Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" Speech Had a Life Beyond 1851
"I am a woman's rights."
In 1851, a 54-year old Sojourner Truth delivered a testimony with a perennial message at the Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. She was the only woman who spoke at the convention who had ever been held in slavery, and her speech she argued for the rights of all women. Today, her address is known widely as “Ain’t I A Woman?” — and while the details of its content have been debated, its message has served as a point of inspiration in modern times.
Born as Isabella Baumfree in 1797, today’s Google Doodle honoree left the estate where she was enslaved after her master failed to uphold the New York Anti-Slavery Law of 1827. By the 1850s, she was a prominent figure in both the antislavery and women’s rights movement. At the time where she gave her speech, there was no audio recording and, in turn, different versions of what she said emerged. The most famous iteration was released 12 years later, but while it is the only version to include the phrase “ain’t I a woman?” it’s also thought to be the most inaccurate version.
That rendition was published by Frances Gage, an abolitionist who was the president of the convention where Truth spoke, in the National Anti-Slavery Standard. This version of the speech has permeated popular culture but contains clear errors about the details of Truth’s life and is written in a southern dialect — Truth herself was born in New York and learned English from a Dutchman. What’s considered the most accurate version was transcribed by her friend Marius Robinson at the convention, and published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle.
Below, you can hear Robinson’s transcription alongside the written text provided by Gage:
“Ain’t I a Woman”
But despite the potential of Truth never saying the exact phrase “Ain’t I a Woman” the ideas that permeate through both iterations have inspired activists who advocate for intersectional feminism — not feminism that stands to only benefit white women.
In 1981, Gloria Jean Watkins, more famously known by her pen name, bell hooks, titled her book “Ain’t I a Woman? and examined the effect of racism and sexism on black women, the Civil Rights movement, and feminist movements. The convergence of sexism and racism, she argued, caused black women to have the lowest status in American society. Her messaged echoed Truth’s own:
I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and 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?
Truth’s name was invoked in 2013, as the House passed the Senate’s version of the Violence Against Women’s Act, expanding protections for Native American women, immigrants, and LGBT persons. After House Republicans pushed for a version that excluded this new provisions, U.S. Representative Gwen Moore emphasized the need to protect all women from violence — just as Truth once emphasized the need to give all women rights.
“As I think about the LGBT victims who are not here, the native women who are not here, the immigrants who aren’t in this bill,” Moore said, “I would say, as Sojourner Truth would say, ‘Ain’t they women?’”
Most recently, “Ain’t I a Woman?” was used as the title of a 2017 march organized by Black Women United, a nonprofit organization. The “Ain’t I a Woman?” march was designed as a response to the overwhelming whiteness of the Women’s March and a way to include more black women in the women’s rights movement.
Regardless of the exact words Truth used, it’s clear that she helped lay the foundation for the advocation of truly equal rights and power.
“Without her work and the awareness that Sojourner spread, the US would not be what it is today!” Illustrator Loveis Wise, who created Truth’s Doodle, said Friday. “It’s important to life up her legacy and reflect on that.”