During the 1830s, a growing number of female abolitionists became convinced that women suffered legal and economic disabilities similar to those facing enslaved African Americans. Not only were women denied the right to vote and hold public office, they had no access to higher education and were excluded from most professional occupations. American law accepted the principle that a wife had no legal identity apart form her husband. She could not sue, she could not make a legal contract, nor could she own property. She was not permitted to control her own wages or gain custody of her children in case of separation or divorce.
In this selection, Angelina Grimké explains how the struggle against slavery sensitized female abolitionists to other, more subtle forms of bondage and coercion.
The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own. I have fought the Anti-Slavery cause to be the high school of morals in our land--the school in which human rights are more fully investigated, and better understood and taught, than in any other....Human beings have rights, because they are moral beings: the rights of all men grow out of their moral nature; and as all men have the same moral nature, they have essentially the same rights. These rights may be wrested from the slave, but they cannot be alienated.... Now if rights are founded in the nature of our moral being, then the mere circumstances of sex does not give to man higher rights and responsibilities, than to women.... To suppose that it does, would be to break up utterly the relations, of the two natures...exalting the animal nature into a monarch, and humbling the moral into a slave....
The regulation of duty by the mere circumstance of sex, rather than by the fundamental principle of moral being, has led to all that multifarious train of evils flowing out of the anti-christian doctrine of masculine and feminine virtues. By this doctrine, man has been converted into the warrior, and clothed with sternness...whilst woman has been taught to...sit as a dollar arrayed in "gold, and pearls, and costly array," to be admired for her personal charms, and carssed and humored like a spoiled child, or converted into a mere drudge to suit the convenience of her lord and master.... This principle has given to man a charter for the exercise of tyranny and selfishness, pride and arrogance, lust and brutal violence.... Instead of being a helpmeet to man, as a companion, a co-worker, an equal; she has been a mere appendage of his being, an instrument of his convenicence and pelasure, the pretty toy with which he whiled away his leisure moments, or the pet animal whom he humnored into playfulness and submission....
Dost thou ask me, if I would wiswh to see woman engaged int he contention and strife of sectarian controversy, or in the intrigues of political partizans? I say no! never--never. I rejoice that she does not stand on the same platform which man now occupies in these respects; but I mourn, also, that he should thus prostitute his higher nature, and vilely cast away his birthright.
Angelina Emily Grimke, Letter XII (October 2, 1837), Letters to Catherine E. Beecher (Boston: I. Knapp, 1838)