Sojourner Truth: A Timeless Women’s Rights Activist

By Skye VanLanduyt

Sojourner Truth escaped from slavery and became a powerful civil and women’s rights activist during the nineteenth century. Truth’s famous speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?” will always be one of my favorite woman authored pieces in multi-ethnic literature. Her language is controversial, provocative, and unforgettable. She delivered the speech in 1851 at a Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.

Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech is meant to be controversial. Her speech criticizes white privilege while calling attention to gender and racial disparity in America. In the second paragraph, Truth exclaims “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted into ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” Her critique of men’s treatment toward women runs deeper than the issue of men seeing women as submissive. White women may not be treated fairly but black women are not seen by men as women at all. Truth’s writing reveals why it is important to take a step back and realize women’s experience is not entirely universal.

At the end of the same paragraph, Truth compares her worth to a man’s. She boldly exclaims, “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 love this line because Truth is challenging her role as a woman comparably with a man. She declares women do not “need to be helped” and should be seen as equal to men because they are able to do the same work. But she also calls attention to racial disparity in a new way. Her assertion, “I could work as much and eat as much as a man” is a powerful punch against the barriers white men put up against her.

As powerful as Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech is, there is a shroud of mystery behind the piece’s publication. Her original speech was transcribed by journalist and audience member, Marius Robinson. Truth and Robinson were “good friends” and reportedly “went over his transcription of her speech before he published it.” A second transcription was published by writer, Frances Gage in 1863 in the New York Independent, a women’s suffrage magazine. Some speculate discrepancies in Gage’s transcription. The phrase, “Ain’t I A Woman” is not found in Robinson’s earlier version of Truth’s speech, nor is there any southern dialect. Although Gage was a feminist, her choice to falsify Truth’s dialect and word choice is counterproductive to the purpose of Truth’s speech. The piece loses its powerful flare and provocative language because Gage’s intended audience is not black. New York’s readership in the 1800’s was predominately white. A powerful black woman’s voice speaking out against white privilege and supremacy would not have received praise before the abolition of slavery.

Despite controversy, Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?” continues to reflect America’s history, present, and future. It is a reminder that while so much progress has been made in the fight for women’s equality, so much more still needs to be done.

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