Ain't I a Woman Speech | Study Guide

Sojourner Truth

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Ain't I a Woman Speech | Context



Slavery was a part of America while it was still a British colony (until 1783). Many of the slave companies based in Britain exported their human cargo chiefly to the colonies in North America. Slavery became entrenched as part of colonial law by the middle of the 17th century. With the growth of the global slave trade and expanding demand for enslaved labor for agriculture, the number of enslaved people in America increased significantly in the 18th century. The 1860 census records four million enslaved people living in America and estimates that the total number of Africans kidnapped and sold into slavery to the Americas in the 400 years after Europeans began colonization at around 12 million.

As the number of enslaved people in America increased each year, growing antislavery sentiments burgeoned both in England and in the northern states of America. The abolition movement, intent on ending the immoral practice of slavery, sought to influence public opinion. Abolitionists used the ideals of basic human rights and the religious belief that all men are equal (or similar) to reveal the cruelty of slavery. Former slaves such as Sojourner Truth and U.S. official and diplomat Frederick Douglass (1818–95) joined white abolitionists in decrying the barbarity and injustice of slavery. The abolitionists used speeches, magazines, pamphlets, and slave narratives—firsthand accounts such as Sojourner Truth's about the horrors of slavery—to sway public opinion and counter the arguments of slavery's supporters.

One by one, legislatures in Northern states moved to end the legal practice of slavery. In 1780 Pennsylvania passed an act that would gradually free its slaves born after that time by age 28, and Philadelphia became a sanctuary for free blacks. A gradual end of slavery began in New Jersey in 1804, and New York followed suit by freeing slaves in the state by 1827. As laws regarding slavery changed in Northern states, legislation in the South only tightened the bonds of enslaved people, increasing discrimination and suffering. The first Southern state to secede from the Union after the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) was South Carolina. The other states followed, triggering the Civil War (1861–65).

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 declared that "all persons held as slaves within any State ... in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free," a decree that was opposed by the South. Slavery continued in Southern states until the war ended in 1865 and the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, was passed. Abolitionists turned to helping freed slaves begin lives as free people and fighting racial segregation and discriminatory laws, which remained deeply entrenched in American society for decades to follow.

Women's Rights

The movement for women's rights coalesced first in England, inspired in many ways by English author Mary Wollstonecraft's (1759–97) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792. The book argues that women are men's intellectual equals and that access to education would equip women to be better, more productive citizens. Women's rights advocates believed women should have equal legal standing to men in a time when women had no rights to property, employment, or even their own children and were deemed unfit for work outside the domestic sphere. The first women's rights convention in the United States, the Seneca Falls Convention, was held in 1848. Women's rights leaders, including Lucretia Mott (1793–1880) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), outlined the key tenets of the movement, arguing that women be allowed to participate in society on equal standing with men. The suffrage movement, seeking voting rights for women, stemmed from these early claims made by the women's rights activists and took form later in the 19th century.

The idea that women should have equal rights to property and employment and equal legal and political status was influenced by the abolition movement. Many feminists of the day were also abolitionists. However, the women's rights movement did not often include women of color, and some historians argue that black women were not considered by many in the movement to deserve equal consideration. It is this inconsistency that Sojourner Truth addresses in her speech "Ain't I a Woman?" in which she forcefully argues that women of color, as well as the poor, be included in the category called women.

Two Versions of the Speech

Sojourner Truth did not learn to read or write in her youth and remained illiterate as an adult. Consequently her speeches were not written, and any record of them comes from transcription. Four of her speeches were recorded in this manner. Her most well-known speech, "Ain't I a Woman?" from the Women's Rights Convention in 1851, was recorded by two different people. The first version was published in a reflection on the meeting written by journalist and abolitionist Marius Robinson (1806–78) two months after the convention in a newspaper, the Anti-Slavery Bugle, for which he was editor. The most widely read version of the same speech was transcribed by white journalist and president of the convention Frances Dana Gage (1808–84) and was not published until 1863, 12 years after the speech was delivered.

The two versions of the speech vary significantly. Neither limits the account to Truth's speech alone. Instead, both writers include their own explanations of the setting of the convention, reflections on the events, and interpretation of Truth's words, which differ greatly. While Gage records Truth's dialect, Robinson paraphrases the speech in standard English. Gage suggests that the audience was initially hostile toward Truth and didn't want her to be allowed to speak but was won over by Truth's words. In Gage's account, the audience breaks into tumultuous applause at its conclusion. Robinson, on the other hand, notes that the conference invited speakers to address the topic of slavery. Notably, the phrase "ain't I a woman," or "a'n't I a woman" as it sometimes appears, is not included in Robinson's account. Gage, a more experienced writer than Robinson, dramatizes the event, portraying Truth as a champion for women, while Robinson includes the contributions of a number of women to the convention.

Apart from the reflections and motivations of those transcribing the speech, questions remain about how close the transcriptions of the speech are to the words Sojourner Truth spoke that day. Perhaps in an effort to remove such questions and focus on Truth's ideas, the words of Truth as transcribed by Gage (along with Gage's full account) were excerpted and published in History of Woman Suffrage by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, American suffragist Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), and American suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–98; no relation to Frances Dana Gage) in 1881. This is the way most readers encounter the speech today.

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