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Women Political Leaders Recognize Important Historical Figure

August 27, 2013

On Oct. 7, Simmons College will co-host the special event "How Women Become Political" at the John Hancock Hall in Boston. This forum will feature prominent women political leaders including feminist activist and author Gloria Steinem; U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren; former Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey; former U.S. Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt; and Boston City Councilor at-Large Ayanna Pressley.

While these political leaders will discuss their journey in the political world, the event also pays tribute to a little-known figure in the history of women in politics.

In 1838, Angelina Grimké became the first American woman to address a legislative body when she testified before the Joint Special Committee of the Massachusetts State Legislature on the subject of slavery. During a packed meeting, Grimké argued for the right of women to address legislators, marking a historic moment in the women's rights movement.

Below, author Louise W. Knight, chair of the Grimke Event Committee, which is coordinating the Oct. 7 event, writes about this pivotal moment in history when Angelina Grimké made the bold decision to address the Massachusetts State Legislature.

On February 21, 1838, Angelina Grimké gave an address in the Massachusetts State House. She was testifying before a Joint Special Committee, but the event had to be moved from a committee room to the House chamber to accommodate the hundreds of men and women who had come to hear her. Hundreds more gathered outside. There was great interest in her speech because of the novelty of a woman speaking to a mixed audience of men and women, Grimké’s reputation as a powerful speaker, and the passions aroused by her subject – the issue of slavery.

The question at hand was whether the committee would recommend that the state legislature formally call for the U.S. Congress to end slavery in the District of Columbia. Grimké spoke on behalf of the 20,000 Massachusetts women who had signed petitions, just delivered to the committee, urging the legislature to take this action.

This Massachusetts petition campaign was part of a wider campaign of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The abolitionist movement’s decision to focus on ending slavery in the District of Columbia was a strategic one. Because of the broad powers the Constitution gave Congress over the district, no one could question that it could end slavery there. Thus Southern legislators wishing to oppose any federal ban on slavery could not raise their usual objection of states’ rights. The campaign’s second goal, beyond ending slavery in the nation’s capital, was to allow the anti-slavery movement to organize around a proposed action and thus stir national debate. In particular, it gave women opposed to slavery a petitioning project to embrace and they did so with gusto.

Women began signing petitions in Massachusetts in 1835 but the campaign really became widespread in 1837, causing the question of whether women ought to petition a legislature to become hotly contested in 1838. Angelina and her sister Sarah had traveled the length and breadth of Massachusetts in the summer of 1837 gathering signatures for the D.C. petition campaign, speaking about the wrongs of slavery and, when challenged, of women’s right to take political action. Their most public critics were the influential Congregational ministers of the state, who claimed to support the end of slavery but were actually opposed to the abolitionist movement.

Using the issue of gender protocol as their excuse to oppose the petition campaign, these men published a letter that was to be read in pulpits across the Commonwealth, in which they criticized the sisters as possessing “an unnatural character” and headed for “ruin” because they assumed “the place of man as a public reformer.” In reaction, the male leaders of the abolitionist movement, who wished to avoid having their highly controversial movement become even more so, urged the sisters to avoid the “woman rights question” in their speeches. The sisters flatly refused.

Angelina Grimké wrote in reply to one such admonisher, “The time to assert a right is the time when that right is denied.”[1] This controversy was another reason Grimké’s speech to the legislative committee drew such a huge crowd.

Grimké’s speech opens with an extended reference to a Bible story. Since her audience consisted of mostly, if not entirely, Christians (who, in that period, were thoroughly familiar with the Bible), Grimké knew that when she referred to a “woman’s voice” being heard “in the palace of an eastern monarch,” they would recognize she was speaking of the beautiful Esther, the new young Queen of Persia. Her story is told in the Book of Esther in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.

Esther had learned that the king had ordered the Jewish people in his kingdom to be killed. Although the king did not know it, she herself was a Jew. Esther decided she must petition the king to save her people. Risking death by approaching the king unsummoned, she executed a strategy of offering him various sensual pleasures, including several banquets, to make him more amenable to her revelation that she was Jewish and to her petition that he cancel his order.

Grimké chose to speak of Esther because the queen was an example of a woman who successfully petitioned the head of her government. But she also sought to distinguish herself from Esther and from her use of traditional feminine wiles to persuade. Dressed plainly as the Quaker she had chosen to become, Grimké rebutted the common view that a woman who spoke to an audience of men and women was committing an act of sexual seduction. She sought to provide her audience with a fresh understanding of what it meant for a woman to give a speech to men.

As she put it to a friend when she decided to give the speech, “It seems that even the stout hearted tremble for the consequences when the Woman Question is really to be acted out in force.” She added, “I feel that this is the most important step I have ever been called to take – important to woman, to the slave, to my country & the world.”[2]

[1] AG to Theodore Weld, August 20, 1837.

[2] AG to Jane Smith, Feb. 7, 1838. Ceplair, 306-307.

Copyright Louise W. Knight

To read more about Angelina Grimke and the “Women in Politics” Oct. 7 event, visit