Faith in Women’s Rights

Faith was a cornerstone of both the women’s movement and the abolitionist movement. It is arguably what empowered so many women and men alike to finally arise and make their voices known. In part, as a result of the learned among them, as they worked out their own faith, had begun to see the glaring inconsistencies of those in power, attempting to use the faith they held so dearly, as a means by which to subjugate those they deemed the lesser. Faith was a central aspect of many of the arguments made concerning both women and slaves, and whether or not either had the right to even challenge their standing, let alone attempt to do away with that standing altogether. There were those few rhetorical giants, however, who saw through the silencing of women and slaves. People like the Grimkes, for instance, who took issue with, “men’s power, their fear of losing power, and their desire to keep it” (Sklar 130). In reality, this is not a male phenomenon, but a human one, and it seems that many of these rhetoricians knew this on some level. It is that need to have and keep power that drives so many of this race we call humans. Unfortunately, the outcome of such a singularly malcontented purpose, stokes the fires of dissent within the hearts of those being crushed under its weight.

The Grimkes had a different purpose. Theirs was not in gaining power, per se, but in reclaiming the agency that was taken away from themselves and their fellow women, by

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The Grimke sisters sitting for a photograph.

men who sought to keep them quiet. Not even simply quiet through the means of discreditation, but also through the means of less than adequate education being offered to women, at the time. Lucretia Mott also shared similar thoughts pertaining to woman’s education. In a letter Mott wrote to the women’s rights convention in Ohio, she said, “…when a fair opportunity shall be given for the equal cultivation of the intellect, and the stronger powers of the mind shall be called into action” (Sklar 65). Champions of women’s equality recognized that much of their difficulty in engaging with their opposition, in rhetorical spaces, was that men had greater “intellectual resources”. That is to say, more access to the means of expanding one’s intellect past the bounds of the small box our everyday lives are placed in. They had a higher quality of education, which sort of placed the opponents on a mountaintop and the proponents on a steep incline to climb, in order to even reach the first peak. Mott’s sentiment is an interesting one, because it is one that is echoed, or rather alluded to, in Frederick Douglass’ writings.

 

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Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man of his time.

Being that Douglass grew up in the prison of slavery, he put the utmost focus on education. He did educate himself after all. He figured out something, at an early age, that thousands of other slaves never figured out: learning to read and write was the key to forging his path out of slavery and abject poverty. He found that reading a variety and educating himself, was the way out of bondage. He realized that the reason the slave master refused to teach him how to read and write, was because even the master recognized that keeping the bound dumb, in the classical sense of the word, was the best way to keep them content in their bondage. To this point Douglass wrote, “the more I read, the more I began to detest my enslavers”. Douglass’ sentiment ties directly into the mindset of the women’s rights advocates. Women began to recognize that men in power wanted to keep them confined to “their spaces” in the house and as advisers to the men, because they feared how effective women would be at opposing the domineering culture that had been erected in an effort to keep them in their places. This is why people like the Grimkés were immensely effective.

 

The Grimkés used their rhetorical prowess, written and spoken, to refute two major institutions, or modes of thought, during their day. The subjugation of women— their speech stifled in the public forum— and the second would be, the institution of slavery. Many of the justifications for the acceptance of these two peculiar modes of thought were given on biblical grounds, from that aforementioned foundation of faith that the two sisters held close to the core of their beings. In actuality, biblical grounds were used for many justifications of the day. Of course, this is not shocking considering many early states, and of course the nation as a whole, were started by people of faith. What the Grimkés do extremely well however, is utilizing the bible to reason out why the modern justifications for both the subjugation of slaves and of women alike, often given on biblical bases, are falsely reasoned. They studied scripture, in its original forms of Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament), which gave them an ethos they might have otherwise been without. They wanted women to be able to speak freely in the public forum and live as equals to men, as God intended. In one of her letters, addressed to Mary S. Parker, Sarah Grimké invokes Jesus himself to bring this point home, by saying,

“The Lord Jesus defines the duties of his followers in his sermon on the Mount. He lays down grand principles by which they should be governed, without any reference to sex or condition… I follow him through all his precepts, and find him giving the same directions to women as to men, never even referring to the distinction now so strenuously insisted upon between masculine and feminine virtues: this is one of the anti-Christian ‘traditions of men’ which are taught, instead of the commandments of God”.

In that statement, Grimké immediately puts any person, who might be in opposition, on the defensive by pointing out how any argument that is opposite of men and women being completely equal, flies directly in the face of the very word they all claim to believe. She uses direct and precise words, to sort of cut directly to the heart of the matter, causing the reader or listener to contemplate their own hypocrisies. The most

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Grimké Sisters, at a later state in life.

notable way Grimke refutes the common notion of female inferiority, is a masterful one. As alluded to above, she uses the argument from authority. Such an argument is immensely effective against a group who claims to believe in the authority the speaker is invoking. God, the ultimate authority, is who the Grimke’s use continually to demonstrate to their audience, that much of what they have been taught does not actually stand the test of following Christ. She says, “hence our intercourse, instead of being elevated and refined, is generally calculated to excite and keep alive the lowest propensities of our nature… surely no one who contemplates the design of God in the creation of woman, can believe that she is now fulfilling that design”. She is saying here, that if men claim to follow God and believe in His precepts, that they should not accept women as mere objects for carnal enjoyment, not on the feminine basis, but should have interaction with woman as equal, because then women will serve the purpose which God put in them to do and can therefore be better partners for men, and for society. To this point her sister Angelina, in a letter to Theodore Weld and John Whittier, says, “…women could do and would do a hundred times more for the slave if she were not fettered… but we are actuated by the full conviction that if we are to do any good in the Anti Slavery cause, our right to labor in it must be firmly established… on the firm basis of human rights, the Bible” (Sklar 131-132).