Gerda Lerner. The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. xi + 193 pp. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-510605-3.
Reviewed by Margaret Ripley Wolfe (East Tennessee State University)
Published on H-Women (February, 2000)
Sarah Grimke Redux
Gerda Lerner was present at the birth of the contemporary women's rights movement and the creation of the specialty of women's history. A founding member of the National Organization of Women and a pioneer in developing graduate programs in women's history, she has served as president of the Organization of American Historians and is now Robinson-Edwards Professor of History, Emerita, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimke she revisits and reassesses her earliest research and writing.
Lerner reminds her readers that women's history was of interest to no more than a dozen historians in the United States and that biographies of women were few and far between when she completed her dissertation during the early 1960s. Indeed, twenty-four commercial publishers rejected her manuscript before it was accepted by Houghton-Mifflin. That venerable publisher insisted in 1969 that she delete the last four words from her intended title: The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels against Slavery and for Women's Rights. Four years later, a paperback edition, published by Schocken Books, included that critical phrase. The contempt that greeted work on women's history during the 1960s, Lerner maintains, not only posed career obstacles but also placed limits on training and command of methodology. "We approached the history of women with the tools developed for doing the history of men," she writes. "Today we know and although this this is an adequate basis from which to start, it is not sufficient" (p.31).
Sarah Moore Grimke wrote Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman ten years before the first woman's rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. This publication marked the first book written by an American to present a fully developed woman's rights argument. The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimke includes an introductory essay by Lerner, seventeen original documents that present Sarah's views on women's issues, and two of Lerner's previously published articles.
Lerner concedes that "over the years, the work of Sarah Grimke seemed to me to take on greater significance, and I felt increasing dissatisfaction with the treatment I had given her in my biography" (p.4). The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimke represents yet another attempt by Lerner to bring more attention to Sarah than she did in her joint biography of the Grimke sisters. Among Lerner's earlier efforts in this direction are two of Sarah's manuscripts published in Signs (Autumn 1975 and Summer 1985) and yet another in Lerner's The Female Experience: An American Documentary (1977).
The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimke may prove disappointing to those looking for an up-to-date bibliography dealing with either the Grimkes, the American woman's movement, or the antislavery crusade. Most citations antedate 1990; the most recent seems to be an edited collection from 1994. Still, the book has its merits, the principal one being easy access to a compendium of Sarah Moore Grimke's writing. That is sufficient to make it a useful resource for serious students of American women's history.
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