Friday, December 23, 2011

December 23 - Sarah Grimke, Abolitionist, Feminist, Activist

Sarah couldn't believe that her father would agree to that. She may only have been five but she was convinced that her father's actions were reprehensible. She gathered up a few of her things in secret and set out from the house to find a way out of her native South Carolina. Her father--a proud advocate of slavery--had ordered a slave to be beaten and Sarah had tagged along to see what he meant by that. She couldn't imagine that her father would actually order some poor person to be abused yet she was surprised to see a slave tied to a post and whipped repeatedly. That's what had convinced her she had to run away and find a place to live in a state where slavery was not the norm.Of course, five-year-olds--no matter how powerfully angry--cannot get far when they are surrounded by miles and miles of land and so she was caught on her flight and brought back to the plantation to pout silently in her room. This disgust with injustice would characterize the rest of her life.
Sarah was the sixth eldest child of fourteen and was clearly one of the more intelligent children her mother and father had. As she aged, her intellect was further demonstrated in her ability to teach herself and apply her growing wealth of academic resources to the problems at hand. She hoped to follow in the path of her father--a respected lawyer and judge--with one notable exception: she wanted to fight against slavery. As she grew, however, her father began to get nervous about his daughter's intellect. When Sarah let it slip that she hoped to go to college (like her older brother) to become an attorney, she was forbidden from continuing to study so that she would be unable to attend college. It seems that in order to prevent her from achieving, they crippled her intellectually because she was a woman and her father felt it was inappropriate for a woman to take that kind of position. She resisted this obstacle but it proved to be fairly insurmountable for young Sarah. She did, however teach the slave assigned to her to read--in contradiction of the law--because she recognized the power of education even as she was denied its graces. This event only deepened her commitment to women's rights and the suffrage of the disenfranchised.

Sarah was the godmother of her own sister--Angelina, the youngest--and helped tutor and care for her as she grew older. Sarah even came back for her many years later after she had already moved to Philadelphia and become active in the abolitionist community and church there. When Angelina was twenty-two (and Sarah was thirty-five), Sarah came back to Charleston to convert her sister to Christianity and bring her north. Angelina would convert but it would be two more years before she moved north to live with her sister. In Philadelphia, the sisters worked for the abolitionist and the feminist cause and Angelina eventually married. In Angelina's home with her husband Theodore, there was a room for Sarahand the sisters worked together out of the home to edit newspapers and release articles and papers that denounced slavery and repression of women. Though they were rebuked by ministers and eventually given an ultimatum by the Quakers, they refused to accept that slavery was acceptable or women were to be subservient and second-class creatures. They stood upon the same foundation that their opponents stood upon: the Christian faith. By refusing to appeal to another foundation, they refused to concede the holy to those who would abuse it.

When Sarah was seventy-eight years old, the United States ratified the fifteenth amendment to the United State Constitution which stated: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." In many ways, this was a victory for Sarah and in her advanced age, she could have sat back and congratulated herself for the rest of her life yet she was not finished. A little while later, she attempted to vote on the basis that the fifteenth amendment should expand voting to all people regardless of sex. She was rejected, however, as it would take the nineteenth amendment in 1920 before women could vote. Sarah spent the rest of her life rehashing old arguments with new circumstances and campaigning for a world she would never witness. She died on December 23 in the year 1873.

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