Ain't I a Woman Speech | Study Guide

Sojourner Truth

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Ain't I a Woman Speech | Main Ideas


Countering Arguments against Women's Equality

Truth's speech was a response to three basic arguments against women's equality offered by ministers at the convention. Their points were that women are weaker and less intelligent than men, that Christ was a man, and that Eve brought sin into the world.

Truth addresses the first point easily by offering her own body and experiences as an example of female strength. Even while Truth argues that intellectual capacity should not dictate basic human rights, her skillful refutation of the biblical arguments against women's rights proved her unspoken claim that women are men's intellectual equals.

Truth effortlessly counters the notions that women are not equal to men based on the claims of ministers that Christ was a man and that Eve brought sin into the world. Using humor, Truth demands to know where Christ came from, pointing out that men were not involved in any way. She turns around the notion that women are responsible for the existence of sin not by denial, but by arguing that such a claim proves women's power to change the world. Truth's ability to interact with the arguments of the ministers at the meeting shows just what an intelligent woman she is, even without a formal education.

Women's Rights and Abolition

Sojourner Truth links the causes of feminism and abolition from the start of her speech. The threat to the status quo posed by women in the North comes also from black people in the South, creating the "racket" that has upset the male, presumably white, ministers at the convention. But Truth's message is not only intended to rebut the claims of the ministers but also to insert black women into the conversation about women's rights.

It is her own black body and experience as an enslaved person that are the first evidence she provides for women's equality. She has never been helped into a carriage by a man or treated in any way as if she were weaker. Rather, she has performed all manner of manual labor, even that of men, with the muscled arms to prove it. She has also endured the emotional pain of slavery, having her children taken from her and sold away. With these examples Truth shows that slavery makes the basic assumptions underlying opposition to women's rights absurd. It cannot be argued that women are weaker than men and are therefore ineligible to equal treatment when black women are not also considered weaker. Using the analogy of a container, Truth argues that the capacity for intelligence has nothing to do with either women's rights or black people's rights, once again tying the two causes. In this way Truth does not allow the white audience to consider women's equality apart from black equality.

Further, Truth invites black women into the women's rights movement. The movement for women's rights did not have black women in mind in the early to mid-19th century. Historian Nell Irvin Painter claims at that time "blackness was exiled from the category of woman." So it was just as much the white women in the audience as the male minsters of whom Truth asked the question, "Ain't I a woman?" She insists that black women, as well as poor people like herself, were just as much deserving of equal treatment as the privileged white women who led the movement. This was also the intent of American writer and educator Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–96) work, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–52), which sought to confront the dehumanization of slavery with images of enslaved women being treated in ways white women would find abhorrent to the 19th-century cultural understanding of womanhood. Given that white women were perceived as the moral superiors to white men, abolitionists and those in the women's rights movement used this idea of alleged moral superiority to influence public policy.

Women as Capable

Truth provides multiple pieces of evidence for women's capacity to insist on equal treatment. The act of speaking, of daring to publicly disagree with men in authority, is by itself her first piece of evidence. Truth lets her voice be heard, and she isn't afraid to refute the claims of men, which she does skillfully. Her speech proves women are clearly capable of going head-to-head with men intellectually.

Second, Truth's life as an enslaved person is evidence that women are capable of physical labor and enduring emotional suffering. Finally, Truth argues that women are capable of curing the ills of the world. If just one woman had the ability to bring sin into the world—the claim of a minister who points out that Eve was a woman—then, Truth says, women can and should be the ones to fix things together.

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