Thoughts on Quaker Feminism: A Devotion from the Life of Sarah Grimke

(1792 – 1873)

(1792 – 1873)

Sarah Grimke and Angelina Grimke Weld were born in slave holding, antebellum Charleston, South Carolina. Often unsung heroes in the Quaker Movement, they were early pioneers of abolition and anti-descrimination. Sarah’s sister Angelina was also a famous abolitionist, feminist, and suffrage activist. After being raised by a slaveholder in Charleston, they moved to Philadelphia in 1819 due to their strong opposition to slavery. Both sisters edited American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. In 1835, Angelina wrote a letter against slavery that William Lloyd Garrison published without her knowledge in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. They quickly became sought-after speakers in the abolitionist movement, speaking initially to women and then to more mixed groups. They both wrote various “open” style letters on slavery.

Sarah and Angela’s Quaker meeting however did not want to be seen as “too political” and, unfortunately, opposed their work. They began looking for excuses to dis-fellowship them both. Angelina was eventually kicked out of her meeting for marrying a non-Quaker abolitionist, and Sarah for attending the wedding. How is that for Quaker legalism!

Sarah and Angelina’s involvement with abolition drew a great deal of sexist opposition, and they both began arguing on eloquent biblical grounds for feminism as well as against the discrimination at the root of slavery. Their southern background enabled them to present their arguments well to their slave-holding culture.  Much could be said about a chronology of their works, and how they piggybacked off one another, but I have decided to focus more on Sarah. Sarah’s  written works include: Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States (1836) which was written in response to opposition from the Congregationalist clergy. The Original Equality of Woman (1837) in which she argues eloquently and convincingly (and with apparent understanding of Hebrew) for egalitarianism from the book of Genesis. And finally the  Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and The Condition of Woman (1838), which both argue from a wider hermeneutical framework and takes into account the whole of Scripture. I was very impressed with Sarah’s syrupy southern charm coupled with iron will, her clear logic, and her high regard for Scripture. She pioneered many modern day feminist arguments, and treated her critics with love and truth. Modern feminism would do well to look to her example, especially in speaking to evangelicals who hold a high view of the authority of Scripture. As a seminary student who is often overwhelmed (and even annoyed) by the constant critique of feminism, I found her voice to be a refreshing one. A good example of her gentle pushback is the following quote:

“But we are told, “the power of woman is in her dependence, flowing from a consciousness of that weakness which God has given her for her protection.” if physical weakness is alluded to, I cheerfully concede the superiority; if brute force is what my brethren are claiming I am willing to let them have all the honor they desire; but if they mean to intimate, that mental or moral weakness belongs to woman, more than to man, I utterly disclaim the charge. Our powers of mind have been crushed, as far as man could do it, our sense of morality has been impaired by his interpretation of our duties; but nowhere does God say that He made any distinction between us as moral and intellectual beings.” -The Pastoral Letter of the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts (1837)[1]

I would encourage interested people to read her writings firsthand, not simply about them. Another great quote I found was this one:

“Even admitting that Eve was the greater sinner, it seems to me man might be satisfied with the dominion he has claimed and exercised for nearly six thousand years, and that more true nobility would be manifested by endeavoring to raise the fallen and invigorate the weak, then by keeping woman in subjection. But I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of 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. If he has not given us the rights which have, as I conceive, then wrested from us, we shall soon give evidence of our inferiority, and shrink back into obscurity, which the high souled magmanimity of man has assigned us as our appropriate sphere.” -Women Subject Only to God (1837)[2]

As I thought of this quote, and the heart behind it, a free verse poem took shape:

 

Among Equals

Formality’s gloss and charm cannot mask

Oppression’s lash

Despite falling by silk wrapped hand.

Is charm wrapped safety offered for women,

Or protection from what they might ask?

Love asks not cheap favor, but a firm place to stand

Sex blurs among Christ’s earthly body

Knit whole

As Love flattens false order arranged at fear’s peck

Women silenced and lead by bridled bit’s pull

Must speak truth in freedom with untrodden neck!

In Christ, sex is one of many facets of love

Expressed

By heart, mind, and will alongside strength.

May God log eyes measuring pleasuring shape as sole asset

For women are not thoughtless flowers cut to length…

Like decorations

Among equals

Sex fades as mind meets mind and heart, heart

Despite dark or light skin, despite genital part.

Permit us stand

 

Resources

 

Edited, and annotated by Larry Ceplair. The Public Years of Sarah and Angelina Grimké: Selected Writings, 1835-1839. New York: Columbia Univ Pr, 1989.

Lerner, Gerda. The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1967.

McCandless, Amy Thompson. “The Grimké Sisters of Charleston, SC: Abolitionist and Feminist Leaders.” Forum On Public Policy: A Journal Of The Oxford Round Table 7, no. 3 (September 2011): 1-14. Political Science Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed June 15, 2013).

Nelson, Robert. “The Forgetfulness of Sex: Devotion and Desire in the Letters of Angelina Grimke and Theodore Weld.” Journal of Social History 37, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 663-79. Accessed June 18, 2013. http://0-muse.jhu.edu.catalog.georgefox.edu/journals/journal_of_social_history/v037/37.3nelson.html, http://0-www.jstor.org.catalog.georgefox.edu/stable/3790158 DOI: 10.1353/jsh.2004.0018.


[1] Gerda, Lerner, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1967), 214.

[2]  Ibid 208.

Advertisements

About jtower11

Hi there! I am James Tower: A husband, father, dreamer, visionary, thinker, poet, mystic, metal-worker, and scholar. I have served College Avenue Friends since 2013. I like to describe the way God has been at work in my life by saying that "He has been creating in me the heart of a pastor, the mind of a scholar, and the zeal of a missionary." I have an extremely nontraditional background as Jesus has given me freedom from the slavery of addiction to drugs, and my journey to faith came later in life after an overdose in 2000. I graduated with a M. Div with an emphasis in biblical studies from George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland Oregon in 2016. I have a love for teaching and revealing the historical and doctrinal context from which the biblical text arises, and connecting its redemptive message to life today. Other interests include teaching a leadership class based on the Friends Testimonies at William Penn University, writing, and metalwork such as blacksmithing, a passion which I enjoy teaching others as a way of discipleship. View all posts by jtower11

3 responses to “Thoughts on Quaker Feminism: A Devotion from the Life of Sarah Grimke

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: