Ain't I a Woman Speech | Study Guide

Sojourner Truth

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Sojourner Truth | Biography



Sojourner Truth was born to enslaved parents James and Elizabeth (Betsy) Baumfree and named Isabella (c. 1797). They lived with their owner, Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh (spelled Ardinburgh in abolitionist and friend of Sojourner Truth Olive Gilbert's The Narrative of Sojourner Truth), in Hurley, New York, until he died while Isabella was just a baby. Charles Hardenbergh, the eldest son of the colonel, then became their owner. Together with the others enslaved by Charles, they moved into the cellar of the hotel that he built and ran with their labor. The cramped, dark space had dirt floors that pooled with water when it rained. Isabella later reflected that the poor living conditions reflected their master's belief that enslaved people were no more than animals.

Isabella was the second youngest of 10 or 12 children born to James and Betsy. She only knew a few of her siblings, the rest having been sold away before she was old enough to remember them. Her parents grieved for their lost children and told her all the details they could remember about them. Isabella's mother also told her about God, teaching her a few prayers in Dutch, the language of their master. According to Isabella's mother, God was a man in the sky who could see everything and was the only being capable of helping her. Isabella's lifelong faith originated in these childhood teachings.

Sold Away from Parents

When Isabella was only nine, she was placed at auction, along with the other enslaved people of the Hardenbergh family, following Charles's death. Betsy was freed in order to care for her ailing husband, but another slaveholder, a man named John Neely, purchased Isabella. She was treated severely, often punished when she could not understand the English spoken by her new owners. At least once she was whipped until the flesh on her back broke open. When her mother died and her father was left without care, Isabella was grieved that she couldn't take care of him, and he was left to the grudging charity of various Hardenbergh family members. Her father's eventual decline and death are referred to as "murderous neglect" in Gilbert's Narrative.

Isabella was sold several times as a young adult. She was owned by John J. Dumont from 1810 to 1827. Dumont was relatively kind to her, praising her because she was strong enough to do the work of a male enslaved person. Other enslaved people regarded her jealously. She later reflected that at this time she wholeheartedly believed that slavery was right. She listened to Dumont teach his slaves about honesty and strove to do her best for him.

Isabella fell in love with an enslaved person named Robert from another household, but his owner would not allow them to have a relationship and beat Robert when he found the young man visiting Isabella. Dumont had Isabella "marry" one of his own slaves, a man named Thomas (such relationships were not legally binding), and with him Isabella had five children.


The state of New York outlawed slavery, setting the date of July 4, 1827, for the emancipation of all enslaved people. Isabella's owner promised to free her one year before that date. When he declined to keep his word, Isabella "walked away by daylight" (she denied running away) with her baby, Sophia, leaving her husband and other children behind. She found refuge with the Van Wagenens, who opposed slavery. They hired Isabella as a servant and paid off Dumont when he came after his runaway slave. She worked for the Van Wagenen family until 1829. After learning that her five-year-old son Peter had been illegally sold south, she went to court to fight for his return. When he was returned, he had been scarred by whippings. In 1829 Isabella took her son with her to New York City, where she worked in domestic service and attended the Methodist church. In New York Isabella gained experience speaking in church and became acquainted with abolitionists and those working for women's rights.

Name Change and Speaking Career

After a religious experience in which she claimed Jesus appeared to her, Isabella changed her name in 1843 to Sojourner Truth, saying she wanted to "sojourn" (reside in) the truth. She left New York City to become a traveling evangelist in 1843. She soon earned a reputation as a powerful speaker on the abolitionist circuit who, at nearly six feet tall with dark skin, was an imposing figure at these mostly white gatherings. To support herself, Truth sold copies of her autobiography, a narrative of her life as an enslaved person, dictated to friend and abolitionist Olive Gilbert and published in 1850.

Although Truth gave many speeches, because she was illiterate—and remained so her whole life—they were not given from a written manuscript. Of those transcribed, her most famous one was given at the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851 and is known as her "Ain't I a Woman?" speech. Versions of the speech vary, with the most famous one (by Frances Dana Gage) rendered in a Southern dialect considered incorrect by modern scholars, based on Truth's place of birth in the North and her childhood speaking Dutch.

Later Life

In 1857 Truth moved to Michigan, although she spent time in Washington, DC, during the Civil War (1861–65). She was invited to the White House by President Abraham Lincoln (1809–65; served 1861 until his death) and served on the National Freedmen's Relief Association, helping freed slaves relocate. After the war she advised blacks to move to the Midwest, and indeed she herself returned to Michigan, where she died on November 26, 1883. Sojourner Truth remains one of the most powerful and memorable female voices of the 19th-century women's rights movement, which included other women of color such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), Francis E.W. Harper (1825–1911), Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837–1914), Angelina Weld Grimké (1880–1958), Mary Eliza Church Terrell (1863–1954).

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