Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women

Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women

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Introduction

Sarah Grimké was raised on a plantation in South Carolina, but as an adult she converted to the Quaker faith and became not only an abolitionist but a prominent woman’s rights advocate as well. Grimké was acutely aware of the privileges her parents’ wealth and relatively liberal views on education had afforded her, most importantly allowing her the leisure to cultivate her mind through the study of serious works. In contrast, she saw other young women in her social circle denied the advantages of an education and misled into believing their minds were made only for “fashion.” At the other end of the social spectrum, Grimké knew, there were women without the freedom to do even that; note how her letter rhetorically compares the mental confinement of wealthy women to the financial confinement of working-class women to the physical confinement of enslaved women. Although Grimké did not deny the obvious differences between such groups, she glossed over them in an effort to underscore the larger fact that all women in antebellum America were burdened by their inequality with men.

Source: Sarah Grimké, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women (Boston: 1838)


Letter VIII: On the Condition of Women in the United States

. . . I shall now proceed to make a few remarks on the condition of women in my own country.

During the early part of my life, my lot was cast among the butterflies of the fashionable world; and of this class of women, I am constrained to say, both from experience and observation, that their education is miserably deficient; that they are taught to regard marriage as the one thing needful, the only avenue to distinction; hence to attract the notice, win the attentions of men, by their exterior charms, is the chief business of fashionable girls. They seldom think that men will be allured by intellectual acquirements, because they find that where any mental superiority exists, a woman is generally shunned and regarded as stepping out of her “appropriate sphere,” which, in their view, is to dress, to dance, to set out to the best possible advantage her person, to read the novels which inundate the press, and which do more to destroy her character as a rational creature than anything else. Fashionable women regard themselves, and are regarded by men, as pretty toys or as mere instruments of pleasure. . . .

There is another and much more numerous class in this country, who are withdrawn by education or circumstances from the circle of fashionable amusements, but who are brought up with the dangerous and absurd idea that marriage is a kind of preferment; and that to be able to keep their husband’s house, and render his situation comfortable, is the end of her being. Much that she does and says and thinks is done in reference to this situation; and to be married is too often held up to the view of girls as the sine qua non[1] of human happiness and human existence. For this purpose more than for any other, I verily believe the majority of girls are trained. This is demonstrated by the imperfect education which is bestowed upon them, and the little pains taken to cultivate their minds, after they leave school, by the little time allowed them for reading, and by the idea being constantly inculcated, that although all household concerns should be attended to with scrupulous punctuality at particular seasons, the improvement of their intellectual capacities is only a secondary consideration, and may serve as an occupation to fill up the odds and ends of time. In most families, it is considered a matter of far more consequence to call a girl off from making a pie, or a pudding, than to interrupt her whilst engaged in her studies. This mode of training necessarily exalts, in their view, the animal above the intellectual and spiritual nature, and teaches women to regard themselves as a kind of machinery, necessary to keep the domestic engine in order, but of little value as the intelligent companions of men. . . .

There is another way in which the general opinion that women are inferior to men is manifested that bears with tremendous effect on the laboring class, and indeed on almost all who are obliged to earn a subsistence, whether it be by mental or physical exertion—I allude to the disproportionate value set on the time and labor of men and of women. A man who is engaged in teaching can always, I believe, command a higher price for tuition than a woman—even when he teaches the same branches, and is not in any respect superior to the woman. This I know is the case in boarding and other schools with which I have been acquainted, and it is so in every occupation in which the sexes engage indiscriminately. . . . In those employments which are peculiar to women, their time is estimated at only half the value of that of men. A woman who goes out to wash works as hard in proportion as a wood sawyer, or a coal heaver, but she is not generally able to make more than half as much by a day’s work. The low remuneration which women receive for their work, has claimed the attention of a few philanthropists, and I hope it will continue to do so until some remedy is applied for this enormous evil. . . .

There is another class of women in this country, to whom I cannot refer without feelings of the deepest shame and sorrow. I allude to our female slaves. Our southern cities are whelmed beneath a tide of pollution; the virtue of female slaves is wholly at the mercy of irresponsible tyrants, and women are bought and sold in our slave markets, to gratify the brutal lust of those who bear the name of Christians. In our slave states, if amid all her degradation and ignorance, a woman desires to preserve her virtue unsullied, she is either bribed or whipped into compliance, or if she dares resist her seducer, her life by the laws of some of the slave states may be, and has actually been, sacrificed to the fury of disappointed passion. Where such laws do not exist, the power which is necessarily vested in the master over his property leaves the defenseless slave entirely at his mercy, and the sufferings of some females on this account, both physical and mental, are intense.

. . . Nor does the colored woman suffer alone: the moral purity of the white woman is deeply contaminated. In the daily habit of seeing the virtue of her enslaved sister sacrificed without hesitancy or remorse, she looks upon the crimes of seduction and illicit intercourse without horror, and although not personally involved in the guilt, she loses that value for innocence in her own, as well as the other sex, which is one of the strongest safeguards to virtue. She lives in habitual intercourse with men, whom she knows to be polluted by licentiousness. . . .

Can any American woman look at these scenes of shocking licentiousness and cruelty, and fold her hands in apathy, and say, “I have nothing to do with slavery”? She cannot and be guiltless. 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—a sympathy which would be exhibited by actions as well as words. Our brethren may reject my doctrine, because it runs counter to common opinions, and because it wounds their pride; but I believe they would be “partakers of the benefit” resulting from the Equality of the Sexes, and would find that woman as their equal was unspeakably more valuable than woman as their inferior, both as a moral and an intellectual being.

Thine in the bonds of womanhood,

Sarah M. Grimké

Footnotes
  1. 1. Latin: the absolutely necessary thing