Women's Rights

Grimke V. Swisshelm: Abolition and Women’s Rights

While both were advocates of women’s rights, Angelina Grimke and Jane Swisshelm held very different viewpoints regarding the relationship of Women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. Angelina Grimke argued that the women’s rights movement was deeply connected to the anti-slavery movement, and Jane Swisshelm was a firm believer that the issue of slavery was for another time and place. She claimed that America would be more successful in creating change if they focused on one thing at a time. These opposing viewpoints make it difficult to determine whether these two movements really need to be connected as Grimke explained. With this post, I will analyze the arguments of both of these women and decide which side I stand on in this debate.

Angelina Grimke (1805-1879)

I will begin with Angelina Grimke; one of the most famous figures of the women’s rights movement as well as a mighty force in the anti-slavery movement. She pushed many boundaries for women of her time period and along with her sister, made huge strides in the fight for equality in 19th Century America. Grimke began her career as a social figure and powerful speaker as a member of the Abolitionist movement. As she became more well known and gained more traction in her speaking, she began to shift her primary cause from abolition to women’s rights. Despite many of her colleagues suggesting that she stick to her initial cause, Grimke felt the need to move to women’s rights, but this did not cause her to abandon the former all together. Angelina Grimke strongly believed that these two movements were interconnected.

Grimke believed that women could end slavery if they had more rights.

In fact, she even argues that for abolition to be successful, women must have rights first. She believed that if women could speak freely and vote and participate in society, they would have the power to abolish slavery. In a letter to Theodore Dwight Weld and John Greenleaf Whittier, Grimke stated, “And can you not see that women could do, & would do a hundred times more for the slave if she were not fettered?” (Grimke 131). She asks this question to her male counterparts to defend her need to fight for the rights of women rather than solely for the abolition of slavery, but is this really her reasoning to fight for women, or is it simply a rhetorical tactic to remain on good terms with the abolitionists despite her abandoning the cause to fight for women instead? Deeper into her letter, she continues this argument saying, “If we surrender the right to speak to the public this year, we must surrender the right to petition next year & the right to write the year after &c. What then can women do for the slave, when she herself is under the feet of man & shamed into silence?” (132). This agreement that the rights of slaves depends on the rights of women seems a little extreme. After all, men are the ones with the right to vote, so they are the ones that need to abolish slavery, right? Not according to Grimke. She claims that women’s rights and abolition “are bound together in a circle, like the sciences; they blend with each other, like the colors of the rainbow; they are parts only of one whole, & that whole is Christianity, pure practical Christianity” (133).

Because these two movements were happening at the same time, it is hard to separate the two, but is Angelina right to claim that they depend on one another? After all, women’s rights is about the right to speak and the right to vote whereas anti-slavery is regarding basic human rights. It seems almost like downplaying the severity of slavery when you lump the two movements into one category. Women were not treated as equals to men; however, they were not beaten and punished and bought and sold as slaves were. Sure, the two causes both involve equality, but can they really be looked at in the same light?

Jane Swisshelm (1815-1884)

According to Jane Swisshelm, another figure in the women’s rights movement, the two were independent, and should not even be discussed at the same events. In a debate with Parker Pilsbury regarding this stance, she suggests, “In a woman’s rights convention the question of color had no right to a hearing. One thing at a time! Always do one thing at a time, and you will get along much faster than by attempting to do a dozen” (192). Does Swisshelm have a valid point here, or is she simply trying to keep the attention on her own agenda? She argues that they cannot get things done if they worry about multiple issues at once, then how can she explain the success of the Grimke sisters in gaining attention and momentum with both movements?

Swisshelm wanted no talk of race or slavery at Women’s rights Conventions. She thought they should focus on one issue at a time.

Both of these arguments seem to be problematic. Grimke might be overshadowing the severity of slavery by combining it with the women’s rights movement, but Swisshelm seems to think he can just push aside slavery altogether and deal with it later. Frustrated by a lack of clarity, I must turn to an outside source.  After some research, I came across the scholarly article, “Outgrowing the Compact of the Fathers: Equal Rights, Woman Suffrage, and the United States Constitution, 1820-1878” by Ellen Carol DuBois. In her article, DuBois gives a brief history of the women’s rights movement. In one important sentence, she explains how abolitionism and women’s rights are connected. She states, “The barrier to the proposition of equal political rights for women was broken within a movement that was not initially political, but within which female activism flourished—abolitionism.” (DuBois 840). Women’s rights was a result of abolitionism. People were first fighting against slavery, and within that movement the rights of women began to be questioned as well. With this new piece of evidence, I must side with Angelina Grimke. The two are intertwined deeply, and if women had more rights, they would have the power to make bigger strides in abolition. Swisshelm ignores the fact the rights she wants to fight for are only being discussed because the issue of slavery was questioned first. If abolitionists decided to focus on only one thing at a time, the women’s rights movement would not emerge for quite some time.

Works Cited

Dubois, Ellen Carol. “Outgrowing the Compact of the Fathers: Equal Rights, Woman Suffrage, and the United States Constitution, 1820-1878.” The Journal of American History, vol. 74, no. 3, 1987, p. 836., doi:10.2307/1902156.

Grimke, Angelina. “Letter to Theodore Dwight Weld and John Greenleaf Whittier.” Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870: a Brief History with Documents, by Kathryn Kish. Sklar, Bedford/St Martin’s, 2000, pp. 130–134.

Swisshelm, Jane. “The Saturday Visiter.” Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870: a Brief History with Documents, by Kathryn Kish. Sklar, Bedford/St Martin’s, 2000, pp. 191–192.

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