Sojourner Truth and her 1851 speech "Ain't I a Woman?"
1797 - 1883
I would be remiss if I did not tell you about Sojourner Truth and her great and eloquent speech she gave on women's rights right here in Akron, OH. She traveled here in 1851, and in downtown Akron, OH gave one of the most important speeches on women's rights and blazed a trail of history from here that took her to the heights of power, a meeting with a President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.
Who would have thought that an African-American slave girl of land owners in New York state would rise up and become the foundation of the women's rights movement and the abolitionist movement and work hard and fiercely for the freedom of slaves and women's rights during her lifetime?
It took a strong, independent, and spunky woman to accomplish all that and that is just how Sojourner Truth was from her days as an owned slave, to her flight to freedom, and her tireless work as a public speaker and servant to those she understood the most - women and African - American slaves.
However, one of the saddest aspects of all this is the two different versions of her famous speech, "Ain't I a Woman?", and the incorrect version of the speech that has been handed down and recorded in American history.
Other Speeches by Sojourner Truth
- Mob Convention, September 7, 1853
- American Equal Rights Association, May 9-10, 1867
- Eighth Anniversary of Negro Freedom, New Year's Day, 1871
In these three speeches she gave at these conventions, she again made her plea for equal rights for women. She was a devout Christian and in these three speeches she also invoked stories from the Bible to support her arguments for equal rights. Sojourner Truth never stopped working and speaking out on behalf of all women, white or African-American.
"Ain't I a Woman?" - Akron, OH 1851
Truth gave an extemporaneous speech at the convention, because she was unable to read and write, and therefore, she had no prepared script before her. But, she was eloquent and dignified and spoke in a strong voice.
In the speech she reminded everyone that she was capable of doing any work a man could do. So why couldn't women have equal rights to that of a man? She then talked about women's intellect. According to Truth, man has a quart of it (intellect) and woman has a pint of it. She continued by saying, we (women) can't take more rights than our pint can hold.
She even empathized with men. She admited that man was in a tight place, the poor slave was coming on him and woman was coming on him and she said man was surely between a hawk and a buzzard. But, she encouraged men to give women equal rights, because women would not try to take more than their fair share. Her arguments were logical and coherent.
The Ohio Women's Rights Convention was organized by Hannah Tracy and Frances Dana Barker Gage. Both were present when Truth gave her speech. But, two completely different versions of Truth's speech have been recorded. One by Gage, herself, and one by Marius Robinson.
Marius Robinson was a newspaper owner and editor and also the recording secretary for the organization at the convention. His recounting of the speech, published several weeks later in his publication, Anti-Slavery Bugle, does not once include the famous question, "Ain't I a Woman?" let alone record Truth saying it four times during her extemporaneous speech.
Gage wrote her version of the speech twelve years later (1863) and she published a very different version of the speech. She gave Truth the speech pattern and the characteristics of Southern slaves and included sentences and phrases that Robinson didn't report. Gage's version of the speech became the historic version and is known as "Ain't I a Woman?" because the question was repeated four times throughout her version of the speech.
What Robinson recorded was Truth asking, "....can any man do more than that?" and "Man, where was your part?"
Following are several of the first sentences from Sojourner's speech. The first is Marius Robinson's version:
"I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a women'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?...."
This is Frances Dana Barker Gage's version:
"Wall, chilem, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out 'o kilter. I tink dat 'twixt de n*****s of de souf and de womin at de norf, all talkin' 'bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all dis here talkin' bout?...."
Remember, Truth was born, raised and lived her life in the north - New York and Michigan. She spoke only Dutch until she was nine years old and then began speaking English. If anything, she would have had a Dutch accent, not a Southern slave accent.
It is a shame that the Gage's version of her speech is handed down in history. I have researched this speech and it is the Gage version that is the official version of the speech on the internet and in history books. Of course, it includes the line, "Ain't I a Woman?", but according the Robinson, she never said the line.
It is also a shame, because Sojourner Truth spoke so eloquently, intelligently and so well. She presented a coherent and unified argument for women's rights and the Southern slave accent and speech characteristics were not hers and do not define who Sojourner Truth really was.
Robinson's version was the first complete transcription of the speech published on June 21, 1851 in the Anti Slavery Bugle.
Gage's 1863 recollection of the conveention conflicts with her own report directly after the convention. In 1851, she reported that the audience and press were friendly towards the women's rights convention. By 1863, she claimed Truth was met with hisses and voices calling to prevent her from speaking.
And, the press in those days did not work like today. Reporters did not receive the written speech the person was to give, before the convention even began. Plus, Truth spoke extemporaneously and had nothing written down because she was unable to read or write.
Her later life
After her famous speech in Akron, OH, Truth worked with Maruis Robinson and traveled around the state of Ohio speaking from 1851-53. Truth had made a name for herself during her speech. That she traveled and spoke with Marius Robinson is further proof that her speech was characterized and quoted correctly in his newspaper.
In 1858, when she was speaking, someone interrupted her speech and accused her of being a man. In response, Truth opened her blouse and showed him her breasts. That is a spunky response.
The remainder of Truth's life, she spoke on women's issues and fought unsuccessfully for land grants from the federal government for former slaves. She met with President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House to personally give her requests to him.
In 1872, Truth tried to vote in the presidential election but was turned away at the polling place. She continued to speak up abouat abolition, women's rights, prison reform and against capital punishment. She was a woman ahead of her time. In later life she made her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.
During her touring and speaking engagements her staunch supporters always rallied around her and were such notables as Susan B. Anthonyh, Lucretia Mott, and William Lloyd Garrison. They loyally stood by her all during her life. She died in November 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, MI and was buried in her family plot at Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek.
en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ain't I a Woman?
"Sojourner Truth Page" American Suffragist Movement Archived.
"Sojourner Truth Page" Fordham University Archived.
Copyright (c) Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved