How Women Become Political
This photograph of Angelina was taken
is 1850, when she was 45 years old, and
had been married to Theodore Weld for
12 years. The picture was taken by
Theodore's brother,  Ezra Greenleaf
 Weld. The rest of the photograph,
not shown here,  included Theodore
and their three children. Original is in
 the Weld-Grimke Papers at the Clements Library,
University of Michigan. Used with  the library's permission.

About Angelina Grimke  and
Her Speech
On this page you can find more information about the speech Angelina Grimke gave and an essay (scroll down for this) about how Angelina came to give the speech and how it was received.

These materials have been prepared by Louise W. Knight, Chair of the Grimke Event Committee. Knight is writing a biography of Angelina and her sister Sarah Grimke. She is also the biographer of Jane Addams. More information about her books can be found at

Below is the opening to the first of the three speeches, over three days that Angelina Grimke gave to the joint committee of the Massachusetts state legislature and the gathered thousands who came to hear her. It is the only portion of her speech that survives. Incomplete versions of this opening section are available on the internet but most of them are missing the sixth paragraph - the one that begins, "I stand before you as a citizen...", because when historian Gerda Lerner printed this opening section as an appendix to her 1967  biography about the Grimke sisters, she omitted that paragraph without indicating that she had. Thus her version looks complete. This version here restores the missing, and very powerful, paragraph.
This speech was delivered on February 21, 1838 in the Representatives' Hall of the Massachusetts General Court [state legislature] and was reprinted in the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, on March 2, 1838.


Mr. Chairman, more than 2000 years have rolled their dark and bloody waters down the rocky, winding channel of Time into the broad ocean of Eternity, since woman’s voice was heard in the palace of an eastern monarch, and woman’s petition achieved the salvation of millions of her race from the edge of the sword. The Queen of Persia, -- if Queen she might be called, who was but the mistress of her voluptuous lord, -- trained as she had been in the secret abominations of an oriental harem, had studied too deeply the character of Ahaseurus not to know that the sympathies of his heart could not be reached, except through the medium of his sensual appetites.


Hence we find her arrayed in royal apparel, standing in the inner court of the King’s house, hoping by her personal charms to win the favor of her lord. And after the golden sceptre had been held out, and the inquiry was made, “What wilt thou, Queen Esther, and what is thy request? It shall be given thee to the half of the kingdom” – even then she dared not ask either for her own life, or that of her people. She felt that if her mission of mercy was to be successful, his animal propensities must be still more powerfully wrought upon – the luxurious feast must be prepared, the banquet of wine must be served up, and the favorable moment must be seized when, gorged with gluttony and intoxication, the king’s heart was fit to be operated upon by the pathetic appeal, “if I have found favor in they sight, O King, and if it please the King let my life be given at my petition; and my people at my request.”


It was thus, through personal charms, and sensual gratification, and individual influence, that the Queen of Persia obtained the precious boon she craved, -- her own life, and the life of her beloved people.


Mr. Chairman, it is my privilege to stand before you on a similar mission of life and love but I thank God that we live in an age of the world too enlightened and too moral to admit of the adoption of the same means to obtain as holy as an end. I feel that it would be an insult to the Committee, were I to attempt to win their favor by arraying my person in gold, and silver, and costly apparel, or by inviting them to partake of the luxurious feast, or the banquet of wine. I understand the spirit of the age too well to believe that you could be moved by such sensual means – means as unworthy of you, as they would be beneath the dignity of the cause of humanity.


Yes, I feel that if you hare reached at all, it will not be by me, but by the truths I shall endeavor to present to your understandings and your hearts. The heart of the eastern despot was reached through the lowest propensities of his animal nature, by personal influence; yours, I know, cannot be reached but through the loftier sentiments of the intellectual and moral feelings.


I stand before you as a citizen, on behalf of the 20,000 women of Massachusetts, whose names are enrolled on petitions which have been submitted to the Legislature of which you are the organ. These petitions relate to the great and solemn subject of American slavery ---a subject fraught with the deepest interest to this republic, whether we regard it in its political, moral, or religious aspects. And because it is a political subject, it has often been tauntingly said, that woman has nothing to do with it. Are we aliens, because we are women? Are we bereft of citizenship, because we are the mothers, wives, and daughters of a mighty people? Have women no country, no interests staked in public weal, no liabilities in common peril, no partnership in a nation's guilt and shame?


Let the history of the world answer these queries. Read the denunciations of Jehovah against the follies and crimes of Israel’s daughters. Trace the influence of woman as a courtesan and a mistress in the destinies of nations, both ancient and modern, and see her wielding her power too often to debase and destroy, rather than to elevate and save. It is often said that women rule the world, through their influence over men. If so, then may we well hide our faces in the dust, and cover ourselves with sackcloth and ashes. It has not been by [women’s] moral and intellectual power, but through the baser passions of man.


This dominion of women must be resigned – the sooner the better. “In the age which is approaching, she should be something more. She should be a citizen; and this title, which demands an increase of knowledge and of reflection, opens before her a new empire.”[1] I hold, Mr. Chairman, that American women have to do with this subject, not only because it is moral and religious, but because it is political, inasmuch as we are citizens of this republic, and as such our honor, happiness, and well being, are bound up in its politics and government and laws.


I stand before you as a southerner, exiled from the land of my birth by the sound of the lash and the piteous cry of the slave. I stand before you as a repentant slaveholder. I stand before you as a moral being, endowed with precious and inalienable rights, which are correlative with solemn duties and high responsibilities. As a moral being I feel that I owe it to the suffering slave, and to the deluded master, to my country and the world, to do all I can to overturn a system of complicated crimes, built up upon the broken hearts and prostate bodies of my countrymen in chains, and cemented by the blood and sweat and tears of my sisters in bond.


[Grimké then spoke for more than an hour on the merits of the petitions. This part of the speech was not recorded.]


[1] Grimké is quoting an unknown source here. Or perhaps Sarah Grimke’s Letters on the Equality of the Sexes? But how would we know there were quotes around this sentence? Either the notetaker knew it was a quotation or someone had a copy of the written remarks.

Background to Angelina Grimké’s Speech

in the Massachusetts State House,

February 1838

by Louise W. Knight

August 2013


How Women Become Political marks an important anniversary: 175 years ago -- ten years before the famous women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls --, the white Southerner and abolitionist Angelina Grimké became the first American woman to address a legislative body. She gave her speech in Boston, and thus we honor her accomplishment in this city.


On February 21, 1838 Grimké spoke to the joint special committee of the Massachusetts General Court charged with responding to the large number of anti-slavery petitions that the legislature had received. Its hearing that day took place in the capitol’s largest space, the 500-seat House chamber, to accommodate the huge crowd that attended.

In her remarks Grimké called on the legislators to respond to the request of the 20,000 white and black Massachusetts women who had signed the overwhelming majority of the petitions. The signers asked the legislature to demand that the U.S. Congress banish slavery from the District of Columbia, the only part of the nation over which the national legislature possessed undisputed Constitutional control. Success would end slavery in the capital, and thus provide a powerful symbol of progress towards the abolitionists’ larger goal, the end of slavery in all the states. Grimké also spoke of the risks slavery posed to the nation, the greater security that would come from immediate emancipation, the impressive character of free colored people, and the cruelty of race prejudice.


She opened her speech, however, by making the case for her decision to speak. No woman had ever addressed a legislative body, not only because women could not vote or run for office, but also because of the firm societal conviction that women did not belong in what was called “the public sphere.” Indeed, a woman who spoke to a mixed audience gathered for any purpose was considered a seductress, since she was putting her body on display before men. Just a few years before, also in Boston, Maria W. Stewart, a published author, free woman of color, and the first American woman to speak to a mixed audience, faced just such criticisms, and more. In four eloquent speeches she gave in 1832 and 1833, she urged men to sign petitions to end slavery in the District of Columbia and advocated for the liberty and equality for her race and for her right to speak as a woman. She paid a price for her break with tradition. Given the severity of the racist and sexist backlash against her, she felt she had no choice but to cease lecturing thereafter.


In the remarks posted on this website page, which are the only part of Grimké’s speech that survives, she tackled the charge of seductress head on by distancing her unorthodox action from that of another petitioning woman, the famous Biblical figure, Queen Esther of Persia. Grimké’s Bible-reading audience knew that Esther, like the King’s lower status wives, lived in the harem, and served him sexually. It was not her place to request anything of her king. But one day, risking her life, she begged him to save her people, the Babylonian Jews.


Esther was like Grimké in asking a government to save a suffering people but the abolitionist highlighted an important difference. Esther, she said, achieved her goal by exerting her “personal charms” and offering the possibilities of “sensual gratification.” Grimké announced she would use no such methods herself. They were not required, she asserted, in this “enlightened age.” Strategically crediting her audience with an attitude that some of them did not possess, Grimké noted that the use of “sensual means” would be “unworthy of this committee” as well as being – this was her moral point – “beneath the dignity of the cause of humanity.” Thus she deftly deflected the charge of seduction that hovered over her presence on the podium.


Grimké had planned to speak to the committee only once but, after she lectured for several hours, the committee was ready to adjourn. Boldly, she asked for more time another day, which the chair generously granted. In the end, she had so much to say that she addressed the group a total of three times in the course of ten days, in speeches lasting a total of more than six hours.


Her achievement was all the more remarkable given that the 33-year-old Angelina Grimké had only been speaking in public for a little more than a year. Trained by the American Anti-Slavery Society as an abolitionist lecturer and organizer, she had given her first speech, to women only, in December 1836 in New York City. The following summer she had come to Massachusetts with her sister, Sarah Grimké, also an abolitionist lecturer, and for four months she had given four or five lectures a week across the eastern half of the state, at first to audiences of only women, but increasingly to mixed audiences that sometimes numbered in the thousands, and were partially hostile. Word had spread of her gifts as an orator, and many were curious to hear a white Southerner speak of slavery from an abolitionist point of view. Others were pro-slavery and came to heckle. Day after day, Angelina had spoken confidently.


But she was nervous now. Applause greeted her as she entered the hall with Sarah. They wore simple gray dresses and white caps, having converted from the Presbyterian to the Quaker faith some years before. The audience was notably diverse: the benches were filled with women, the aisles and edges of the room with men, and both white and black citizens were present. There were supporters, skeptics, the curious, and the hostile. When Angelina rose to speak, hisses sizzled from the back doorway. She wrote a friend later, “My heart had never quailed before but it almost died within me at that tremendous hour.” The room was rowdy but by speaking loudly she succeeded “in hushing down the noise of the people.”


By the day of her second speech, she was fully in charge. “I spoke with far more freedom,” she reported to her friend. “I felt as if could stand up in the dignity of my moral being and face a frowning world … I was perfectly calm.”


Press coverage was mixed. One hostile paper called her performance “a farce” and another, seeking to under cut her credibility with its white readers, claimed she looked “mulatto,” that is, of mixed race. Another pitied “her delusion” that women had a right to influence public affairs. Only a reform paper praised her without qualification: “It was a noble day when for the first time in civilized America, a Woman stood up in a legislative hall, vindicating the rights of woman.”


The proposal that Grimké address the committee had been made in a jesting spirit by one of her fellow abolitionists, Henry Stanton (future husband of women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton). Obligingly, Angelina had laughed at the thought. But afterwards she decided that, though she “could hardly believe my own feelings,” she “must do it.” A few months earlier she had written another friend, “The time to assert a right is the time when that right is denied.” In this case, she had expected a denial. But, surprisingly, the chair of the committee was open-minded and agreed to her proposal.


Ultimately the committee decided the time was not yet right for the state legislature to ask Congress to end slavery in the District of Columbia. But Grimké knew she had accomplished something significant. “Such proceedings cannot but have an important bearing on the Woman Question,” she wrote another friend. “We Abolitionist Women are turning the world upside down,” adding, “I am sorely tempted to believe I have had a triumph.” We would have to agree.


When historians of the 1960s rediscovered the forgotten history of the U.S. women’s rights movement, they dated its origins to 1848, when the first women’s rights convention was held and the Declaration of Sentiments was signed. Since then, as more research has been done, the beginning date has become less certain. Some historians argue the movement began in Boston in 1832 when Maria W. Stewart became the first American woman to speak in public regarding political questions and endorse women’s engagement. Another important year was 1837, when abolitionist women met in a national convention for the first time and adopted several women’s rights resolutions that the Grimké sisters had penned. It was also the year that Catharine Beecher publicly criticized the sisters for encouraging women to petition their governments and that Angelina Grimké rebutted her in print by asserting women’s right to be political; weeks later, Sarah Grimké challenged the criticisms the sisters received with her defiant Letters on the Equality of the Sexes. These events set the stage for what happened in Boston in 1838, when the eloquent and bold Angelina Grimké stood before legislators to make the case that women belonged in the political world.



This silhouette of Angelina Grimke was taken in 1828,
when she was 23 years old.
It was done when she was visiting her sister Sarah in Philadelphia.The original is
in the Weld-Grimke Papers
at the Clements Library, University of Michigan.
Used with the library's permission.
Who was Angelina Grimke?