The Grimke Sisters in “The Invention of Wings”

One of the many beauties of Sue Monk Kidd’s fiction is her expression of the hearts of women, through their own words. This is accomplished with language that paints pictures in the reader’s mind and both tickles and challenges the reader’s soul. So, it was with delight that I read The Invention of Wings a second time, when my book group selected this historical novel.

The book is based on the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, both First Women. It is told through the eyes of the older sister Sarah and Handful (Hetty), the slave given to her on her eleventh birthday. It is a dramatic indictment of slavery, the cause for which Sarah and Angelina fought, told in a way that sends chills down one’s arms and roils one’s stomach.

Sarah and Angelina both witnessed slavery first hand in their home in Charleston, South Carolina and spread their message in the North. Because they spoke out fearlessly about the evils of slavery, they were invited to attend the American Anti-Slavery Society’s two-week training for anti-slavery agents. They were the first and only women in the group. They were castigated widely as they had the audacity to speak to “promiscuous audiences,” that is, mixed audiences of women and men.

In addition to speaking, they wrote in fierce prose, even daring to address unreceptive audiences. In 1836 Sarah, the more religious of the two, wrote and published Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States and in the same year Angelina wrote and published An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South.

Sarah chafed at the restrictions put upon her in her Quaker meeting and became more of a feminist than an abolitionist. It is believed she wrote the first treatise on feminism. It is known that the leaders of the suffrage movement leaned on her work.

Angelina was the First Woman to speak before a legislative body in this country when she spoke before a legislative committee in Massachusetts in 1838. She spoke against slavery and the need for abolition of the inhuman and immoral practice of slavery. For good measure, she threw in a few words on women’s rights.

The two women were lifelong companions, champions whose names do not often appear in history books. It is through art that they have been revived. Sue Monk Kidd has fictionalized their daring, but they were also commemorated in an art installation in 1979 by Judy Chicago called The Dinner Party. Chicago created a triangular table with 39 distinct settings celebrating 39 women from throughout the course of history. On the floor below were the names 999 other women of note. Both Sarah Grimke and Angelina Grimke’s names appear on what is aptly named the Heritage Floor, the basis for the rights we have won and still must fight to protect.