Frederick Grimke is the last person anyone – including scholars who have recounted the careers of his two sisters Sarah and Angelina in the nineteenth century feminist movement – would have suspected of having a sympathetic interest in women’s rights. A lifelong bachelor with quietly held opinions on secession and slavery reflecting his antebellum southern heritage, he was famous among fellow townsmen for his aversion to female company. But his affection for his sisters and his admiration for what they had achieved in their public careers inspired this essay, The Rights of Women in a Democratic Republic, in which he made a remarkably prescient forecast of the vocational future of American women – including married women with children – once given access to higher education.
The essay was nearly lost. Grimke himself came to have doubts about it, and after appealing to Sarah to help him resolve them, died in 1863 leaving an instruction that it be omitted from the posthumous edition of all his writings which his executor published in 1871, in a cheaply fabricated volume with very small distribution. Melhorn’s Epilogue reveals who the executor was, and how he came to disobey the order for the essay’s suppression.
With new research findings reflecting Frederick Grimke’s influence on his sister Sarah’s thought, and the discovery of feminist issues as a perennial undergraduate debate topic at Yale where he was educated, Melhorn’s Commentary broadens the scope of the history of women’s rights in America.
“I had no idea I would find it so difficult to get it into circulation,” Sarah Grimké wrote to a friend in the feminist movement, telling of her efforts to find a publisher for her brother Frederick Grimke’s provocative essay, The Rights of Women in a Democratic Republic. Frederick (who spelled their family name without the accent on the last letter) lived in Chillicothe, Ohio. After his resignation from the Ohio Supreme Court in 1842, he had devoted his life to interests in political and social theory. Self-absorbed and eccentric, a lifelong bachelor, he was famously uncomfortable in female society. But he was immensely proud of his sisters, Sarah and Angelina, whose personal accomplishments in the service of abolitionist and feminist causes inspired his vision of the future of women in America. “This is a question of infinitely more importance than is generally supposed,” his essay began. “The placing of men and women upon precisely the same footing in political society will be one of the greatest revolutions in human affairs since the beginning of society.”
One of the publication prospects Sarah approached rejected the essay “because it would make so small a book.” But Sarah did not want it in a pamphlet, “because pamphlets are despised, and because it could not in that form have circulation beyond our own circle.” So she submitted it to Putnam’s, a magazine with a general circulation that later became Atlantic Monthly. That submission brought another rejection: the magazine’s editors found the essay’s message “too unpopular to suit the public.”
Sarah then called on an influential supporter, “one of the first to espouse our cause,” who had given the women’s rights movement sympathetic coverage in his New York Tribune. But Horace Greeley told her that “so much had already been printed” about the movement that “nothing new could be said.” Recounting their meeting in the same letter to her friend, Sarah said she thought “poor Mr. Greeley” was “worn out with espousing Reforms.” Whether he actually read Rights of Women is unknown. But Sarah did not give up easily. She was “discouraged,” she told her friend Harriot Hunt, “but determined to persevere until I get it into some Periodical.”
Originally published in The Works of Frederick Grimke (Columbus, Ohio: Columbus Printing Co., 1871), 2:239-56
This is a question of infinitely more importance than is generally supposed. The placing of men and women upon precisely the same footing in political society will be one of the greatest revolutions in human affairs since the beginning of society. No question, therefore, which has ever been agitated, demands more thought, and a more unclouded judgment.
The capacity of the two sexes has been supposed to be different. I have given a great deal of consideration to this question, and am satisfied that the idea is without foundation . . . .
Note in Frederick Grimke's handwriting, appended to the manuscript and found after his death:
This essay is not to be published, as the views are pushed to an extreme. It is an effort to find out the truth, a preliminary investigation only. When re-written, and the views in some parts considerably modified, it will be published.
Horace Greeley and Feminists
“The Unsolved Problem,” unaccompanied drawing
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