Sarah and Angelina Grimké

A wood engraving of two women

Courtesy: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ61-1609 and LC-USZ61-1608.

Shown here in undated individual wood engravings, the Grimké sisters, Sarah (1792–1873) and Angelina (1805–1879), hailed from a wealthy and prominent Charleston, South Carolina, slaveholding family. After visiting Philadelphia and coming under the influence of antislavery Quakers, they converted to Quakerism and became outspoken abolitionists. As writers and public speakers, they proved invaluable to the antislavery cause due to their firsthand testimony about the racist regime of slavery. On their 1837 speaking tour of the North, in which they addressed mixed audiences of men and women, they were attacked for stepping outside the proper female sphere, a backlash that sparked their activism for women’s rights. Critics accused the Grimkés of acting in an unfeminine fashion and encouraging national disunion through their refusal to assume the traditional female role of fostering family and social harmony. Women’s antislavery activism seemed particularly dangerous to the survival of the slaveholding republic. By accusing the Grimkés of treasonous behavior in the antislavery debates of the 1830s, their critics unwittingly placed them at the center of American politics.