“Ain’t I a Woman?” is a short but influential speech given by ex-slave Sojourner Truth at a Woman’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. During her speech, Truth challenges the traditional male perspective about women’s roles while also challenging activists working within the women’s rights movement to be more inclusive of African American women. Echoing the speech’s title, Truth repeatedly asks, “ain’t I a woman?” when discussing the general treatment of (white) women in the mid-nineteenth century, exposing the inherent hypocrisy in the treatment of white versus black women in antebellum America. In order to make her point that black or white, a woman is a woman, Truth draws her own experiences of womanhood into the speech, remarking that she has never been helped “into carriages, or over mud-puddles” but rather, has “ploughed and planted” bore and lost “thirteen children” as an African American woman bound in slavery (Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?”). Like these examples demonstrate, the trials and tribulations that Truth endured throughout her life not only qualify her as a strong woman but entitle her to equal women’s rights.
Working tirelessly toward bettering life for the oppressed both in and out of slavery, Sojourner spent her freedom travelling the country “as a forceful and passionate advocate for the dispossessed” (Butler). But unlike many other advocates for women’s rights, Truth was not incensed from being sheltered and excluded, but rather, coming from a personal history of exploitation and abuse (as were most African American women in 19th century America).
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Betsey around 1797 in Ulster County, New York. She was born into slavery, child to “the property of Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh” (Butler). She married and had children, some of which died or were sold to another slave owner, and worked as a slave for several owners until she “finally walked to freedom in 1826, carrying her infant daughter, Sophia” (Butler). She settled in New York but after a few decades began to travel around as a “preacher” of “truth” and “working against injustice” (Butler). During the forty-plus years of her travelling, she became a powerful and prominent figure in the human rights movement, “speaking forcefully for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights and suffrage, the rights of freedmen, temperance, prison reform and the termination of capital punishment” (Butler).
By 1851, just three years into the women’s movement (InfoPlease), Sojourner Truth was positioned to deliver her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at the women’s convention in Akron, Ohio. Although Truth never learned to read or write, her impassioned words were articulated by her “quick wit and fearless tongue” (Butler). Her incendiary speech was fit for the audience, which included “many men, including several ministers, [who] came to the convention to heckle the speakers” (Ohio Society Central). Reading over Sojourner’s words with this context of its original delivery in mind only heightens the courage, strength and straight rationality that emanates from her provocative and poignant speech. Understanding the social setting in which the former slave stood up and spoke these words is crucial to our retrospective interpretation of this primary source. Knowing that incensed male hecklers were present and likely disrespected Truth during her speech gives another layer of meaning to the parts of the speech where she directly addresses elitist discriminatory men. “That little man in black there” really was there (Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?”). When we read Truth’s salient point that Christ came from “God and a woman” and that “man had nothing to do with Him,” the historical context of the convention and the conditions under which Truth delivered her speech help us to actually see her presentation. She is not simply nodding at this clever observation with one fist resting perplexingly under her chin; she is directly addressing the male ignorance she is criticizing, her words effectively reducing the discriminatory men in her presence to utter unimportance and purposeless. Powerful, powerful stuff.
Sojourner Truth, like other abolitionists and human rights activists, had every reason to be passionate, assertive and intolerant of the discrimination that hindered the quality of life for minorities such as women and blacks in Antebellum America. Prior to the fight for voting rights that came to dominate the nineteenth century women’s movement, both male and female activists began a campaign for women to have equal opportunities of varying proportions, as outlined in the 1848 “Declaration of Sentiments” (InfoPlease). As this declaration reveals, 19th century women suffered many injustices and inequalities; especially African American women, who were still battling prejudice and abuse from others in spite of their newfound freedom. African American women, many of whom endured unchecked sexual exploitation and abuse at the hands of their male owners several years prior, had the most to gain, but also stood the furthest away from equal rights as they were marginalized on two counts: that of their femaleness and that of their blackness. Challenges for black women in this era were not limited to the prejudice and discrimination that met them even after they achieved freedom from slavery. In the mid-nineteenth century, prior to the Women’s movement, women could not vote, and they did not have the same opportunities for education or employment as men, to name a few inequalities. These are but a few examples of the “long train of abuses” (“Declaration of Sentiments”) that women and African American women in particular refused to endure by the mid 1800s.
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These are the social and cultural contexts in which Sojourner Truth’s powerful “Ain’t I a Woman” speech was born. Truth was not speaking as the commonplace intellectualist guest lecturer at a women’s college, she was an illiterate ex-slave rallying for a cause, questioning the logic of men, making demands of the male audience and even cleverly arguing that if anything, men are actually less deserving and important than women by the men’s very own logic.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Truth’s speech is the implications it bears about men and women alike with regards to popular perceptions of black women. Throughout her speech, Truth argues on account of both her blackness and her femaleness, exemplifying how each of these features has qualified her as equal to men and (white) women alike. She has plowed fields like a man, but has also birthed children -- the ultimate act of womanhood. And yet, she is more marginalized by her status than either a black man or a white woman, further away from equal rights than her black male and white female counterparts. Discriminated against by both sexes, Truth’s speech ultimately rescues the black woman from further obscurity, demanding both men and women to recognize the black woman as equal to men and white women alike.
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