African-American Issues

The Importance of Sojourner Truths Aint i a Woman Speech



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"The Importance of Sojourner Truths Aint i a Woman Speech"
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When Sojourner Truth appeared to speak at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, it would not be her first clash with activists who didn't want to hear her speak.

In 1858, she would be asked by Dr. T.W. Strain to bear her breasts to the women present at an anti-slavery meeting in Kosciusko County, Indiana to prove that, contrary to rumor, she was not a man.

She chose not to do it in a back room, but instead before the entire delegation as she reminded attendees how many white children she had breastfed.

According to an account by Frances Gage, a noted abolitionist and women's rights activist who presided over the 1851 meeting, the women present were hostile about mixing the cause against slavery with the cause of women's suffrage.

They did not know yet that this would be the historic meeting where she would deliver her now-famous "Ain't I A Woman?" speech.

A former slave who was illiterate, Sojourner Truth proved to be a tour de force as an orator and a formidable symbol for women's rights. Born Isabella Baumfree around 1797 in Ulster County, New York, she had learned over the course of her life to resist any situation that was undesired and press the social system for justice.

As a young woman who was enslaved, Dutch - the language of her first owner, Colonel Johannis Hardenburgh - was her first language. When she was sold for $100 to the Neelys, they beat her relentless for not speaking English.

The Neelys sold her after a couple of years to a tavern keeper named Schriver and learned English, but still spoke with a Dutch accent for the rest of her life.

By the time she was 13 and reached her last owners, the Dumonts, she fell in love with a slave named Robert, owned by a neighboring slave master. She was not allowed to marry Robert, but forced to marry a much older man, Thomas. She and Thomas had five children.

Though the state of New York had already made a decision to free all of its slaves by July 4, 1827, Sojourner found herself unable to wait for freedom.

The Dumonts had promised to grant her freedom a year early, but reneged on their promise. She took her youngest child, Sophia, and left finding safety with a young Quaker couple Isaac and Maria van Wagenen.

By custom, Quakers generally did not believe in slavery. When John Dumont came looking for Sojourner, they paid him $25 for her freedom. She took on the van Wagenen's surname.

Later, an unprecedented event would become one of the many times she challenged the system of oppression that plagued blacks. When she discovered her son Peter had been illegally sold into slavery in Alabama, she sued the Dumont man who sold him and won Peter's freedom.

One other time in her life, she sued for wrongdoing in the court system. As a member of a religious communal living group, she and a leader of the group were accused of murder when one of the other members died from apparent poisoning. They were both acquitted, but Sojourner sued for slander and won.

As she began traveling and speaking out against the evils of slavery, Isabella van Wagenen changed her name to Sojourner Truth. Because she had become an itinerant preacher, she felt this name better reflected her mission.

There are many significant reasons the speech Sojourner Truth made to the women at the 1851 convention was crucial. It represented the first time any activist had combined the causes of abolition and women's rights.

As she endured racial slurs and jeers from the women there, who saw her race as a hindrance to her abilities to speak for women, she became the quintessential feminist symbol. By repeatedly asking the question, "ain't I a woman," she placed both the convention and nation on notice that there were U.S. citizens who suffered dual - not opposing - persecutions.

Additionally, this speech was a landmark achievement for a woman who could not read and write. Just a year earlier, she had secured help from Olive Gilbert to help her write her own autobiography. She wanted to use the money from the sale of the book to buy a house and finance some of her travels.

In terms of composition, the speeches were stunning. Sojourner Truth used humor, biblical references and controversy to drive her points home to her audiences.

As with most of her speeches, the "Ain't I A Woman" speech was not written. She spoke from memory and delivered one of the most memorable elocutions in the history of blacks and women.

What we know of this speech was written as an account of the convention by Frances Gage twelve years later in 1863. Gage's enhanced account appeared less than a month in the "Anti-Slavery Standard" less than a month after an account appeared by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the "Atlantic Monthly."

In fact, there are many different versions of the speech that exist. These multiple accounts have led to the images we now generally associate with Sojourner Truth. Gage's account reveals her as a "tall, gaunt black woman in a gray dress and white turban, surmounted with an uncouth sunbonnet, [who] march[ed] deliberately into the church, walk[ed] with the air of a queen up the aisle, and [took] her seat upon the pulpit steps."

Perhaps the biggest legacy Sojourner Truth leaves the world with her "Ain't I A Woman" speech is the supporting evidence provided by her own life. She traveled extensively for her causes creating a reputation that earned her the ear of President Abraham Lincoln and fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This was not a traditional role for a woman of her time.

But because she chose to live beyond the bounds of tradition, she paved the way for a long line of women who no longer had to pose the presiding question of her now famous speech.

Rather than asking the world "Ain't I a woman," women from Sojourner Truth forward could reorder her words as an affirmation: "I *am* a woman."

Sources:

Various Internet Sources
Voices From the Gap

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