Last Updated November 23, 1999; comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
(Ed Note: This is the second in a series of our exclusive publication of the manuscript written by Nancy after much research to fill in the gaps left by history books when dealing with women’s issues and their struggle to gain the vote.)
A fledgling, disorganized movement for woman's rights began long before the Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. During the last of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, dramatic changes in the treatment accorded women caused some women to question publicly a woman's role and her rights.
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, especially the invention of steam-powered machinery, material goods could be made cheaper and more abundantly in newly established factories in fast-growing towns and cities. Prior to that, practically all goods for family use and for trade were handmade at home. Women were partners with their menfolk in producing these goods and shared in the rewards.
As the Industrial Revolution spread with the invention of new technologies, men in large numbers gravitated to the cities to take up professions and newly formed jobs. Women were thought unfit for such daring adventures. Left behind on the farm or in the home, women gradually lost their earning power and their potential as producers. They were relegated to the domestic sphere where they consumed the products provided by men. As the practice of medicine developed into a profession, they were denied even the right to be midwives at birth and embalmers at death, traditions belonging to them since ancient times.
By the year 1800, the "cult of true womanhood" was a fixed concept in an emerging, uniquely American middle class. The clergy, with the alleged words of the Apostle Paul ringing in its ears, declared the cult of true womanhood was decreed by Biblical injunction. The "true woman" of the early 19th century was told to be "domestic, maternal, religious, cultured, idle, and subservient."
Sisters think Differently
Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two sisters born to a slave-holding family in Charleston, S.C., thought differently. Sarah, 13 years older, was actually very intelligent, a characteristic generally believed to be absent in women. Since she was denied education beyond a smattering of reading, writing and doing "sums," she secretly studied Latin, Greek, philosophy and law. Some biographers say she was severely threatened by the men in her family for attempting to teach her slaves to read, an illegal act at that time.
Sarah adamantly disapproved of slavery, a belief that eventually alienated her from her family. She left the South in 1821 and never returned on threat of being arrested by the local sheriff because of her subsequent anti-slavery activities. She went to Philadelphia where she joined the Quakers. Her sister Angelina, who held the same sentiments, followed in 1829.
Being among the earliest abolitionists, Quakers also advocated equality for women. However, equality was not a free ticket to licentious living. The same religious and moral constraints imposed on men were imposed on women, and the constraints were very strict. However, Quaker women were permitted to speak out publicly and participate equally with men in church affairs. Also, their formal education was encouraged.
The Quaker code provided the right fit for the Grimke sisters who also joined the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society founded by Lucretia Mott. Through both organizations, they met other women who gathered petitions to Congress to abolish slavery and "who even sold abolitionist pamphlets to pedestrians on the streets."
By 1834, petitions to abolish slavery, collected primarily by hundreds of women, flooded the Congress. "Women's petition drives had become so successful that southern congressmen forced the passage of the Pinckney Gag Rule which forbade the presentation of petitions to the House of Representatives." However, former President John Quincy Adams, then 70 years old, eloquently defended the citizen's right to petition. When his views became known, Adams became a "champion of the right of women not only to petition Congress but to move outside of the duties of the domestic circle."
The Grimkes were swept up in the movement. They spoke not only against slavery but the "exclusion of women from public life." In 1836, Angelina wrote "An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South" which was published by the American Anti-Slavery Society. They became agents for the Society and spoke on its behalf to small private gatherings throughout the Northeast called "parlour talks." They were so popular that before long the sisters were speaking to larger groups. In 1837, for the first time, they addressed a "mixed" audience of men and women.
This was too much for the New England clergy. By the end of July 1837, the Massachusetts clergy issued a "Pastoral Letter of the General Association of Massachusetts to the Congregational Churches Under Their Care." The Letter, read to every member church throughout the state, argued that when "a woman assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer…her character becomes unnatural." Its intent was to persecute the Grimke sisters into silence. It failed.
Denounced by the clergy, Angelina was even called "Devilina" by the press. Today, she might have sued. Then, women had no access to legal recourse and besides, there were no libel laws. So, the sisters simply carried on their work. Angelina wrote a series of "letters," later published as a book called Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, in which she asked for educational reform, equal wages and an end to other forms of discrimination against women.
She argued that "clergymen had misunderstood the Bible when they used it to prove women were inferior"--that this theory had been "invented by men to suppress women." She said, "the Bible never taught women to be passive." In one of her most famous passages, she wrote, "All I ask our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy."
Angelina gave her last speech in 1838, a few days after her marriage to Theodore Weld, another anti-slavery reformer. In response, "an angry mob later burned the building to the ground."
(Quotes from Frost, Elizabeth, and Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn, Women's Suffrage In America, An Eyewitness History, Facts on File, New York*Oxford, 1992; general background from various published sources on woman's history. Copyright 1993)
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