Abolitionist and Women’s Rights Activist
Sojourner Truth’s transformation from a slave in rural New York to a sharp-tongued, charismatic speaker, able to mesmerize and charm, is well-known. Throughout her long life, she wore many hats: evangelical preacher, memoirist, abolitionist, mother. Born into a Dutch-speaking household around 1797, she was sold away from her family at about the age of nine. Two decades later, around the time slavery was outlawed in New York, she escaped her master’s property. She later sued, successfully, for her son Peter’s freedom.
In 1843, in her mid-forties, she had a spiritual awakening and changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She began delivering anti-slavery sermons, bolstered by sales of her memoir, Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, which she wrote by dictation (Truth could neither read nor write). In 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, she delivered her most famous speech, ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’ She made a lasting impression, and several versions of her words have circulated over the years. The one reprinted most often, which became a touchstone for feminists and civil rights activists, was recorded from memory by the white abolitionist Frances Gage in 1863, twelve years after the original speech. Gage gave Truth, a born New Yorker, a misplaced Southern dialect. Some historians have also suggested that Gage introduced the phrase ‘Ar’nt I a Woman?’, later written as ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’ Reproduced here is a version recorded closer to the time, in 1851, by the Reverend Marius Robinson, a friend of Truth’s. Published in the newspaper The Anti-Slavery Bugle, it likely provides a more accurate rendering of Truth’s extraordinary voice.
Ain’t I A Woman? 1851
May I say a few words?
[Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded;]
I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if woman have a pint and man a quart—why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much,—for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seem to be all in confusion, and dont know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept—and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.