They were born in Charleston, South Carolina, USA. Sarah Moore Grimke was born on November 26, 1792 and Angelina Emily Grimke was born on February 20, 1805. Throughout their lives, they traveled throughout the North, lecturing about their first hand experiences with slavery on their family's plantation. Among the first women to act publicly in social reform movements, they received abuse and ridicule for their abolitionist activity. They both realized that women would have to create a safe space in the public arena to be effective reformers. They became early activists in the women's rights movement.
Judge John Faucheraud Grimké, the father of the Grimké sisters, was a strong advocate of slavery and of the subordination of women. A wealthy planter who held hundreds of slaves, Grimké fathered 24 children with his wife. He served as chief judge of the Supreme Court of South Carolina.
Sarah was the eighth child and Angelina was the youngest. Sarah said that at age five, after she saw a slave being whipped, she tried to board a steamer to a place where there was no slavery. Later, in violation of the law, she taught her personal slave to read.
Sarah wanted to become a doctor and follow in her father's footsteps. She studied constantly until her parents learned she intended to go to college with her brother Thomas- then they forbade her to study her brother's books or any language. Her father supposedly remarked that if she "had not been a woman, she would have made the greatest jurist in the land." After her studies were ended, Sarah begged her parents to allow her to become Angelina's godmother. She became part mother and part sister to her much younger sibling, and the two sisters had a close relationship all their lives. Sarah became an abolitionist in 1835.
In August 1837 Angelina wrote a letter to the Liberator and she explained how her participation in the movement against slavery led her to a better recognition of women's lack of basic freedoms.
She said, "The discussion of the wrongs of slavery has opened the way for the discussion of other rights, and the ultimate result will most certainly be...the letting of the oppressed of every grade and description go free".
In 1838 the sisters became the first women to address a meeting of the Massachusetts state legislature, when they spoke about slavery and abolitionism. Their appearance caused a sensation. Their work with the abolitionist society helped to attract thousands of women in New England to the movement as many came to hear Sarah and Angelina speak at public lectures.
In 1848 Sarah wrote a paper titled Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women which answered many questions asked in a letter by a group of ministers who reprimanded the sisters for stepping out of what the ministers called their "women's proper sphere."
In 1848, Angelina married the abolitionist Theodore Weld, who also supported women's rights. Initially both Welds planned for Angelina to remain active in the abolitionist movement, but the time demands of running a home and being a wife and mother forced Angelina to retire from public life. Sarah moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, and also retired from public life.
Although the sisters no longer spoke publicly, they remained privately active as both abolitionists and feminists. In 1839 the sisters edited American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, a collection of newspaper stories from southern papers written by southern newspaper editors. Angelina bore three children, in 1839, 1841, and 1844, following which she suffered uterine prolapse.
Until 1854, Theodore was often away from home, either on the lecture circuit or in Washington. After that, financial pressures forced him to take up a more lucrative profession. For a time they lived on a farm and operated a boarding school. Many abolitionists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, sent their children to the school. Eventually, it grew to become a cooperative, the Raritan Bay Union.