In 1851 Sojourner Truth, former slave, evangelist, and crusader for abolition and the women’s vote, delivered a powerful speech at a woman’s suffrage convention in Akron, Ohio. Rising to address the crowd, Truth was an unforgettable sight: gaunt, nearly six feet in height, and with a deep, almost masculine, voice. She was probably in her fifties.
The speech she gave that day has had incredible resonance from then until the present. Its famous refrain–‘”Ain’t I a Woman?”—supplied the title of radical writer bell hooks’ 1980s book on black feminism. It has been performed countless times.
It is unlikely, however, that Truth actually uttered the words, “Ain’t I a woman.” The popular version of the speech with those words was the work of abolitionist Frances Dana Gage. Gage published it a dozen years later, and had Truth speaking in Southern dialect. Sojourner Truth was born in Dutch-speaking New York, sometime around 1797, and would never have spoken in the dialect of southern slaves.
But just as George Washington was a great man even if he never chopped down that mythical cherry tree, Sojourner Truth was a remarkable and complex woman even if the speech she gave that day in Akron was quite different from Gage’s embellished version that has since entered the annals of American rhetoric. Unlike the mostly well-educated and well-connected women who became leaders of the suffragist movement, Truth was poor and illiterate. She supported herself doing housework, and, after she became famous by selling small pictures of herself with the slogan, “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.”
Yet she somehow had the confidence and courage to overcome daunting circumstances to become one of the most prominent speakers on the suffragist circuit. She was admired by Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, all of whom became her friends. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” left behind an article in The Atlantic describing the impression Truth made when Truth paid an unannounced visit to Stowe in her home in Andover, Mass. Stowe wrote:
When I went into the room, a tall, spare form arose to meet me. She was evidently a full-blooded African, and though now aged and worn with many hardships, still gave the impression of a physical development which in early youth must have been as fine a specimen of the torrid zone as Cumberworth’s celebrated statuette of the Negro Woman at the Fountain. Indeed, she so strongly reminded me of that figure, that, when I recall the events of her life, as she narrated them to me, I imagine her as a living, breathing impersonation of that work of art.
The woman whom we know as Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree, or Bomefree, in Ulster County, New York. Her parents, James and Elizabeth, were slaves who belonged to a Colonel Hardenbergh. After the colonel died, his son, Charles, sold nine-year-old Isabella at auction.
Unlike the mostly well-educated and well-connected women who became leaders of the suffragist movement, Truth was poor and illiterate.
She fetched $100 as part of a package that included a flock of sheep. A man called John Neely bought her. Isabella remembered Neely as a cruel and abusive man, who inflicted terrible beatings on her, the physical scars of which she bore the rest of her life. She recounted in her autobiography (which was dictated) that her “trials in life” started with Neely. “Now the war begun,” she recalled. She prayed that her father would find a way to rescue her, and somehow James was able to help by arranging for somebody else to purchase her.
Later, Isabella would wish desperately that she could return the favor and assist her elderly father. But it was not to be. James, by the time of his death blind and lame, died “chilled and starved.” Isabella’s mother had died a few years earlier.
Isabella’s next owners were a family who owned a tavern and with whom she remained less than two years. At the age of twelve of thirteen, Isabella was sold for the third time. Her new owner was John Dumont, and she would remain with the Dumonts for sixteen years. John Dumont would praise Isabella, saying that she “could do as much work as a half dozen common [white] people, and do it well, too.” Dumont’s wife, who made life miserable for Isabella, claimed that was only because the tasks were only “half performed.” Isabella was beaten by Demont from time to time, but she nevertheless developed a lifelong fondness for him.
While at the Dumonts, Isabella fell in love with a slave called Robert, property of the artist Charles Catton, Jr. Catton beat Robert savagely when he learned about the relationship. Catton did not condone his slaves having relationships with those on other properties, as the progeny of such unions might end up belonging to the other property-owner. Robert vanished from her life, though she was haunted by his memory for the rest of her life. She subsequently married a slave named Thomas. She had five children, one of whom was believed to be the daughter of Dumont, who had raped Isabella.
The state of New York inaugurated a gradual abolition process in 1799. The children of slave mothers born after that date would be free but were required to work as indentured servants for their former masters until their late twenties. All New York slaves would be free by July 4, 1827.
However, after her own walk to freedom, Isabella learned that her son Peter had been sold into slavery in Alabama.
Dumont had agreed to free her a year before the 1827 deadline if she would work hard during her remaining time. However, when Isabella hurt her hand, he reneged on the deal, claiming that he was unable to get enough work from her after the injury to justify the early release from slavery. Instead of simply leaving on July 4, 1826, the agreed-upon date, she determined to work long enough to feel she had satisfied her end of the deal. She set her departure date for November or December 1826.
A biographer stressed that Isabella was not passive in the project of becoming free. “She left slavery with the Dumonts when she thought the time was right,” Nell Irvin Painter wrote in “Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol.” Painter adds that Isabella “heard the voice of her God instructing her when to set out on her own as a free woman.” She walked off the Dumont farm before dawn on the day she herself had chosen, carrying only her baby daughter Sophie and her worldly belongings, paltry enough to be wrapped in a handkerchief. “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right,” she said. It was the end of her life as a slave.
However, after her own walk to freedom, Isabella learned that her son Peter had been sold into slavery in Alabama. Being sold to a master in the deep south was every slave’s dread. Peter’s sale was illegal under the laws of New York. In a remarkable show of courage, Isabella took the matter to court, becoming one of the few black women in the antebellum era to win a legal battle. Peter was returned to her and lived with his mother in New York, where she worked as a domestic. He would later ship out on a Nantucket whaling ship, never to return, his fate unknown.
Isabella Baumfree would not adopt the name Sojourner Truth, with its religious overtones, until 1843. She was, however, a religious seeker and sojourner all her life. She lived in a Methodist community in New York, and later for a while on a utopian farm in Massachusetts. Truth was at one time attracted to the Millerites, who set the date for the Second Coming for some time in the 1840s and lost followers after this did not happen. “Without a doubt, it was Truth’s religious faith that transformed her from Isabella, domestic servant, into Sojourner Truth, a hero for three centuries at least,” Nell Irvin Painter wrote.
Sojourner Truth became a regular speaker at women’s suffrage gatherings. There are two versions of the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. Marius Robinson, who heard the speech and reported on it a few weeks later for his newspaper, the Anti-Slavery Bugle, provided a sober version that lacks the signature phrase. Frances Dana Gage was also there, but she did not publish an account until 12 years later. Gage’s account was published in the New York Independent in April of 1863. It is the Gage speech that has lent itself to dramatic readings and become a part of suffragist legend.
The openings of the speech give you a sense of how they will differ. In the Gage version, some in the noisy audience didn’t want Sojourner to speak. Taking note of this, she begins, “Well, chillen, whar dar’s so much racket dar must be som’ting out o’kilter.” Robinson’s version does not include opposition to Sojourner’s addressing the assembled; it begins, “May I say a few words? I want to say a few words about this matter.” “I am a woman’s rights” is the closest she gets to Gage’s defiant “Ain’t I a woman?” in Robinson’s version.
The women’s suffrage movement split in 1869 over ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed former slaves the right to vote.
One of the themes of the speech, in either version, is that black women worked as hard as black men but were not paid as much. Sojourner also compares the lot of the white woman with that of the black woman. The Gage version is the more memorable. “Dat man ober dar say dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have de best place ebery whar,” Sojourner says in the Gage version of the speech. “Nobody eber helps me into carriages or ober mud-puddles, or gives me any best place. And ar’n’t I a woman?” If you would like to compare the speeches, there is a website devoted to doing so: https://www.thesojournertruthproject.com/
As a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage, Sojourner Truth, as might be expected of a woman who had experienced life as a slave, was especially concerned about the rights of black women. In a statement that has not received as much attention as the 1851 speech, Truth said, “If colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you will see colored men be masters over the women and it will be just as bad as it was before.” This remark might be construed to foreshadow the anti-male impulse in later feminism, or it might simply have reflected her belief in the paramount importance of voting rights.
The women’s suffrage movement split in 1869 over ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed former slaves the right to vote. The amendment declared that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Missing of course were women.
One faction, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, opposed any amendment that did not give the right to vote to women. A more moderate group, under the leadership of more moderate women such as Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, supported voting rights for former slaves, even if women had to wait. Both groups ardently wanted Sojourner Truth’s support. Sojourner Truth tried to avoid the conflict but ultimately sided with the moderates who backed the Fifteenth Amendment. Like many suffragists, Sojourner Truth attempted to vote for Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 presidential election but was turned away.
Although Sojourner Truth traveled and spoke around the country, she settled in Battle Creek, Michigan. She died there on November 26, 1883, at the age of around 86, nearly six decades since she had walked to freedom–and helped reshape the world.