“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.”
“Truth is powerful, and it prevails.”
“I did not run away, I walked away by daylight.”
These excerpts come from various speeches given by Sojourner Truth, regarding her experiences as a woman, as well as her journey when she defied and escaped slavery.
Sojourner Truth is a key historical figure known for her contributions in both the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements. She was one of the only Black women to be a part of both campaigns, and one of the first people to acknowledge that these movements did not have to be mutually exclusive.
Isabella Baumfree, who would later in life change her name to Sojourner Truth, was born around the year 1797, in Swartekill, New York. She lived her earlier years of life as a slave, and, similar to the experiences of many African-American people at that time, her reality was marked by violence and exploitation.
After being bought and sold four times, Isabella ran away with one of her infant daughters in 1826, the year before the New York State Emancipation Act took effect. Isabella sought refuge with an abolitionist Quaker family, the Van Wageners, who bought Baumfree’s freedom for twenty dollars. During her stay, she had a profound religious awakening, which later on led her to preach and find the power within her.
The support of the Van Wageners also contributed to her first radical act: suing a white man for the custody of her enslaved child, who had been sold illegally. She won the case, thus becoming the very first black woman to win a legal case of that nature.
After becoming legally emancipated, she engaged in many religious groups and became a charismatic figure within these movements. In 1843, she converted to Methodism and changed her name to Sojourner Truth, because she felt that God called on her to preach the truth.
In 1844, she joined an abolitionist organization that also believed in women's rights, religious tolerance, and pacifism - the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. She met abolitionist leaders Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Motivated by these notable activists, she started to preach more on social justice issues-- particularly speaking against the evils of slavery.
Unlike many other activists, Sojourner Truth saw women’s issues as interconnected with anti-slavery, especially regarding the rights of Black women. This made her stand out from other prominent leaders, like Frederick Douglass, who believed the right to vote should be prioritized for the African-American man, or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who supported the Abolition movement only as long as it reflected positively on her white women rights’ movement. None of these movements included African-American women as a part of the conversation, but Truth fought racism with the same strength that she fought sexism.
In 1851, she would deliver one of her most famous speeches, “Ain’t I A Woman?”, at a woman’s convention in Akron, Ohio. At the convention, various men met the women with hostility, insulting them and calling them the “weaker sex.” Nonetheless, Sojourner Truth’s speech put this argument down. She highlighted her own oppression as a black woman. Nobody would help her get things done, so she had to do everything on her own, which demonstrated that women could be strong. Refuting sexist religious arguments, she pointedly asked where Christ came from - the virgin Mary, a woman. Her bravery saved the convention, as one of the organizers later said: “She had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty, turning the tide in our favor.” As the only Black woman present, she successfully defied racism within the women’s movement.
There is no original script of her speech, and various sources have released many versions. This has been deemed controversial, for her words may have been altered in all existing written evidence of the speech. The most famous version, in which she repeats the phrase “Ain’t I A Woman?” holds many biographical inaccuracies, and it is written in a Southern dialect, which she did not speak. However, the topics remain constant in all versions of the speech: she wanted equal rights for Black people, regardless of gender.
In later years she would also help recruit black troops for the Union Army, as well as demand supplies for their care. Her work remained constant until her death in 1883.
Sojourner Truth's ideas on the intersectionality of racism and sexism highlight the current struggles that women of color face within feminist movements. Her speeches, in particular, "Ain't I a Woman," have been used as primary sources to underscore the importance of intersectional feminism. Many modern feminist thinkers, like Angela Davis and bell hooks, have used Truth’s words to theorize Black feminism as well.
Additionally, due to her commitment to social justice, many academics and activists have used Sojourner Truth as an example of strong leadership. She is considered a pioneer due to her activism across all areas of civic life- not only in terms of abolitionist politics or women’s rights, but also religious life, peace, and access to equal resources. Understanding that she lived oppression as a Black woman is what characterizes her as a resilient and courageous individual.