Sarah Grimké Argues for Women's Rights

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

Sarah Grimké began as an advocate for the immediate abolition of slavery. Soon she found herself defending women’s rights as well in order to advance her primary cause. In her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Woman of 1838, (initally published as a series of letters in a newspaper) Sarah Grimké responded to Catharine Beecher’s defense of the subordinate role of women. She was particularly concerned to attack two of Beecher’s arguments. First was the notion that women were subordinate to men by God’s decree. She argued instead that God had made the sexes equal, but that men had created women’s inferior condition by denying them opportunity and forcing them to do their bidding. Sarah also sought to demolish the concept of “separate spheres” of influence for men and women. She insisted that women had the same rights and duties as men and should be able to participate fully in education, religion, work and politics—including the abolition movement. Sarah made the case for women’s equality with passionate conviction. In 1838 her words were radical indeed, and won the agreement of only a small minority.

Transcription of Primary Source

Woman has been placed by John Quincy Adams, side by side with the slave, whilst he was contending for the right side of petition. I thank him for ranking us with the oppressed; for I shall not find it difficult to show, that in all ages and countries, not even excepting enlightened republican America, woman has more or less been made a means to promote the welfare of man, without due regard to her own happiness, and the glory of God as the end of her creation...

No one can desire more earnestly than I do, that woman may move exactly in the sphere which her Creator has assigned her; and I believe her having been displaced from that sphere has introduced confusion into the world...The New Testament has been referred to [as justifying the inferiority of women], and I am willing to abide by its decision, but must enter my protest against the false translation of some passages by the MEN who did that work, and against the perverted interpretation by the MEN who undertook to write commentaries thereon. I am inclined to think, when we are admitted to the honor of studying Greek and Hebrew, we shall produce some various readings of the Bible a little different from those we now have...

‘Her influence is the source of mighty power.’ This has ever been the flattering language of man since he laid aside the whip as a means to keep woman in subjection. He spares her body; but the war he has waged against her mind, her heart, and her soul, has been no less destructive to her as a moral being. How monstrous, how anti−christian, is the doctrine that woman is to be dependent on man! Where, in all the sacred Scriptures, is this taught? Alas, she has too well learned the lesson which MAN has labored to teach her. She has surrendered her dearest RIGHTS, and been satisfied with the privileges which man has assumed to grant her...

...Man almost always addresses himself to the weakness of woman. By flattery, by an appeal to her passions, he seeks access to her heart; and when he has gained her affections, he uses her as the instrument of his pleasure—the minister of his temporal comfort. He furnishes himself with a housekeeper, whose chief business is in the kitchen, or the nursery. And whilst he goes abroad...his wife is condemned to draw nearly all her instruction from books, if she has time to pursue them; and if not, from her meditations, whilst engaged in those domestic duties, which are necessary for the comfort of her lord and master...

I believe it will be found that men, in the exercise of their usurped dominion over women, have almost invariably done one of two things. They have either made slaves of the creatures whom God designed to be their companions and their coadjutors in every moral and intellectual improvement, or they have dressed them like dolls, and used them as toys to amuse their hours of recreation...

I maintain that they [men and women] are equal, and that God never invested fallen man with unlimited power over his fellow man; and I rejoice that circumstances have prevented woman from being more deeply involved in the guilt which appears to be inseparable from political affairs. If woman had not almost universally been depressed and degraded, the page of history would have exhibited as many eminent statesmen and politicians among women as men. We are much in the situation of the slave. Man has asserted and assumed authority over us...

...Now a new and vast sphere of usefulness is opened to her [the American woman], and she is pressed by surrounding circumstances to come up to the help of the Lord against the giant sins which desolate our beloved country...Shall she rejoice in her home, her husband, her children, and forget her brethren and sisters in bondage...whose husbands and wives are torn from them by relentless tyrants, and whose children are snatched from their arms by their unfeeling task−masters, whenever interest, or convenience, tempts them to this sacrilegious act?...Shall she, because ‘her house is her home, ’ refuse her aid and her sympathy to the down trodden slave?...Did God give her those blessings to steel her heart to the sufferings of her fellow creatures?...Ah no!...

The page of history teems with women’s wrongs, and it is wet with women’s tears.—For the sake of my degraded sex every where, and for the sake of my brethren, who suffer just in proportion as they place woman lower in the scale of creation than man...I entreat my sisters to all the dignity of immortal beings, and plant themselves, side by side, on the platform of human rights, with man to whom they were designed to be companions, equals and helpers in every good word and work.

I cannot close this letter, without saying a few words on the benefits to be derived by men, as well as women, from the opinions I advocate relative to the equality of the sexes. Many women are now supported, in idleness and extravagance, by the industry of their husbands, fathers, or brothers, who are compelled to toil out their existence, at the counting house, or in the printing office, or some other laborious occupation, while the wife and daughters and sisters take no part in the support of the family, and appear to think that their sole business is to spend the hard bought earnings of their male friends. I deeply regret such a state of things, because I believe that if women felt their responsibility, for the support of themselves, or their families, it would add strength and dignity to their characters, and teach them more true sympathy for their husbands, than is now generally manifested...

It will scarcely be denied, I presume, that, as a general rule, men do not desire the improvement of women. There are few instances of men who are magnanimous enough to be entirely willing that women should know more than themselves, on any subjects except dress and cookery; and, indeed, this necessarily flows from their assumption of superiority...

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...

That the laws which have been generally adopted in the United States, for the government of women, have been framed almost entirely for the exclusive benefit of men, and with a design to oppress women, by depriving them of all control over their property, is too manifest* to be denied...Men frame the laws, and, with few exceptions, claim to execute them on both sexes...Although looked upon as an inferior, when considered as an intellectual being, woman is punished with the same severity as man, when she is guilty of moral offences...

In the wealthy classes of society, and those who are in comfortable circumstances, women are exempt from great corporeal exertion, and are protected by public opinion, and by the genial influence of Christianity, from much physical ill treatment. Still, there is a vast amount of secret suffering endured, from the forced submission of women to the opinions and whims of their husbands. Hence they are frequently driven to use deception, to compass* their ends. They are early taught that to appear to yield, is the only way to govern...If she submits, let her do it openly, honorably, not to gain her point, but as a matter of Christian duty. But let her beware how she permits her husband to be her conscience−keeper. On all moral and religious subjects, she is bound to think and act for herself.

Where confidence and love exist, a wife will naturally converse with her husband as with her dearest friend, on all that interests her heart, and there will be a perfectly free interchange of sentiment; but she is no more bound to be governed by his judgement, than he is by hers. They are standing on the same platform of human rights, are equally under the government of God, and accountable to him, and him alone...

One of the duties which devolve upon women in the present interesting crisis, is to prepare themselves for more extensive usefulness, by making use of those religious and literary privileges and advantages that are within their reach, if they will only stretch out their hands and possess them. By doing this, they will become better acquainted with their rights as moral beings, and with their responsibilities growing out of those rights: they will regard themselves, as they really are, FREE AGENTS, immortal beings, amenable to no tribunal but that of Jehovah, and bound not to submit to any restriction imposed for selfish purposes, or to gratify that love of power which has reigned in the heart of man from Adam down to the present time...They will be enabled to see the simple truth, that God has made no distinction between men and women as moral beings; that the distinction now so much insisted upon between male and female virtues is as absurd as it is unscriptural, and has been the fruitful source of much mischief...Now to me it is perfectly clear, that WHATSOEVER IT IS MORALLY RIGHT FOR A MAN TO DO, IT IS MORALLY RIGHT FOR A WOMAN TO DO; and that confusion must exist in the moral world, until women takes her stand on the same platform with man, and feels that she is clothed by her Maker with the same rights, and of course, that upon her devolve the same duties ...

Thine in the bonds of womanhood,


  • compass − achieve, obtain
  • elevation − moral, intellectual or cultural improvement or refining; raising from or above low conceptions; the elevation of woman—increased rights and opportunities for women
  • manifest − obvious, evident

Curator Notes

Type: Book

Exact Title: Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Woman
Page(s): 12, 15−17, 23, 27, 33, 40−41, 45, 54−55, 61, 74, 81, 83, 86−87, 121−123

Year: 1838
Probable Date:


Author/Creator: Sarah M. Grimké

Publisher: Isaac Knapp
Place of Publication: Boston




Catalog Number: Old Sturbridge Village