Ain’t I a Woman?” A Brief History of Sojourner Truth

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Sojourner Truth

In troubled times, history can often be a reminder that today’s issues and struggles are nothing new. Sojourner Truth was critical in making it known that women’s suffrage was not only a case of gender, but race and social status too.

Born into slavery in 1797 and sold three times before she had even turned 13, Sojourner Truth faced many hardships before she became the abolitionist and women’s rights activist she is known as today. Though she contributed massively to the timeline of suffrage in America, Truth’s journey extends beyond this, earning her the right to be memorialised in history.

In Dutch speaking Ulster County, New York, Truth’s birth name was Isabella Baumfree. Unable to marry the man she loved, in 1815 Truth was paired up with a slave her master, John Dumont, also owned; this way the ownership of any slave children produced by the marriage would not be disputed.

Truth’s master promised her freedom on 4th July 1826, if she worked hard, but Dumont went back on his word. Truth carried her infant daughter to a local abolitionist family, the Van Wagenens, but was forced to leave her other four children behind. When Dumont found Truth, her freedom was bought for $20.

After New York’s Anti-Slavery law went into effect, Dumont illegally sold Truth’s youngest son, Peter. As a result, and with help from the Van Wagenens, Truth became the first black woman to successfully sue a white man. She regained custody of her son and they moved to New York City where Truth was employed as a housekeeper.

Thanks to the Van Wagenens, and the preacher in New York she worked for, Truth became a devout Christian. Inspired by her Methodist religion, in 1843 she chose the name Sojourner Truth for herself, vowing to travel and spread the truth of God.

“Ain’t I a Woman?”

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts welcomed Truth as a member in 1844. The pacifist organization supported women’s rights and religious tolerance. Though the group disbanded in 1846, through them Truth met abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.

Though Truth never learned to read or write, she toured giving lectures on the causes she believed in. At a women’s rights conference in Akron, Ohio in 1851, Truth gave her most famous speech. Her lecture, which came to be known as Ain’t I a Woman? challenged the concepts of gender inferiority and race inferiority. Though many activists fought for those causes, Truth argued they were one and the same cause.

Sojourner Truth statue
Image by Vagirl38, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons (modified).

Though her friend Douglass campaigned for black people to vote, he was of the belief that men should be given that right before black women; something Truth disagreed with as women should also be given that right. Her women’s rights lectures led her to meet and be supported by activists including Susan B Anthony.

When the Civil War began, Truth helped recruit African American soldiers, and worked in Washington D.C. organizing supplies for black soldiers. These activities earned her an invitation to the White House to meet President Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

Truth would frequently refer to the Bible in her speeches and often referred to her life as a slave. In her 1867 lecture at the American Equal Rights Association she told the crowd she was a homeowner and paid taxes, as many men do. She reminded them that her 6-foot stature had deemed her able to do hard manual labour, along with other female slaves; surely voting is easier than building a road. her speech referred to new rights given to black men but urged people to not forget the rights of women too.

“I feel that I have the right to have just as much as a man. There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.”

Sojourner Truth continued to challenge those who believed in gender and race inferiority. She campaigned and collected signatures petitioning the government to provide former slaves with land. Thousands of signatures were collected but the federal government took no action.

Death and Legacy of Sojourner Truth

Truth died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan on November 26, 1883; five years after the original Woman’s Suffrage Amendment was rejected by congress. She was buried in the local cemetery and engraved on her tombstone is the question “Is God Dead?” something she once said to Frederick Douglass to remind him to have faith.

Her legacy went on to inspire the suffrage movement, spurring activists to continue to campaign for the right of everyone to vote until the 19th Amendment was eventually ratified in 1920.

 

Top photo via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons.

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