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Ain't I a Woman?

"AIN'T I A WOMAN?"


Sojourner Truth (c. 1797–1883) made the speech associated with the refrain "Ain't I a woman?" in May 1851, in Akron, Ohio, where she gained fame for eloquently and powerfully bringing together the issues of women's rights and slavery. Although Sojourner Truth was already a popular preacher, abolitionist, and woman's rights spokesperson in the East, she was unknown to westerners outside of the abolitionist movement headed by William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879). Her Akron speech and other lectures while touring in Ohio as part of Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society made her as popular in the West as she was in the East.

EARLY LIFE

Sojourner Truth, whose given name was Isabella, was born in slavery in New York's Dutch-speaking Hudson River valley. As a child, Isabella was nurtured on her mother's African mysticism and learned rudimentary Christianity from the white mistresses in the household engaged in training their own children. Sold away at age twelve, she had three owners within a year: an Englishman who beat her for not speaking English; a kind but uneducated lower-class Dutch farmer; and finally a well-to-do farmer, John Dumont. At the Dumont farm she married another slave, Thomas, and had five children. She remained Dumont's slave from late 1810 to 1826, when she fled with her baby daughter to the home of an antislavery Dutch farmer, whose last name, Van Wagenen, she took as her own. She was freed after New York State passed an antislavery law in 1827. That year she also experienced a cathartic baptism of the spirit and accepted Christian conversion. Her profession of faith evolved into a belief that she had received a special calling from God, manifested in the miraculous retrieval of her young son Peter, who had been sold into southern slavery; she fought in court for Peter's successful release in the winter of 1828.

In 1828 Isabella also moved to New York City, where she joined the African Methodist Church, called Zion's. She soon gravitated toward the Perfectionists, a radical Methodist offshoot of Charles Grandison Finney's Great Western Revival. Although unable to read and write, Isabella quickly became well known and much respected among the Methodists. As a popular revival preacher, the influence of her speaking brought many converts to the Christian faith. She also worked among prostitutes and the poor and was briefly ensnarled in a notorious religious cult. During her fifteen years in New York City, Isabella continued honing her speaking skills and biblical knowledge. In June 1843 she had a spiritual revelation that she experienced as the voice of God, beckoning her into service as a sojourner for truth. Thus she changed her name and embarked on her lifelong social justice mission.

A SOJOURNER FOR TRUTH

Traveling through Long Island, Connecticut, and western Massachusetts and preaching abolition all the way, the anointed Sojourner Truth worked just enough to "pay tribute to Caesar" (Gilbert, p. 82). She survived on the kindness of strangers and drew strength from her authority as God's messenger. A great favorite at camp meetings, revivals, and among reformers, this tall, commanding figure had a dignified manner, a gift of prayer, and a remarkable talent for singing. Most of all, Sojourner's conversations, sermons, lessons of wisdom and faith, and her remarkable biblical interpretations deeply impressed her listeners.

In March 1844 Sojourner Truth settled in the utopian community known as the Northampton Association in western Massachusetts. In this haven of "isms" she met many reformers, including William Lloyd Garrison, president of the American Anti-Slavery Society; Abby Kelley Foster, the American Society's only female lecturer; Frederick Douglass, the American Society's only self-emancipated lecturer; and Olive Gilbert, a New England reformer to whom Sojourner would dictate her autobiographical Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (1850). Sojourner Truth made her first recorded abolitionist speech in August 1844 in Northampton. The following May she was a featured speaker at the American Anti-Slavery national convention in New York City. Sojourner published her Narrative and began a New England speaking tour in 1850, just as the notorious Fugitive Slave Law was passed, requiring citizens of free states to assist in the recovery of runaway bondpeople. In late October 1850 she was a featured speaker at the first National Woman's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. Two significant issues at this meeting had not been part of the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, in which the participants of the New York State convention demanded a reevaluation of the social condition and legal rights of women. One was a specific resolution about wrongs inflicted upon enslaved women and the other was a demand for women's suffrage. In February 1851 Sojourner Truth joined the antislavery campaign through western New York with the British abolitionist and Member of Parliament George Thompson, Abby Kelley Foster, Stephen S. Foster, and Frederick Douglass. The tour culminated in meetings in Syracuse and Rochester, New York, where western abolitionists invited Sojourner to come and lecture in Ohio.

AIN'T I A WOMAN?

Antislavery and women's rights were generally unpopular causes in Ohio. The large majority of whites in the state were proslavery Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Baptists. Some however, were members of the Free Soil Party, a newly formed coalition organized around nonextension of slavery, maintaining slavery where it existed, and excluding free blacks from the territories for the sake of the union. Ohio's small white liberal element included abolitionists, Underground Railroad workers, and radical women's rights activists. They were mainly Quakers, Moravians, German Pietists, Unitarians, Universalists, Shakers, and other dissenting sects living in northern Ohio, called the Western Reserve. Although Ohio's first constitution, in 1802, had abolished slavery, beginning in 1804 the state passed "Black Laws" that denied to blacks all civil and educational rights and prohibited black settlement without a $500 bond and a white patron. Bloody riots occurred in Cincinnati in 1829, 1836, and 1841, causing many blacks either to leave the state or to arm themselves. The state's minuscule progressive element made small gains: in 1848 some Black Laws, including denial of education, were repealed, and in 1850 Ohio women were the first to campaign for the vote, joining blacks in a bid for a universal suffrage amendment to the new state constitution. Their failure led to the convening of the 1850 national woman's convention in Worcester, followed by the 1851 regional meeting in Akron.

Sojourner Truth arrived in Ohio to lecture for the antislavery cause in May 1851, stopped in Cleveland, and spoke among the black population. Hearing of the women's convention, and deeply interested in women's rights, she went on to Akron. As the story goes, the convention president, Frances Gage, and the convention secretary, Hannah Cutler, entered the hotel lobby and saw a tall black woman walking back and forth, carrying a basket of books. Embarrassed by the presence of a black woman, the two white Free Soil antislavery women ignored Sojourner, walking right past her into the parlor. Truth followed them, introduced herself, and explained her abolitionist mission. Gage and Cutler each bought a copy of Sojourner Truth's Narrative and assumed that was the end of her business at the convention.

The convention participants and their cause were not well received in Akron. The women had access to only one church, the Universalist, and only one hotel in the city was willing to rent rooms to the delegates. The convention was also divided ideologically. The Michigan radical Emma Coe compared women's position to that of southern slaves. She was sarcastic and bitter in accusing men of twofold injustices toward women—depriving them of education, then calling them incapable imbeciles. Jane Swisshelm, the Free Soil editor of a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, newspaper, the Saturday Visitor, strongly objected to the stance represented by Coe. Swisshelm insisted that she did not want to relinquish her femininity. The disagreement among the women on the platform created disquiet within the audience of females while some male clergy interrupted them and shouted disapproval.

Sojourner Truth sat on the steps leading to the pulpit, fanning herself with her sunbonnet, watching everything and occasionally interjecting comments. As the three-way battle waxed heavy between moderate and radical women, and between the sexes, one clergyman told the women to go home to their husbands and children because Jesus and all of his apostles were men. From her position near the platform, Sojourner shouted that the men claim all for themselves. An Oberlin student, Sallie Holley, who had left school for three days to attend the woman's convention, later wrote that the biblical edict against women speaking in public was strongly upheld in Ohio by the large presence of clerics there—making Truth's alacrity at taking on the clerics all the more impressive. As the exchanges heated, Sojourner Truth asked to address the entire audience, and Frances Gage gave her the floor. Jane Swisshelm in the Saturday Visitor later criticized Gage's handling of the convention and ignoring of parliamentary rules, but the moment gave rise to the opportunity for Truth to make her riveting speech, which became known by the refrain "Ain't I a woman?" (or "A'rn't I a woman?") and secured her legendary place in history.

VERSIONS OF TRUTH

History has two versions of "Ain't I a Woman?" both relatively succinct by contrast with the full oration given by Truth at the Akron convention. An account by Frances Gage was published twelve years after the fact, during the Civil War, as a correction to comments made by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her highly publicized but distorted recollection of meeting Truth in 1855, and Gage's version of the speech established the way in which Truth's words are remembered. Stowe, in her Atlantic Monthly article titled "Sojourner Truth: The Libyan Sibyl," presents Truth disparagingly, as an oversized, humorous African-born oddity, possessing naive religious faith and speaking in droll, thick, almost incomprehensible southern dialect. Stowe attributes Truth as saying at Akron, "Sisters, I a'n't clear what you'd be after. Ef women want any rights, more'n dey's got, why don't dey 'jes' take 'em, an' not be talkin' about it." The April 1863 publication of Stowe's article led Gage to publish her own recollection in the National Anti-Slavery Standard on 2 May 1863. In recounting Truth's words Gage liberally added rhetorical flourish, dialect, and the ringing refrain "And a'rn't I a woman?" But a report in the Salem, Ohio, Anti-Slavery Bugle, published on 21 June 1851—about three weeks after the Akron meeting—is certainly the most authentic. It does not have a refrain, does not express Truth in dialect, and states that she said "I am a woman's rights," reflecting a common phrase used by female reformers. Nevertheless, in comparing the two versions, only one definite factual falsehood exists: Gage attributes thirteen children to Sojourner Truth, something she obviously copied from Stowe's article. In general, the Bugle and Gage versions correspond in content and meaning.

Whatever the exact words of her presentation, Sojourner Truth memorably fused issues of color, slavery, work, and gender under the rubric of spirituality. She had done this on other occasions, including the 1850 national woman's convention. Although not in the Bugle account, contemporary sources support Gage's comment that Sojourner Truth said she never found a man willing to help her over mud puddles and bad roads—as a retort to Jane Swisshelm's insistence that such assistance was a woman's privilege. Sojourner's point was that black women were no less female even though not placed on a pedestal. Here she might easily have interjected the phrase "And a'rn't I a woman?" Both accounts emphasize labor in the same way, although Gage insists that Sojourner (uncharacteristically) "bared her right arm to the shoulder." Truth suggested that although her enslaved sisters worked like mules and were strong and hardy, they were still women. Both accounts address education, except that Gage, again copying Stowe, resorts to minstrelsy: "'Den dey talks 'bout dis ting in de head—what dis dey call it?' 'Intellect,' whispered some one near. 'Dat's it honey. What's dat got to do with women's rights or niggers' rights?'" This demeaning language was tailored for white nineteenth-century audience appeal. Yet Gage, like the Bugle, emphasizes Sojourner's main remark, which followed up Emma Coe's emphasis of unequal educational opportunity: If women's intellectual capacity held only a pint, and men's a quart, why could women not have their measure full?

The two accounts agree that the speech emphasized the spiritual role of women, one of Sojourner Truth's favorite topics. The Bugle notes that Truth called women the most steadfast followers of Jesus, and she used the example of Lazarus' sisters. Because they approached Christ with faith and love, Lazarus arose as Jesus wept. In both accounts, Sojourner Truth reminded the critical ministers and her conflicted sisters that Christ was born of a woman, through Immaculate Conception. Where, she challenged, was man's part?

By both accounts, Sojourner Truth skillfully rebuked the men in the audience for belittling the convention and its goals. Yet as an accomplished orator, Sojourner Truth did not leave even detractors on a sour note. Both accounts reveal her biblical olive branch. The ministers maintained that human depravity rested upon the sins of Eve. Since Eve was powerful enough to upset the world, said Sojourner Truth, the daughters of Eve deserve the opportunity to set it right side up again.

Frances Gage's account fizzles out apologetically, claiming she could not follow Sojourner through it all. She does recall long continuous cheering and some crying among the women. Resorting (as she had earlier in the same account) to the figure of Stowe's imaginary black Amazon, Gage concludes that Sojourner Truth took all the white women up into "her strong arms and carried us safely." The Bugle however, provides a finale befitting Sojourner Truth's manner of connecting race, slavery, and gender. Assertive women had men between a rock and a hard place. Beset by the bondpeople on one side and their own women on the other, white men, said Truth, were in a "tight place," and surely caught between "a hawk and a buzzard."

The authors of the multivolume History of Woman's Suffrage (1881–1922) chose to use Frances Gage's version rather than the the report from the Anti-Slavery Bugle. History may never know if Sojourner Truth actually used the refrain "Ain't I a woman?" However, the account in the Bugle calls Truth's remarks "one of the most unique and interesting speeches of the Convention," asserting that it had a powerful effect on the audience. Truth's pointed aptness and originality were instrumental in getting the most radical resolutions through the convention over the objections of moderate women. Indeed, a number of contemporary newspapers commented on the impact and influence of the speech (although Jane Swisshelm's paper was not among them—she wrote only that a tall black woman was at the convention, selling books). Gage's recollection that Sojourner Truth's words became a profound inspiration for Ohio women is supported by the farewell Truth received when she left the state, nearly two years later: the women of Ashtabula County honored her departure with a gift of a huge silk banner labeled "Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?"

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Blacks; Female Authorship; Feminism; Oral Tradition; Oratory; Slavery

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Works

Anti-Slavery Bugle (Salem, Ohio), 21 June 1851, p. 160.

Cutler, Hanna Tracy. "Reminiscences." Woman's Journal, 19–26 September 1896.

Gage, Frances. "Sojourner Truth." National Anti-Slavery Standard, 2 May 1863.

Gilbert, Olive. Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A NorthernSlave. 1850. Reprinted as Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Bondwoman of Olden Time. Edited by Margaret Washington. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Holley, Sallie. A Life for Liberty. 1899. Reprinted as A Life for Liberty: Anti-Slavery and Other Letters of Sallie Holley. Edited by John W. Chadwick. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. "Sojourner Truth: The Libyan Sibyl." Atlantic Monthly, April 1863, pp. 473–481.

Vale, Gilbert. Fanaticism: Its Source and Influence,Illustrated by the Simple Narrative of Isabella, in the Case of Matthias, Mr. and Mrs. Folger, Mr. Pierson, Mr. Mills, Catherine, Isabella, &c. &c. 2 vols. New York: G. Vale, 1835.

Secondary Works

David, Linda, and Erlene Stetson. Glorying in Tribulation:The Lifework of Sojourner Truth. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1994.

Mabee, Carleton. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

Painter, Nell I. Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. New York: Norton, 1996.

Margaret Washington

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