By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ – sometimes known as ‘Ar’n’t I a Woman?’ – is the title of a speech which Sojourner Truth, a freed African slave living in the United States, delivered in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. The actual text of the speech has been the subject of some debate and contention, since there are several versions in circulation; but perhaps the most ‘authoritative’ record of the speech is the one given in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.
This is the version of ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ which we reproduce below, offering a summary of Sojourner Truth’s words and an analysis of their meaning.
A brief word on the context of the speech: the women in attendance at the Women’s Convention in 1851 were being challenged to call for the right to vote. In her speech, Sojourner Truth was attempting to persuade the audience to give women the vote.
‘Ain’t I a Woman?’: summary
The text of Sojourner Truth’s speech is given below in italics, followed by our commentary.
One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the convention was made by Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer it to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture, and listened to her strong and truthful tones. She came forward to the platform and addressing the President said with great simplicity: ‘May I say a few words?’ Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded:
These are the prefatory words which introduce Sojourner Truth’s own words. Truth, who was born Isabella Baumfree in around 1797, had been born into slavery in New York, but she managed to escape with her daughter in 1826. She later adopted the name Sojourner Truth and became a prominent abolitionist and activist for women’s rights. ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ is her most famous speech.
I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’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? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.
Sojourner begins by asserting that she embodies women’s rights. She is as strong and hard-working as any man. She has toiled in the fields and performed all manner of back-breaking physical tasks to prove her worth. Using a rhetorical question to reinforce her point, she asks if any man can be found who could do more than she has done.
As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart — why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, — for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble.
On the issue of intellect, however, Sojourner awards men twice the intelligence of women (a quart is so named because it’s a ‘quarter’ of a gallon – that is, two pints). But if women have half the intellect of a man (something with which modern neuroscience would strongly disagree), women can still use the intellect they possess to the full.
Men have little to fear from giving women their rights. Women won’t take more than is their due, for it would be useless to them. Here, we see how clever Sojourner’s downplaying of women intelligence is: it implies that, because they have modest intellect compared with men, women will be modest in their ambitions, too. They won’t get too cunning and try to take more than they deserve.
Truth argues that men seem confused over this issue. Surely it’s preferable to grant women their rights, because men’s rights remain untouched by doing so, and women, having been granted their wish, will stop causing trouble and protesting for their rights, once they have them.
I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth.
And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.
Truth, who was inspired by Christianity to reinvent her identity as Sojourner Truth, calls upon biblical authority next. In the Book of Genesis, we are told that Eve was tempted by the serpent into committing sin and eating the forbidden fruit. Sojourner argues that, if women were responsible for introducing chaos into the world, women should be given a chance to right the world’s wrongs. Giving women their rights is actually giving them responsibility for the world, or at least a share in our responsibility towards it.
Next, Sojourner Truth refers to a New Testament story, from chapter 11 of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus, he weeps (John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the Bible: just two words, ‘Jesus wept’). Sojourner’s point is that Jesus did not spurn the women who came to him for help: instead, he listened to them and he helped raise their brother from the dead.
Jesus came into the world through his mother, the Virgin Mary. Sojourner Truth is using biblical authority to add weight to her argument that women have played an important part in the world and deserve to have their rights. (She asks another rhetorical question, brazenly asking of the men listening, ‘where was your part?’ God was Jesus’ father, and Joseph, strictly speaking, was surplus to requirements, after all. The earthly role of bringing Jesus into the world was achieved entirely by woman.)
Sojourner Truth concludes her speech by pointing out that the tide is turning. Both slaves and women are rising up against their (white, male) oppressors and lawmakers, and demanding their rights and freedom. 1851, the year she gave her speech, was just one year before the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the runaway bestseller by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was an abolitionist as well as a novelist.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin made the case for freeing African slaves and became one of the most popular novels ever published. It was even said (although the statement appears to be apocryphal) that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe during the American Civil War a decade later, he remarked, ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!’
As both an ex-slave and a woman, Sojourner Truth knew about the plight of both groups of people in the United States. Her speech shows her audience the times: change is coming, and it is time to give women the rights that should be theirs. Man (and she means man, specifically) is ‘between a hawk and a buzzard’, fighting a war on two fronts: he is facing opposition from the abolitionists who argue that slaves should be given their freedom and calls for them to give women their rights, too.
‘Ain’t I a Woman?’: analysis
We began this analysis by pointing out that the title of Sojourner Truth’s speech is variously given as ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ and ‘Ar’n’t I a Woman?’ But we don’t even know if she said anything close to this, in fact.
Indeed, one reason her speech became widely known was thanks to Frances Gage, a poet and abolitionist, who passed Truth’s words (or a version of them) to the National Anti-Slavery Standard, where they were published on 2 May, 1863.
This was, of course, twelve years after the speech had actually been given, and we cannot be sure when Gage wrote down his remembered version of the speech he’d heard. Gage’s account of Sojourner Truth’s life wasn’t entirely accurate. She had five children, but he erroneously gave the number as thirteen, which is quite a margin of error.
But the version of Sojourner Truth’s speech given above, and analysed here, was written down shortly after she gave the speech in 1851. The scribe was a Marcus Robinson, who was a friend of Sojourner’s; he was present at the speech, and his version is widely regarded as the most authentic.