”


Mark Perry, Lift Up Thy Voice : the Grimké Family's Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders

1911 Encyclopedia
Columbia Encyclopedia
Iowa State University
National Women’s Hall of Fame
The Grimke Sisters, Project Gutenberg
Women’s History

Grimke woodcut: Library of Congress
Pennsylvania Hall burning: GenDisasters


  1. Thank you for this interesting post and your blog in general. Hope you keep it up.

  2. Thank you. I enjoy researching, writing, and learning during my twice-a-week posts. Angelina Grimke was a lady I had the privilege of writing a research paper on back in the Dark Ages of Masters' Degree work. Fascinating story.