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Sarah Grimke’s Letters on the Equality of the Sexes

Sarah M. Grimké, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women, 1837

Handout A: Principles and Virtues Glossary

Have your students read the introduction and answer the Sourcing questions. Then have students read Grimke’s letter and answer the Comprehension questions. Finish the lesson with a class discussion of the Historical Reasoning questions. Depending on your student’s vocabulary, they may need to read Handout A to help them with the final section. The women’s rights movement grew significantly over the course of the nineteenth century as women fought to secure an equal place in society alongside men. Sarah Grimké was born on a South Carolina plantation in 1792 but grew to despise slavery. Sarah and her sister, Angelina, became one of the first prominent female voices in favor of abolitionism and traveled throughout the country giving speeches and lectures against slavery. Male abolitionists immediately condemned Sarah and Angelina for stepping outside of a traditional domestic role, leading the sisters to also begin to fight for a political voice for women. Sarah wrote multiple letters to Mary Parker, the president of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, in 1837. In the following letter, she discussed the legal inequalities that women faced in American society.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote this document?
  2. Why did the author become involved in the women’s rights movement?
  3. Who was this letter addressed to? What might this person have in common with the author?
Vocabulary Text
Note: Grimké’s italicized text are quotes from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England
cipher (n): a zero My Dear Sister, There are few things which present greater obstacles to the improvement and elevation of woman to her appropriate sphere of usefulness and duty, than the laws which have been enacted to destroy her independence, and crush her individuality; laws which, although they are framed for her government, she has had no voice in establishing, and which rob her of some of her essential rights. Woman has no political existence. With the single exception of presenting a petition to the legislative body, she is a cipher in the nation; or, if not actually so in representative governments, she is only counted, like the slaves of the South, to swell the number of law-makers who form decrees for her government, with little reference to her benefit, except so far as her good may promote their own. . . . “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being, or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband under whose wing, protection and cover she performs everything. . . . ”
nullity (n): a thing of no importance Here now, the very being of woman, like that of a slave, is absorbed in her master. All contracts made with her, like those made with slaves by their owners, are a mere nullity. Our kind defenders have legislated away almost all of our legal rights, and in the true spirit of such injustice and oppression, have kept us in ignorance of those very laws by which we are governed. They have persuaded us, that we have no right to investigate the laws, and that, if we did, we could not comprehend them. . . . “The husband, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction, as he is to answer for her misbehavior. The law thought it reasonable to entrust him with this power of restraining her by domestic chastisement. The courts of law will still permit a husband to restrain a wife of her liberty, in case of any gross misbehavior.”
mortifying (adj): causing great embarrassment or shame What a mortifying proof this law affords, of the estimation in which woman is held! She is placed completely in the hands of a being subject like herself to the outbursts of passion, and therefore unworthy to be trusted with power. . . . “A woman’s personal property by marriage becomes absolutely her husband’s, which, at his death, he may leave entirely away from her.”
avail (n): benefit And farther, all the avails of her labor are absolutely in the power of her husband. All that she acquires by her industry is his; so that she cannot, with her own honest earnings, become the legal purchaser of any property. . . . “All that a slave possesses belongs to his master; he possesses nothing of his own, except what his master chooses he should possess. . . . ”
transcribe (v): to put into written form intimate (v): to imply debasing (adj): degrading indulgence (n): satisfaction The various laws which I have transcribed, leave women very little more liberty, or power, in some respects, than the slave. “A slave,” says the civil code of Louisiana, “is one who is in the power of a master, to whom he belongs. He can possess nothing, nor acquire anything, but what must belong to his master.” I do not wish by any means to intimate that the condition of free women can be compared to that of slaves in suffering, or in degradation; still, I believe the laws which deprive married women of their rights and privileges, have a tendency to lessen them in their own estimation as moral and responsible beings, and that their being made by civil law inferior to their husbands, has a debasing and mischievous effect upon them, teaching them practically the fatal lesson to look unto man for protection and indulgence. . . . Thine in the bonds of womanhood, Sarah M. Grimké

Comprehension Questions

  1. According to Grimké, what is one of the greatest obstacles to improving and elevating women?
  2. According to Grimké, why are women counted politically?
  3. What comparisons does Grimké make between women and slaves? Given her audience, why would she do this?
  4. Who are the “kind defenders” Grimke refers to? What did these individuals do to convince women of their place?
  5. Why does Grimké argue that men were unworthy to be trusted with power over women?
  6. What does Grimké argue is the result of making women inferior to their husbands by civil law?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. What aspects of republicanism does Grimké raise in her letter, either directly or indirectly, that she believes are not being upheld for women? If necessary, refer your students to Handout A: Principles and Virtues Glossary for a better understanding of republican principles.
  2. The Grimké sisters were very controversial figures for their time. Many abolitionists and feminists believed they were hurting the antislavery and women’s rights causes by lecturing and speaking in public on political issues, something that the American public overwhelmingly viewed as for men alone. Do you think the Grimké sisters would have been more or less effective in promoting their message by being less controversial? Explain your answer.