A woman who fought to set free a society

February 20, 2000

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was an abolitionist and a womens rights crusader. She was born a slave in Ulster County, New York, and did not win her freedom until 1827, when New York abolished slavery.

In the 1830s, Truth, whose slave name was Isabella Van Wagenen, began to draw a following as a Methodist preacher in New York. She said she abandoned her slave name after a revelation from God. Truth became a traveling preacher, and in the mid-1840s, she joined a utopian commune in Massachusetts, where she joined the abolition and womens rights campaigns.

In 1851, Truth attended a womens rights conference in Akron, Ohio, where several male ministers attacked equal rights for women. The ministers maintained that women were intellectually and physically inferior to men. They pointed out that Jesus Christ was a male, not a female, and that Eve was the temptress responsible for the original sin in the Garden of Eden.

No white woman challenged the ministers, but the unflappable Truth rose and gave an impassioned speech punctuated with a haunting refrain: Aint I a woman?

Her speech follows:

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 of the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But whats all this here talking about?

That man over there says women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and have to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And aint 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 aint 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 aint I a woman? I have borne 13 children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mothers grief, none but Jesus heard me! And aint I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head: Whats this they call it? (Intellect, whispered someone near.) Thats it, honey. Whats that got to do with womens rights or Negro rights? If my cup wont hold but a pint and yours holds a quart, wouldnt you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women cant have as much rights as men, because Christ wasnt a woman! Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him . . .

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 are asking to do it, the men better let them.

Sojourner Truth's speech came from "Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life," by Bert James Lowenberg and Ruth Bogin. It was published in 1976 by The Pennsylvania State University Press.

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