Episode 11

Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman, by Sarah Grimke

Published on: 2nd February, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Have you ever heard this quote?  “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” If you’ve heard this quote before you might attribute it to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And you would be right! She did say that a lot! But what you might not know is that Justice Ginsburg was in fact quoting 19th Century Abolitionist and Women’s Rights Advocate, Sarah Grimke. Today we will be reading the document that contains that quote: a series of letters from Sarah Grimke to fellow Abolitionist Mary S. Parker, in 1838. These letters were later published under the title Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman, and this book is known as the first sustained argument for equal rights written by a woman in the United States. Grimke has become a hero of mine during the past several years, and this particular text may be especially inspiring to listeners who are committed to holding onto their faith despite their struggles with patriarchal practices. I know some of our episodes so far might have been hard for religious listeners to metabolize - they have been hard for me! Grimke was a devoted Christian throughout her life, so this episode may give Christian women and men some encouraging new ways of viewing scripture. (and it will still be fascinating for non-religious listeners as well!)

But before we start, I want to welcome my reading partner, Rebecca Archibald. Hi, Becca!

Becca: Hi, Amy!

Amy:  Becca and I met in 2005 when our husbands were working on their MBAs at Stanford at the same time. We were neighbors on campus and we both had two little girls at the time, and we had similar interests, and as soon as I met you, Becca, I knew you were going to be an important person in my life with important things to teach me. And that was true - there are many nuggets of wisdom that I use in my life as a mother and as a thinker that will come to my mind and I’ll think “Becca taught me that.” I’m so grateful we’ve stayed in touch over the course of many years and many moves to various places, and so thankful that you’re joining me today to talk about this book!

Becca: Happy to be here, etc…. :)

Amy: So I always ask my reading partners to introduce themselves so listeners can get an idea of background and the perspective that each guest will bring to the discussion. Can  you tell us a little about yourself?

Becca: I grew up in Utah, the oldest girl of 6 kids.  Both my parents kind of made me feel like I could do anything, including move to Boston and go to Harvard for graduate school.  I started dating my husband just after I’d  been accepted.  I didn’t know if I should go or stay in Utah where he was---my dad said go, and my mom said stay. I did go, and my husband came to Boston too.   Since, we’ve been lucky to live in many places around the country--New York, Connecticut, Cleveland, Northern Ca and now San Diego.  In some of these places I’ve taught high school English, and in all of these places I’ve read.  You’d think both experiences would come in handy being at home with 5 kids in online school but let’s just say--we all miss real school.  I have loved the extra time for family adventures. 

Amy: And then the other thing I’d like you to tell listeners is what interested you in this project.

Becca: What interested me was a scheduled conversation with Amy.  When we both lived in Northern California, we’d run together in the beautiful wooded hills before anyone else was awake and discuss potty training, racial injustice, recipes--basically solve the problems of the world as we ran.  I miss that!

Of course this is such a compelling topic as well.  I read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings a few years ago which is a historical novel about Sarah and Angelina Grimke.  The minute I finished it I started looking up information about the sisters.  I felt shocked I’d never heard of them before.

Amy: I was shocked when I learned about them too, that I had never heard of them before! They played such a critical role in American History, and I wish more people knew about them. And actually that’s the next thing we’re going to do -  Let’s talk for a minute about Sarah Grimke, who she was, and how she came to write these letters. Becca, why don’t you start us off.


Sarah Grimké was born in South Carolina on November 26, 1792, the sixth of 14 children. Her father was a rich planter, an attorney and judge in South Carolina, and at one point Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives.

Sarah's early experiences with education shaped her future as an abolitionist and feminist. Throughout her childhood, she was keenly aware of the inferiority of her education when compared to her brothers.’While her brothers went to Yale, she was educated by private tutors on subjects considered appropriate for a young Southern woman of her class, including French, embroidery, painting with watercolors, and playing the harpsichord. Her father allowed Sarah to study geography, history, and mathematics from the books in his library, and to read his law books; however, he drew the line at her learning Latin. She was prevented from pursuing her dream of becoming an attorney because it was considered "unwomanly."

Sarah's mother Mary was a dedicated homemaker and an active member in the community. She was a leader in Charleston's Ladies Benevolent Society, and her many charitable activities kept her from developing close relationships with her children.

Sarah developed a connection to the enslaved people working on her father’s plantation, which greatly upset her parents. From the time she was 12 years old, Sarah spent her Sunday afternoons secretly teaching Bible classes to the young enslaved people on the plantation. Her parents claimed that literacy would only make the enslaved people unhappy and rebellious, making them unfit for manual labor, and besides, this activity was illegal: teaching enslaved people to read had been prohibited since 1740 in South Carolina.

Sarah secretly taught Hetty, her personal enslaved girl, to read and write. Years afterward, she reflected on the incident, writing "I took an almost malicious satisfaction in teaching my little waiting maid at night, when she was supposed to be occupied in combing and brushing my locks. The light was put out, the keyhole screened, and flat on our stomachs before the fire, with the spelling book under our eyes, we defied the laws of South Carolina.” But when her father discovered this rebellion, he was furious and nearly had Hetty whipped. This made Sarah realize that breaking the rules in this way would be dangerous for Hetty and her friends, so she stopped teaching them to read in fear that they would get in trouble. 

Interestingly, Sarah’s father told her that if she had been a man,"she would have made the greatest jurist in the country." Sarah believed her inability to get higher education was unfair. She also wondered at the behavior of her family and neighbors, who encouraged enslaved people to be baptized and to attend worship services, but did not consider them true brothers and sisters in faith. So from a very young age, Sarah had an acute awareness of both gender and racial injustice.

Sarah believed that religion should take a more proactive role in improving the lives of those who suffered most. Her religious quest took her first to Presbyterianism; she converted in 1817. After moving to Philadelphia in 1821, she joined the Quakers, whom she had learned about in an earlier visit with her father. The Quakers were an egalitarian sect of Christianity, with female ministers, and they were also outspoken critics of the practice of enslavement, so she converted wholeheartedly. However, she encountered conflict within the Quaker community because she was too radical even for them - she encountered resistance when she tried to lead Quaker congregations, and she protested church segregation by sitting in what was termed the “colored” section with the African American members.

Recounting her move from South Carolina to Pennsylvania, Sarah said:

“As I left my native state on account of slavery, and deserted the home of my fathers to escape the sound of the lash and the shriek of tortured victims, I would gladly bury in oblivion the recollection of those scenes with which I have been familiar. But this cannot be. They come over my memory like gory spectres, and implore me, with resistless power, in the name of a God of mercy, in the name of a crucified Saviour, in the name of humanity, for the sake of the slaveholder as well as the slave, to bear witness to the horrors of the Southern prison-house.”



In the spring of 1827 Sarah returned to Charleston to "save" her younger sister Angelina from the limitations of the South. (Sarah was 35 at the time; Angelina was 22) Angelina visited Sarah in Philadelphia from July to November of the same year and returned to Charleston committed to the Quaker faith. In November, 1829, Angelina joined her sister in Philadelphia. For years, Angelina called Sarah "mother", as Sarah was both her godmother and primary caretaker.


Sarah and Angelina began speaking out against slavery, and Abolition leaders in New York and Boston recognized the unique possibilities presented by Sarah and her sister as spokespersons for the cause, as they had grown up on a slave-holding plantation. The Grimkés underwent training in New York City, where they practiced the antislavery message before small, largely female audiences. Soon they were judged ready for larger things and were called to a series of lectures in the greater Boston area. Before crowds ranging from several hundred to well over a thousand, the Grimkés traveled from town to town, addressing more than forty thousand curious, supportive, and sometimes hostile listeners. [and here I have to mention that I first learned about the Grimke sisters when I was doing research on a paper on female abolitionists in Concord, MA. When the Grimkes stopped in Boston and Concord on their speaking circuit, Ralph Waldo 

Emerson’s wife, and Henry David Thoreau’s mother and sisters, were in attendance at the meeting, and they came home all fired up. The Emerson and Thoreau women joined the Abolitionist movement, and their homes became stops on the Underground Railroad, but the men took a long time to come around - those women worked on the men in their families relentlessly until they finally convinced them to speak up in the cause of Abolishing slavery. This was along with their neighbors, the Alcotts (Louisa May Alcott’s family). 


Anyway… back to the story… Sarah and Angelina became passionately involved in the anti-slavery movement. They met the famous abolitionist Lucretia Mott, and it was around this time that Lucretia Mott let Sarah borrow her copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, written the year Sarah was born, in 1792. (Mott kept a copy of this book on her coffee table and lent it to many men and women). As the sisters lectured on the Abolition circuit along the East coast, they began to face harsh criticism. Their public speeches were seen as unwomanly because they spoke to mixed-gender audiences, called "promiscuous audiences" at the time. They also publicly debated men who disagreed with them. This was too much for the general public of 1837, and as they spoke in churches and other venues they frequently drew large, hostile crowds of men yelling and threatening them and throwing rocks through the windows. Sarah and Angelina sometimes commented that they didn’t know whether these rabidly angry protestors were more furious about their anti-slavery message or about the fact that they were women having the audacity to speak puclicly to men. 

On 28 June 1837 Reverend Nehemiah Adams wrote "A Pastoral Letter of the General Association to the Congregational Churches under Their Care." This "Pastoral Letter" outlined the official stance of the clergy on the Abolitionist movement. First, such controversial subjects as abolitionism were not to be imposed on the faithful as fit matter for debate. Second, the letter warned ministers to avoid talking to or otherwise accommodating those who introduced such matters to their congregations. And finally, it attacked the involvement of women—especially women speakers—in matters of public controversy. The "Pastoral Letter" was in turn followed by two "Clerical Appeals," which specifically targeted William Lloyd Garrison and the unseemly actions of women who took it upon themselves to operate outside their divinely appointed spheres of influence. (We will keep talking about the “separate spheres” ideology in several other episodes.)

Sarah had already begun a series of letters regarding women’s rights, and when she read those letters she decided to turn her attention to a rebuttal. In a series of fifteen letters, written between 11 July and 20 October 1837 and addressed to the president of the Boston Anti-Slavery Society, Mary S. Parker, Grimké argued against those seeking to silence women's role in abolition specifically and the work of public moral reform generally. She grounded her arguments in her interpretation of the Bible, first of all because she was responding to theological arguments levied at her by reverends and ministers of the church, but also because most people in 19th Century America were Christian, and still based their philosophical reasoning in the Bible. These letters were published in the New England Spectator and reprinted in William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator magazine, and they have a place on many “essential readings” Women’s Studies lists, including ours. 

Two last notes: In 1868, Sarah discovered that her late brother had three  mixed-race sons by an enslaved woman. Sarah welcomed these boys to her family, and worked to provide funds to educate them.

She died in 1873 in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, at the age of 81.


Amy: Ok, let’s get into the text. There are 15 letters in this compilation, and Becca and I have each chosen a couple of them to highlight. Becca will start with Letter 1, then we’ll take turns sharing main points from a couple of letters each. So take it away, Becca!



Letter 1: The Original Equality of Woman

I feel that I am venturing on nearly untrodden ground, and that I shall advance arguments in opposition to a corrupt public opinion, and to the perverted interpretation of Holy Writ, which has so universally obtained. But I am in search of truth; and no obstacle shall prevent my prosecuting that search. (3)

Equality of the sexes was not part of the social and cultural consciousness so each time a woman thought or published it, it felt  new and foreign. There was no internet, chat room or forum to read of another’s similar experience or thoughts--though many other women scattered around the country must have surely written similar frustrations in a journal.  While Sarah was certainly an early voice on the subject-- the “untrodden ground” speaks also to the way it felt for her---surely she must have felt alone and approaching a landscape that was unchartered, a forest where no path had been cleared yet. 


Yes, I’m literally one of those women who wrote my frustrations in a journal!! This reminds me of an episode we did on Gerda Lerner’s work in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. Lerner chronicles 1,000 years of Christian women authors through the middle ages and up to Grimke herself. Lerner points out that each woman thinks she is the first one to do it, on “untrodden ground,” because women have never had access to the writings of the women who came before her. They don’t get published, they don’t get passed on, they don’t benefit the women who come after them. More women need to know about Grimke and read this book, if for no other reason then to know they're not alone!


I’m also reminded of how epiphanies feel so totally personal and universal at the same time.  After I had my first daughter after a precarious labor, I felt shocked by the pain and trauma of the birthing experience.  It felt like no one had ever experienced that before for if they had they would have warned me and told me.  

Grimke’s diction also stands out to me--”corrupt” and ”perverted”-- such strong and acrid language. Not only is it an effective rhetorical method because it immediately establishes the cultural and religious views of the day as decrepit, decaying, diseased, which sets up the “truth” to be the antidote. She had so many “enforcers” of other versions of truth in her life.  It cost her so much to give up those versions and yet she did.   


In examining this important subject, I shall depend solely on the Bible to designate the sphere of woman, because I believe almost everything that has been written on this subject has been the result of a misconception of the simple truths revealed in the Scriptures, in consequence of the false translation of many passages of Holy Writ. My mind is entirely delivered from the superstitious reverence which is attached to the English version of the Bible. King James’ translators certainly were not inspired.

Her knowledge of languages helped her see the accepted version of the bible at the time (King James) as a translation rather than the actual word of God.  She is bold enough to call the King James translators  “not inspired.” I imagine it was this type of language that made many view her as radical.  The King James version of the Bible was translated by a group of 40 or so white English men from a British tradition who certainly compromised and negotiated diction as well as saw it through their own social/cultural view of the world--which was patriarchal.  It was translated by men through a patriarchal frame.  For me as a person of faith, this is liberating.  I can love the teachings and don’t have to throw the entire text as...

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.