“I am trying to talk down, and write down and live down this horrible prejudice … we must dig up this weed by the roots out of each of our hearts…”
Angelina Grimke Weld

The Grimke sisters, Sarah (1792 – 1873) and Angelina (1805 – 1879), were born to an elite family who owned several plantations and many enslaved people in South Carolina. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, tens of thousands of enslaved people arrived in their region via the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Though brought up in the lap of luxury, both women rejected outright the status quo to became staunch abolitionists from a young age. Sarah was the sixth and Angelina the youngest of 14 children. Their parents did not believe in educating women, but they were trained in the ‘womanly pursuits’ of sewing, music and painting, etc. Their brother, Thomas, a student at Yale, taught his sisters Greek and Latin, mathematics and geography.

Sarah and Angelina recognised early the terrible injustices inflicted on enslaved people, which is remarkable considering there were no influences to the contrary in their early lives. They taught slaves to read and write and held prayer meetings with some. Ultimately, they were expelled by the Presbyterian denomination, who endorsed slavery. Sarah began to attend Quaker meetings because of their abolitionist and egalitarian beliefs and ultimately moved to Pennsylvania, followed by Angelina a few years later. In 1829 both joined the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society

In 1835 Angelina wrote an article to William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the anti-slavery magazine The Liberator, and he published it without her permission, thus launching her career as an abolitionist writer and speaker. The following year she wrote An Appeal to Christian Women of the South urging white Southern women to join the abolitionist cause. At the same time, Sarah released her work Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States. Leaders in the South burned their books and warned Mrs Grimke that if her daughters attempted to return home, they would be arrested. The rage was so vehement that at one point the Charleston Post Office was raided and incoming writings from the Grimke sisters were burned. The Congregational Ministers’ Association of Massachusetts wrote a public statement against them for daring to speak ‘while female’.

In 1837 the sisters became the first female agents of Garrison’s American Antislavery Society (AAS) touring New York and New Jersey lecturing and writing on the evils of slavery, drawing severe disapproval of church ministers for their ‘unwomanly behaviour’. Angelina, whose fame as a brilliant orator had spread wide, became the first woman to address the Massachusetts State Legislature, presenting a petition signed by 20,000 women seeking the end of slavery. Both argued eloquently for equality of the Black population, using Scripture as their base. Theirs are writings of enormous Biblical insight, clamouring for justice.

Ironically, it was resistance to their speaking and writing that led them to widen their scope to address issues of equality for women. Although their speaking was persuasive and intelligent, the scandal of women speaking in public was the issue. In fact, they found themselves outliers with both sides. Many abolitionists did not agree that women should speak or write publicly, and many who lobbied for equal rights for men and women did not feel the same about slavery.

In 1838, Angelina married Thomas Weld whom she had met through the AAS. Two days later, she spoke at the annual anti-slavery convention in Philadelphia in a building that had been purpose-built by the AAS as they were unable to rent premises for their conferences. Angry anti-abolitionist crowds, enraged by a woman addressing a mixed audience, burned the building down that night. Following that, the Quakers kicked the sisters out because Angelina’s husband was not a Quaker.

Thus, their speaking lives ended, although they continued to write and support the abolitionist cause. Moving to a farm in New Jersey, along with Sarah, who lived with them all her life, they began a co-educational school, taking in students to live with them. By 1852 they had two boarding schools, teaching until 1862, during which time the Civil War began.

Around this time, they came to hear of their three African-American nephews, sons of their brother Henry and Nancy Weston, a woman he had enslaved. They had been sold by their own half-brother, another son of Henry’s. Sarah, Angelina and Thomas welcomed the three boys, educating and supporting them as they did their own children. One, Archibald Henry Grimke, went on to Harvard Law School, and another, Frances James Grimke, went to Princeton Theological Seminary, no surprise considering the Grimke family abounded with lawyers and judges. Both men became national leaders in the Black community.

The Grimke sisters have only recently come to be recognised for the massive contributions they made to the freeing of enslaved peoples, and gender equality. Their courage and integrity were astonishing, especially considering that they were rejected by their culture and people group in order to stand for justice. They faced danger regularly, facing down angry mobs, threats of violence, poverty and the disapproval of their society, yet still they pushed through.

One of the issues of the fight for gender equality even in the 21st century is that it has not taken the needs of persons of colour into account. Often presented as a fight for the equality of white women, there has been a marked ignorance or indifference in regard to the woman of colour who carries the twin burdens of colour and gender injustice. Sarah and Angelina addressed the issues of the fight with determination to see justice and equality for people of colour. It was only because of resistance to their voices, the battle was extended to include gender inequality.

Both women lived their entire lives as advocates for justice for people of colour and women. They lived to see the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 but did not live to see women get the vote. Both held positions of vice president of the Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Movement, founded in 1870, and in March that year when Sarah was 78, and Angelina was 65, they led a group of 50 women and a few male supporters to the Town Hall where they proceeded to cast their votes illegally. Their votes were discounted but are now in the Hyde Park Historical Society as a tribute to the history of women. (Ironically, yesterday’s agitators have a habit of becoming tomorrow’s heroes.)

Both of these women look somewhat grim *ba-boom* but photos were like that back in the day. Your passport or driving licence photo give the same effect. However, they were people of such courage, exiled from their home state and many of their family because of their battle, yet never wavering over their long lives from the call of God to fight for justice for the Black communities in their nation, and for women.

“I know nothing of man’s rights, or women’s rights. Human rights are all I recognise.”
Sarah Grimke


The 19th century was far more restrictive of women than the 21st. Having a different opinion of righteousness and godly justice cost these two women things we value highly: approval, acceptance, family relationships, finances, safety and comfort, and yet they had a vision for a society in which all people, created equal in the sight of God, would be treated equally.

  1. If you knew you would be rejected all your life for following the dictates of your faith, which is the motivation Sarah and Angelina had, what would you do?
  2. Although people of colour and women are now ostensibly ‘free’, the deaths in custody, the lack of promotions, the stereotyping, gender pay gaps, and other stark indicators of inequality are still visible. How would a godly leader begin to address these issues?
  3. How valuable is the status quo? Should it be preserved at all costs? What if it is wrong?