February 21, 1838

Angelina Grimke Addresses Legislature

On this day in 1838 a woman addressed a legislative body for the first time in American history. An overflow crowd gathered at the State House in Boston as Angelina Grimké, daughter of a South Carolina slave owner, presented anti-slavery petitions signed by 20,000 Massachusetts women. Over the past year, she and her sister Sarah — both fervent abolitionists — had caused a scandal by speaking to large crowds of men and women about the evils of slavery. Angelina Grimké used her appearance before the legislature to make a radical assertion on behalf of American women: "We are citizens of this republic and as such our honor, happiness, and well-being are bound up in its politics, government, and laws."

In 23 weeks, the Grimké sisters spoke before at least 88 meetings in 67 towns. 

When Angelina and Sarah Grimké arrived in Boston in the winter 1838, they did not look like radical agitators. Dressed in sedate gray gowns with white kerchiefs and gloves, the sisters were the picture of simple, modest Quaker womanhood. But appearances can be deceiving: the Grimkés were anything but conventional.

The daughters of a wealthy South Carolina slaveholder, the sisters had early on discovered and denounced the cruelty of slavery. They had exiled themselves from their home state. They settled in the North and became Quakers and abolitionists. Because of their writings and speeches, they faced arrest if they ever returned to Charleston.

The Grimkés spent much of 1837 traveling from one Massachusetts town to another, describing their personal experience as slaveholders and calling for the immediate abolition of slavery. They were among the first American women who dared to speak in public, and they defied convention — and drew ridicule — by addressing mixed audiences of men and women.

In 23 weeks, they spoke before at least 88 meetings in 67 towns. By one estimate, they had reached, face to face, over 40,000 people, a staggering number for the time. They inspired an estimated 20,000 women to sign anti-slavery petitions. Petitioning — literally, pleading for legislators' attention — was the only political right American women had. They could not vote, stand for office, sit on a jury, or take any direct political action; all they could do was submit a plea — in the form of a petition — to government officials.

A pastoral letter read from pulpits in July 1837 accused them of threatening "the female character with wide spread and permanent injury."

As the first female anti-slavery agents, the sisters were harassed by hostile mobs, snubbed by polite society, and branded with scandalous slurs. They were denounced as unnatural, unsexed, and immoral.

The most strident opposition came from the state's Congregational clergy. A pastoral letter read from pulpits in July 1837 accused them of threatening "the female character with wide spread and permanent injury." The ministers concluded, "We cannot, therefore, but regret the mistaken conduct of those who encourage females to bear an obtrusive and ostentatious part in measures of reform, and countenance any of that sex who so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and teachers."

The sisters were undeterred. They were driven by a deep religious conviction that slavery was a sin and that working to end this sin was a binding moral obligation. Much to the dismay of most other abolitionists, including Angelina's fiancé Theodore Weld, they also felt compelled to speak out against the subjugation of women.

"The novelty of the scene, the weight of responsibility…— all together sunk me to the earth."

On February 21, 1838, the day after her 33rd birthday, Angelina Grimké entered the Massachusetts State House. The Grimkés' notoriety assured that the chamber would be packed. People curious to see the brazen, "unsexed" Miss Grimké filled the State House to overflowing hours before the session was scheduled to begin. As she made her way through the crowds, Angelina heard taunts from hostile onlookers. She later confessed, "I was never so near fainting under the tremendous pressure of feeling. My heart almost died within me. The novelty of the scene, the weight of responsibility…— all together sunk me to the earth."

But Angelina Grimké's deep religious convictions sustained her. "Our Lord and Master gave me his arm to lean upon and in great weakness, my limbs trembling under me I stood up and spoke." Her fellow abolitionist Lydia Maria Child later reported that Angelina "trembled and grew pale. But this passed quickly, and she went on to speak gloriously."

After presenting the petitions, she told the legislators: "I stand before you as a southerner, exiled from the land of my birth by the sound of the lash and the piteous cry of the slave. I stand before you as a repentant slaveholder. I stand before you as a moral being and as a moral being I feel that I owe it to the suffering slave and to the deluded master, to my country and to the world to do all that I can to overturn a system of complicated crimes. . . ."

". . . as a moral being I feel that I owe it to the suffering slave and to the deluded master, to my country and to the world to do all that I can to overturn a system of complicated crimes. . . ."

This was the anti-slavery message the audience had expected, but Angelina Grimké went further. She asserted that it was her right as a woman to address the legislators on "the great and solemn subject of slavery. . . . Because it is a political subject, it has often tauntingly been said, that women had nothing to do with it." She forcefully insisted that "American women have to do with this subject, not only because it is moral and religious, but because it is political." Angelina Grimké had found the courage to make one of the very first public claims for American women's political rights.

The audience was spellbound. Some were thrilled, others appalled, by what they heard. Predictably, the abolitionist papers were admiring, while the mainstream press was scornful.

The sisters would continue lecturing, writing, and campaigning to bring an end to slavery and the subordination of women. Both would live to see the abolition of slavery; both would die decades before American women achieved the right to full participation in the political process.

If You Go

Visit the Senate Chamber where Angelina Grimke addressed the Massachusetts legislature in 1838.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Individualist Feminism of the Nineteenth Century: Collected Writings and Biographical Profiles," by Wendy McElroy (McFarland and Company, 2001).

The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women's Rights and Abolition, by Gerda Lerner (Houghton Mifflin, 1967).

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