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“Who Knows but a Woman May One Day Preside Here”

Curators and librarians try hard to be as neutral as possible, to approach historical materials as something we’re dedicated to describing, preparing for use, and stewarding. But occasionally, something happens that just makes you plain mad.

The story that always gets my hackles up begins with Sarah Moore Grimké, a leading abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, touring the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. She was largely unimpressed with the gloomy interior, where “scarcely a ray of light penetrates it, & you have to admire it by a sort of dim twilight.” Her highlight came later, when she was invited to take a seat in the Chief Justice’s chair in the Supreme Court’s chamber. It was 1853, women couldn’t vote, they didn’t serve in the judiciary branch in basically any capacity, and the women’s rights movement was still relatively fledgling. But when Sarah sat in that chair, she “involuntarily exclaimed, ‘Who knows but a woman may one day preside here.’” She noted that her companions were “much amused,” and one man in the party, “a jovial naval officer,” kept retelling the tale to everyone they met as they proceeded through the Capitol. I can imagine the reactions. She was left admitting “that the signs of the time were rather portentous” [26 December 1853? or 2 January 1854?].

It’s a remarkable, if infuriating, story, of a prominent (if admittedly imperfect) activist being moved to look into the future and dream of possibilities. For doing so, she faced ridicule, or at the very least skepticism and disregard. The hardest part of this story for me, though, is what comes after, because the Clements Library planted its own obstacles on the far-too-long road to the recognition of Sarah Moore Grimké’s strength and foresight.

Sarah’s tale is part of a collection that originally came to the Clements with a cache of family papers in 1939, shepherded to the library by Dwight Lowell Dumond who was working at the University of Michigan as a history professor and liaised with the family’s descendants to bring the collection here. It proved to be an extraordinary, multifaceted resource that spoke of abolition networks and how families labored together against slavery; women’s activism and the complicated terrain of sex and gender in the mid-nineteenth century; temperance and nutrition movements; interracial friendships and their limitations, and much more. While hundreds of correspondents are represented, three figures really stood at its heart: Sarah Moore Grimké, her sister Angelina Emily Grimké, and Angelina’s husband, Theodore Weld. Some back of the napkin analysis suggests the original donation contained at least 500 pieces written individually or jointly by Sarah and Angelina, and some 200 letters written by Theodore. Yet when the collection was first accessioned in 1939, it was described as “Papers of Theodore Weld and Grimké sisters.” My lips purse a bit at the omission of even Sarah and Angelina’s names, and the frustration grew when reading the 1942 entry for the collection in the Guide to the Manuscript Collections in the William L. Clements Library (Ann Arbor, 1942). It outlines Theodore’s life story and activism in great detail but contains just one short paragraph about Angelina and Sarah, boiling down their work to one sentence, “They wrote and lectured for the antislavery cause and also for women’s rights and peace.” The boxes that housed the collection for decades were labeled simply “Weld Papers.” 

A two-foot-tall stack of boxes in the Manuscripts Division Office bear outdated labels that read only “Weld Papers.”

This quilt is part of the Weld-Grimké collection, presented by students from Eagleswood Academy, a boarding school founded by Sarah Grimké Weld and Theodore Weld. University of Michigan students recently studied this quilt in a classroom session held at the Clements Library, and reflected on the generations of labor, care, and hidden stories it represents.

Several of those boxes still sit in the Manuscripts Division office, right across from my desk. I look at them often, and think about Sarah Moore Grimké’s dream of a female Chief Justice eliciting laughter. I think about how some 90 years later when curators at the Clements were describing the collection that contained Sarah’s story, she was again diminished, this time to a “Grimké sister” and to one short, shared paragraph in a collection description. It’s a sharp and humbling reminder to me that all of us are products of our time. It is no surprise that in 1942 the status quo would be to describe a collection around the dominant male figure, just as it is no surprise that with the rise of feminism and the field of Women and Gender Studies in the 1960s and 1970s, Sarah and Angelina began to receive more recognition. By 2012 when Angelina and Sarah’s descendants generously donated another cache of family papers to the Clements, it was clearer to us at the library that the powerful women in the Weld and Grimké families deserved careful and explicit attention. The richness of the collection means it can tell many stories, but in recent years I have noticed that what tends to get the most attention revolves around women: students look closely at Angelina Grimké’s wedding purse, emblazoned with abolitionist imagery; we share scans written by free black and formerly enslaved women where they speak of their own experiences; scholars puzzle over the family Bibles annotated in Sarah and Angelina’s hands. Much has changed since the collection arrived in 1939— not only in how researchers interpret the sources, but also in how the library spotlights and describes them.


As much as we try, curators are not objective. Despite our best efforts, today we are surely missing things, too, and getting something wrong. The Weld-Grimké Family Papers finding aid was updated in 2016 to reflect current understandings of gender, historical agency, and archival best practices, but when I look at it again I can see places that merit revision. It reminds me of a letter I stumbled across in the James G. Birney Papers that was repaired at some point with a piece of cellophane tape, something that always makes library staff crinkle our foreheads. A penciled note appears beside it on the page: “Given the options, tape seemed the best solution regardless of what any persnickety archivist might think. – Ed.” What seems like the “best solution,” or the option that makes sense right now, might prove questionable in the future as our thinking and the historical context evolve. Progress is always incremental and never complete.

On this, our 100th anniversary, the call is for accountability. That we can look back and see where we mis-stepped, that we hold those lessons at the forefront of our thinking, and notice our own blindspots so we can do better for the generations to come. While we still await a woman to sit in that Chief Justice chair, I hope Sarah Moore Grimké would agree that the signs of the times are more promising than portentous and that the Clements is dedicated to accurately and justly describing our holdings. Even if we have to go back and revise as we grow and learn.

Jayne Ptolemy
   Assistant Curator of Manuscripts