Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York State around 1797. In 1851, Sojourner Truth attended a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. She delivered her famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech to a gathering of both women and men who believed in women’s rights. This short and extemporaneous speech turned out to be one of the most recognizable speeches in feminist and abolitionist history. The abolition and women’s rights movement became part of Sojourner Truth’s work, in which she was able to communicate her feelings and beliefs about the world around her.
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Sojourner Truth was originally named Isabella Baumfree, she changed her name in 1843 and became a Methodist. She had claimed that the Lord had called upon her to travel and speak the truth. She lived a miserable life as a slave and wrote about her experience as a child during slavery. She experienced beatings, whippings and even sexual abuse from her series of slave masters. Her final slave master was named John Dumont and he had promised to free her around 1826 due to her being a great and loyal worker. However, Dumont ended up changing his mind and told Sojourner she had to work for another year. Sojourner escaped from her slave master at the time and stayed with a couple who believed that slavery was evil. Eventually Dumont came looking for her, so the couple paid him twenty dollars for Sojourner’s services until the New York Anti-Slavery Law was officially established in 1827.
Although Sojourner was free, it did not mean her children were also free from slavery. Her children were still legally bounded to Dumont because the law stated that any child, born after a certain date, to an enslaved mother, would unfortunately have to continue working for the mother’s owner until they’ve reached the age of twenty-one. However, Sojourner soon found out that Dumont had sold her son Peter to a slave owner in Alabama, which was illegal. Therefore, Sojourner decided to take Dumont to court. She ended up winning the court case and her son was returned to her.
Sojourner became the first African American woman to take a white man to court and prevail. The amount of bravery and courage that took was both incredible and admirable. She was a woman who was a former slave that took it upon herself to file a lawsuit against a white man and she actually won. She knew that if her son was not within the state of New York, he would not be protected by the law to be freed at the age of twenty-one. Therefore, Peter would have never been freed and would have remained a slave his entire life.
Throughout time, Sojourner became Christian and an itinerant preacher. She truly believed it was her religious obligation to speak the truth. She began to involve herself with growing movements, such as antislavery and women’s rights. In 1844, she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, which was an abolitionist organization. During this time, she was able to meet leading abolitionists and begin her career as an equal rights activist.
Slavery began in America during the early 1600s, both female and male slaves arrived to work eighteen hours a day. Women were not shown any mercy or compassion, even if they were pregnant. Their children were often taken away from them and sold off into slavery. Slaves worked very long hours, separated from their families and were kept in terrible conditions. They were abused physically, mentally and/or emotionally. They were also even either tortured, raped and/or killed.
The abolition movement started in the early 1800s and its sole purpose was to emancipate all of the slaves in order to put an end to slavery everywhere. This movement was also established in order to end racial discrimination and segregation. A few of the key leaders involved with the movement were Sojourner Truth, William Lord Garrison, John Brown, Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass. Abolitionists were a divided group because one side was fighting for an immediate end to slavery, while the other believed that slavery should be phased out gradually. This was sought out to protect the economy of the Southern states and make sure it would not fall apart. Many Southern states depended on agriculture as a source of income.
During the 1800s, women were often thought of as second-class citizens and were told their main purpose in life was to serve men. Women were supposed to strive for marriage, start a family and become housewives. Once the women married their husbands, all of their property belonged to their husband. They were also not allowed to file for divorce against their husbands, sign contracts or even get the chance to vote. Women began to notice that they were being treated unfairly and almost similar to slaves. This was due to the fact that they basically had little to no rights.
The women’s rights convention was first held in 1848. Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the convention in Seneca Falls, New York and they became prominent figures within the women’s rights movement. Approximately three hundred women and men attended the convention, including Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass. Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott created and displayed The Declaration of Sentiments. This document stated the rights American women should be entitled to as United States citizens, which were the same rights as men. During the convention, the women were told to start defending their beliefs and rights.
The main purpose of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech is to highlight the experience of hardships African American women have faced. These hardships include slavery and injustice. The speech emphasizes the need for women’s rights and equality. She also sheds some light on these important matters from a religious point of view.
“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?”. In this part of the speech, Sojourner emphasizes women’s rights. She states how there is so much talk about women’s rights, yet nothing is actually being done. She believes talking about the issue is pointless and a waste of time. Actions speak louder than words and it’s about time something is actually done, instead of just sitting around talking about it.
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And Ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And Ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And Ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And Ain’t I a woman?”. In this part of the speech, Sojourner emphasizes the stereotypes that are made about women. It also highlights how differently African American women are treated as opposed to white women. African American women were not acknowledged or treated like women, instead they were forced to do hard labor and beaten, while acts of chivalry were performed for white women.
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“Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? "Intellect". That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full? In this part of the speech, Sojourner emphasizes the lack of humanity and compassion people have towards one another, regardless of intellect, financial status or gender. Everyone is deserving of a cup filled because everyone deserved equality.
“Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” In this part of the speech, Sojourner emphasizes the story of the life of Mary and reasoning as to why Christ not being a woman is irrelevant when arguing about women’s rights. The point she is trying to make is that God had to rely on Mary to deliver their child, Jesus Christ. There would be no Christ without Mary because no man was involved, which further proves women are entitled to equality and are in fact powerful.
“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.” In this part of the speech, Sojourner emphasizes the story of the garden of Eden and how Eve was able to change the fate of humanity with just one bite of an apple. The point she is trying to make is that women have the ability, capacity, power, intelligence and strength to make a change and get things done, regardless if men like it or not.
Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech is representation and reflection of everything she has witnessed and been through. She expresses her feelings about being an African American woman who was a former slave. Although she escaped to freedom, she was never really truly free because she had to continue fighting for women’s rights, emancipation of all slaves, discrimination and segregation. She expressed her beliefs as a Christian woman who could not understand the gender inequality between men and women.
History.com Editors. (2019). Sojourner Truth. Retrieved from: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sojourner-truth#section_2
National Geographic Society. (2019). Abolition and the Abolitionists. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/abolition-and-abolitionists/
National Park Service. (2017). Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman? Retrieved from: https://www.nps.gov/articles/sojourner-truth.htm
Roberts, Edgar V. Literature, 5th compact ed. Pearson, 2012.
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