A Private Debate About Abolition and Women's Rights


Background Notes

When Sarah and Angelina Grimké—southern−born converts to the cause of antislavery—began writing and speaking on woman’s rights as well as abolition, many of their fellow abolitionists objected. In these letters, the abolitionist organizer Theodore Weld explained his doubts about the wisdom of their activities, and Angelina responded. Like most abolitionists, Weld and the Grimkés addressed each other as “sister” and “brother,” a sign of the close ties between members of the anti−slavery movement.

The Grimkés’ speaking out on woman’s rights not only angered most clergy and most other conservative men, but also worried many abolitionists. They were concerned that the sisters were generating controversy which detracted from their effectiveness as agents for the antislavery cause. Even Theodore Weld, who himself believed in woman’s equality and who was to marry Angelina Grimké in 1838, urged the sisters to confine themselves to abolitionism. He believed that the Grimkés, as Southerners and former slaveholders, were especially persuasive opponents of slavery. He told them that “this peculiar advantage you lose the moment you take another subject.” But Angelina and Sarah were not convinced, even by Theodore Weld. Angelina wrote back that “the time to assert a right is the time when that right is denied.” She attempted to convince him that “we cannot push Abolitionism forward with all our might until we take up the stumbling block out of the road.” This correspondence ended with a compromise. Sarah continued publishing her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes but the sisters no longer emphasized the “woman question” in their public speeches. But this did not stop the attacks on them, because the simple fact of their speaking in public was just as controversial as what they said.

Transcription of Primary Source

Excerpts from the letters of Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimké
Theodore Weld to Sarah and Angelina Grimké
New York, August 15 [18]37

My dear sisters

I had it in my heart to make a suggestion to you in my last letter about your course touching the “rights of women”, but it was crowded out by other matters perhaps of less importance...

Now as I have a small sheet (fool that I didn’t take a larger) and much to say, I’ll make points. 1. As to the rights and wrongs of women, it is an old theme with me. It was the first subject I ever discussed. In a little debating society when a boy, I took the ground that sex neither qualified nor disqualified for the discharge of any functions mental, moral or spiritual; that there is no reason why woman should not make laws, administer justice, sit in the chair of state, plead at the bar or in the pulpit, if she has the qualifications, just as much as tho she belonged to the other sex. Further, that the proposition of marriage may with just the same propriety be made by the woman as the man, and that the existing usage on that subject, pronouncing it alone the province of the man, and indelicacy and almost, if not quite immoral for woman to make the first advances, overlooks or rather perverts the sacred design of the institution and debases it...Now as I have never found man, woman or child who agreed with me in the “ultraism” of woman’s rights, I take it for granted even you will cry out “oh shocking”!! at the courting part of the doctrine. Very well, let that pass. What I advocated in boyhood I advocate now, that woman in EVERY particular shares equally with man rights and responsibilities. Now I have made this statement of my creed on this point to show you that we fully agree in principle except that I probably go much farther than you do in a single particular. Now notwithstanding this, I do most deeply regret that you have begun a series of articles in the Papers on the rights of woman. Why, my dear sisters, the best possible advocacy which you can make is just what you are making day by day. Thousands hear you every week who have all their lives held that woman must not speak in public. Such a practical refutation of the dogma as your speaking furnishes has already converted multitudes...Besides you are Southerners, have been slaveholders; your dearest friends are all in the sin and shame and peril. All these things give you great access to northern mind, great sway over it...You can do more at convincing the north than twenty northern females, tho’ they could speak as well as you. Now this peculiar advantage you lose the moment you take another subject. You come down from your vantage ground. Any women of your powers will produce as much effect as you on the north in advocating the rights of free women (I mean in contradistinction to slave women)...Now you two are the ONLY FEMALES in the free states who combine all these facilities for anti−slavery effort: 1. Are southerners. 2. Have been slaveholders. 3. For a long time most widely known by the eminence of friends. 4. Speaking and writing power and practice. 5. Ultra Abolitionist. 6. Acquaintance with the whole subject, argumentative, historical, legal and biblical. Now what unspeakable responsibilities rest on you— on YOU! Oh my soul! that you but felt them as they are. Now can’t you leave the lesser work to others...and devote, consecrate your whole bodies, souls and spirits to the greater work which you can do far better and to far better purpose than any body else...Let us all first wake up the nation to lift millions of slaves of both sexes from the dust, and turn them into MEN and then when we all have our hand in, it will be an easy matter to take millions of females from their knees and set them on their feet, or in other words transform them from babies into women ...I pray our dear Lord to give you wisdom and grace and help and bless you forever.

Your brother T. D. Weld

Angelina Grimké to Theodore Weld and John Greenleaf Whittier
Brookline [Mass.] 8th Mo 20 − [1837]

To Theodore D. Weld and J. G. Whittier
Brethren beloved in the Lord.

As your letters came to hand at the same time and both are devoted mainly to the same subject we have concluded to answer them on one sheet and jointly. You seem greatly alarmed at the idea of our advocating the rights of woman ...These letters have not been the means of arousing the public attention to the subject of Womans rights, it was the Pastoral Letter which did the mischief. The ministers seemed panic struck at once and commenced a most violent attack upon us... This Letter then roused the attention of the whole country to enquire what right we had to open our mouths for the dumb; the people were continually told “it is a shame for a woman to speak in the churches.” Paul suffered not a woman to teach but commanded her to be in silence. The pulpit is too sacred a place for woman’s foot etc. Now my dear brothers this invasion of our rights was just such an attack upon us, as that made upon Abolitionists generally when they were told a few years ago that they had no right to discuss the subject of Slavery. Did you take no notice of this assertion? Why no! With one heart and one voice you said, We will settle this right before we go one step further. The time to assert a right is the time when that right is denied. We must establish this right for if we do not, it will be impossible for us to go on with the work of Emancipation ...

And can you not see that women could do, and would do a hundred times more for the slave if she were not fettered? Why! we are gravely told that we are out of our sphere even when we circulate petitions; out of our “appropriate sphere” when we speak to women only; and out of them when we sing in the churches. Silence is our province, submission our duty. If then we “give no reason for the hope that is in us”, that we have equal rights with our brethren, how can we expect to be permitted much longer to exercise those rights? ...If we are to do any good in the Anti Slavery cause, our right to labor in it must be firmly established...O that you were here that we might have a good long, long talk over matters and things, then I could explain myself far better. And I think we could convince you that we cannot push Abolitionism forward with all our might until we take up the stumbling block out of the road...How can we expect to be able to hold meetings much longer when people are so diligently taught to despise us for thus stepping out of the ‘sphere of woman!’ Look at this instance: after we had left Groton the Abolition minister there, at Lyceum meeting poured out his sarcasm and ridicule upon our heads and among other things said, he would as soon be caught robbing a hen roost as encouraging a woman to lecture. Now brethren if the leaders of the people thus speak of our labors, how long will we be allowed to prosecute them?...They utterly deny our right to interfere with this or any other moral reform except in the particular way they choose to make out for us to walk in...If we surrender the right to speak to the public this year, we must surrender the right to petition next year and the right to write the year after and so on. What then can woman do for the slave when she is herself under the feet of man and shamed into silence? ...

With regard to brother Welds ultraism on the subject of marriage, he is quite mistaken if he fancies he has got far ahead of us in the human rights reform. We do not think his doctrine at all shocking: it is altogether right ...By the bye it will be very important to establish this right, for the men of Mass. stoutly declare that women who hold such sentiments of equality can never expect to be courted. They seem to hold out this as a kind of threat to deter us from asserting our rights...

Anti Slavery men are trying very hard to separate what God hath joined together. I fully believe that so far from keeping different moral reformations entirely distinct that no such attempt can ever be successful...They blend with each other like the colors of the rain bow...As there were prophetesses as well as prophets, so there ought to be now female as well as male ministers. Just let this one principle be established and what will become of the power and sacredness of the pastoral office? Is brother Weld frightened at my ultraism? Please write to us soon and let us know what you think after reflecting on this letter...

May the Lord bless you my dear brothers...

A. E. G.

[P.S.] We never mention women’s rights in our lectures except so far as is necessary to urge them to meet their responsibilities. We speak of their responsibilities and leave them to infer their rights. I could cross this letter all over but must not encroach on your time.

I should not be at all surprised if the public demanded of us “by what authority doest thou this thing”, and if we had to lecture on this subject specifically and call upon the men “to show cause if any they had” why women should not open their mouths for the dumb.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
The Letters of Theodore Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah M. Grimké, 1822−1844
Theodore Weld
Da Capo Press
Place of Publication: 
New York
Old Sturbridge Village