The First Woman to Address the Massachusetts Senate

Letter

Background Notes

Angelina and Sarah Grimké were born in Charleston, South Carolina into a prominent family that owned slaves. Both were deeply religious, left their home and became enthusiastic advocates of the antislavery cause. At first they wrote for the cause, then they began lecturing to groups of women and eventually extended their audiences to include men as well. This was extremely unusual and unacceptable behavior for females at the time, and the Grimké sisters were the object of much criticism. The attacks made on them for speaking in public actually increased their audiences and gave them a measure of fame. At the close of their nine−month lecture tour in 1838, Angelina was invited to speak before the Massachusetts Senate on behalf of antislavery petitions presented by women. She became the first woman ever to address a legislative body in the United States. In this letter to her friend Sarah Douglass she described how such an unusual meeting proceeded. As a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), Angelina used the old−fashioned terms “thee” and “thou” when addressing another person.

Transcription of Primary Source

Brookline [Mass.] 2d Month 25th [1838]

My Dear Sarah

I have for some time felt that I ought to write thee a letter...and now I shall try to make some amends by giving thee some account of my second meeting with the Legislative Committee...On reaching the State House we found numbers of persons coming away not being able to gain admittance; and the hall was jambed to such excess that it was with great difficulty we were squeezed in, and then [we] were compelled to walk over the seats in order to reach the place assigned us. As soon as we entered we were received by clapping...After the bustle was over I rose to speak and was greeted by hisses from the doorway, tho’ profound silence reigned thro’ the crowd within. The noise in that direction increased and I was requested by the Chairman to suspend my remarks until order could be restored. Three times was I thus interrupted, until at last one of the Committee came to me and requested I would stand near the Speakers desk. I crossed the Hall and stood on the platform in front of it, but was immediately requested to occupy the Secretaries desk on one side. I had just fixed my papers on two gentlemen’s hats when at last I was invited to stand in the Speaker’s desk. This was in the middle, more elevated and far more convenient in every respect. Now my friend, how dost thou think I bore all this? I never was favored with greater self−possession. I was perfectly calm—took up the thread of my discourse and by speaking very loud, soon succeeded in hushing down the noise of the people, and was suffered to continue for more than 2 hours without the least interruption... My subjects were the Dangers of Slavery, the Safety of Emancipation, Gradualism*, and Character of the Free people of Color, the cruel treatment they were subjected to thro’ the influence of prejudice—this prejudice always accompanied gradual emancipation...What the effect of these meetings is to be I know not, nor do I feel I have anything to do with it...No doubt great numbers who have attended them come out of mere curiosity; some to make fun of such a strange anomaly as a Woman’s addressing a Committee of the Legislature; they came despising me and my cause from the bottom of their hearts. But I trust the Lord will overrule all things to his own glory, the manumission of the slave and the elevation* of woman, for such proceedings cannot but have an important bearing on the Woman Question* as it is called...

Thine in the bonds of the oppressed.

A. E. Gé [Angelina E. Grimké]

Glossary

  • elevation − moral, intellectual or cultural improvement or refining; raising from or above low conceptions; the elevation of woman—increased rights and opportunities for women
  • Gradualism − gradual emancipation of slaves

Curator Notes

Type: Book

Exact Title: The Letters of Theodore Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah M. Grimké,1822−1844
Periodical:
Volume: Vol. II
Page(s): 572−575

Year: 1970
Probable Date:

Description:

Author/Creator: Angelina Grimké

Publisher: Da Capo Press
Place of Publication: New York

Dimensions:

Materials:

Condition:

Catalog Number: Old Sturbridge Village