Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Historical Silencing of Women

It may be hard to believe as we sit in the year 2012 that there was once a time when the mainstream opinion was that women should in no way call attention to themselves, speak freely, share their opinions, or gather to make change. But then again, perhaps it isn't so hard to believe considering the recent case of women’s rights activist Sandra Fluke being called “slut” and “prostitute” by talk show host Rush Limbaugh for speaking in favor of contraceptive mandates to the House of Representatives. And of course there was also State Representative Lisa Brown who was banned from speaking on the House floor for using the word “vagina” as she argued against anti-choice legislation.

Like these women of today, the Grimke sisters of the 1800’s were making waves, speaking out and being chastised because of their actions. Angelina and Sarah Moore Grimke grew up on a slave owning plantation in South Carolina but spoke out against both slavery and the exclusion of women from public life. Along with Lucretia Mott, they were influential in creating the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society in 1835.

In 1836, Angelina Emily Grimk√© wrote “ An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” which garnered so much interest that the sisters were invited to attend the Agents’ Convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York City. They were the only women among forty abolitionists. In May of 1837 they set out to lecture the women of New England about abolitionism.

The New England clergy was so angry that the Grimke sisters were bold enough to speak out that they issued a Pastoral Letter of the General Association of Massachusetts to the Congressional Churches Under Their Care declaring that when a woman assumes the tone of a man as a public reformer her character becomes unnatural and threatens society as a whole.

Excerpt from the letter: 

8 III. We invite your attention to the dangers which at present seem to threaten the female character with wide spread and permanent injury.
9.1 The appropriate duties and influence of women, are clearly stated in the New Testament. Those duties and that influence are unobtrusive and private, but the sources of mighty power.
9.2 When the mild, dependent, softening influence of woman upon the sternness of man's opinions is fully exercised, society feels the effects of it in a thousand forms.
9.3 The power of woman is in her dependence, flowing from the consciousness of that weakness which God has given her for her protection and which keeps her in those departments of life that form the character of individuals and of the nation.
9.4 There are social influences which females use in promoting piety and the great objects of Christian benevolence, which we cannot too highly commend.
9.5 We appreciate the unostentatious prayers and efforts of woman, in advancing the cause of religion at home and abroad:--in Sabbath schools, in leading religious inquirers to their pastor for instruction, and in all such associated effort as becomes the modesty of her sex; and earnestly hope that she may abound more and more in these labours of piety and love.
9.6 But when she assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer, our care and protection of her seem unnecessary, we put ourselves in self defence against her, she yields the power which God has given her for protection, and her character becomes unnatural.
9.7 If the vine, whose strength and beauty is to lean upon the trellis work and half conceal its clusters, thinks to assume the independence and the overshadowing nature of the elm, it will not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonour into the dust.
10 We cannot, therefore, but regret the mistaken conduct of those who encourage females to bear an obtrusive and ostentatious part in measures of reform, and countenance any of that sex who so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and teachers.
11.1 We especially deplore the intimate acquaintance and promiscuous conversation of females with regard to things "which ought not to be named;" by which that modesty and delicacy which is the charm of domestic life, and which constitute the true influence of women in society are consumed, and the way opened, as we apprehend, for degeneracy and ruin.

What we see from our history and present day is the lengths to which some will go to silence the voice of women.  With the Place Philadelphia project Ain Gordon and Nadine Patterson seek to give voice not only to women, but specifically women of Philadelphia whose stories have rarely been told.

Mark your calendars:
Fri., April 26, 8pm
Sat., April 27, 8pm
Sun., April 28, 3pm
Fri., May 3, 8pm
Sat., May 4, 8pm
Sun., May 5, 3pm

"Sandra Fluke." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 31 July 2012. Web. 02 Aug. 2012. <>.

Brown, Lisa. "Lisa Brown: Silenced for Saying (shock!) 'vagina' -" CNN. Cable News Network, 21 June 2012. Web. 02 Aug. 2012. <>.

"Grimke Sisters." WWHP. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Aug. 2012. <>.

"Pastoral Letter of the General Association of Massachusettsto the Congregational Churches under Their Care." Pastoral Letter of the General Association of Massachusetts (1837). N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Aug. 2012. <>.

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