Ain't I a Woman Speech | Study Guide

Sojourner Truth

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Ain't I a Woman Speech | Summary




Sojourner Truth addresses the subject of all the "racket" that the call for women's rights has created. She deduces that where there is so much conflict, there must be underlying causes. White men find themselves caught between the demands of black people in the South and women in the North, and she wants to address some of their points at the conference. Truth points out the disparity between patriarchal notions of womanhood (that women need to be helped into carriages or lifted over ditches) with the treatment of enslaved women, who do not benefit from such cultural ideology.


Although a man at the conference has claimed that women are weaker than men, Truth claims no one has ever treated her as if she were in need of assistance. She is just as strong as a man with the same appetite and ability to work. She shows the audience the muscles in her arm and lists the agricultural work she has done as evidence of her equal strength, demanding the audience consider the question, "A'n't I a woman?" Furthermore, she harbors emotional strength because she has given birth to multiple children, only to suffer through the pain of losing them as they were sold away from her.


Some people contend that women are not as intelligent as men. Truth argues that if women's intelligence is like a cup that holds a pint and men's hold a quart, men would be quite selfish to withhold any of a woman's smaller measure. Intellectual capacity should have no bearing on the rights of women or blacks.


Truth rejects the notion that women are not equal to men because Christ was a man. She asks the audience where Christ came from, after all. He was born of God and a woman. No man was involved.


If women were responsible for original sin, as some claim, they have been deemed capable of turning the world upside down and therefore also have the ability to right it. Men need to get out of their way, Truth says, and let them get to work on setting the world right side up again.


Willingness to Speak

Frances Dana Gage, the chair of the convention at which the speech was delivered, transcribed the speech along with her own observations of the event. She portrays Truth as a savior figure. Although members of the audience wanted Gage to prevent Truth from speaking and making the meeting into "an abolition affair," Truth won over the crowd, coming to the rescue of a white female audience that had been intimidated into silence by the objections of the male ministers present.

Gage emphasizes the ways in which Truth was different from the other women, from her manner of speaking and tall stature, to the place she chose to sit—at the front of the room on the stairs to the pulpit. Gage's description of Truth was influenced by the article American writer and educator Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–96) wrote about meeting Truth, in which she described her as "Libyan Sibyl," a reference to a sculpture of a strong African woman at a well. Gage calls Truth "Libyan Statue" in her account of the day.

The primary difference between Truth and the other women in the audience, according to Gage's reflection, is in Truth's willingness to speak. As minister after minister rose to argue that the Bible taught against women's equality, Gage says that "there were very few women ... who dared" to offer rebuttal, calling them "tender skinned ... on the point of losing their dignity," with little boys sneering at them. Truth, on the other hand, rises like an "almost Amazon form" to answer their claims with her own experience and logic, to be greeted with "deafening applause." Gage claims she had "taken us up in her strong arms ... and carried us safely ... turning the whole tide in our favor."

Techniques of Persuasive Speech

To ensure the impact of her message on her audience, Sojourner Truth presented herself as a former slave and mother who had been wronged. Nonetheless, she employed techniques of persuasive speech to good effect.

Public Persona and Dialect

Truth cultivated her public persona for maximum persuasiveness. Although it was not illegal for black people to learn to read in New York state in her youth, Truth never received a formal education or sought to become literate. Even after she was free, Truth never learned to read or write. Unlike other black abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and American abolitionist Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913) who used their writing to further the cause, Truth chose to dictate her story.

Rather than creating a polished, educated manner of speaking to address mainly white audiences and convince them of the speaker's intelligence, as Frederick Douglass did, Truth stuck to her folksy sayings and black dialect. Douglass called her "a genuine specimen of the uncultured Negro" without refinement or "elegance of speech."

Because Truth did not write her speeches, it is important to note, however, that the dialect is transcribed by white listeners, who were often guilty of using phonetics (speech sounds) to record black language. This system of transcription does not reflect what modern linguists know today about black dialect, which is that, like any dialect, it operates according to systematic grammatical rules that can be replicated without the misspellings of standard English words evident in phonetic transcription. One major fault of phonetic transcription is that the misspellings of Standard English words frequently lead readers to conclude that the speaker is not intelligent, which is often far from the case. One good example of this misconception comes from American author Mark Twain's (1835–1910) characterization of Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Jim speaks in phonetically recorded black dialect and is often perceived by other characters and readers as dumb, but, in fact, he functions as the moral center of the text.

Appeal to Logic

However, with her repeated refrain of "And a'n't I a woman?" Truth carefully appealed to the logic of the audience. She punctuates each of the following points with the refrain:

  • She doesn't require the help of men.
  • She is strong enough to plow and plant.
  • She can work, eat, and bear up as well as a man.
  • She has suffered unbearable grief.
Rhetorical Questions

Then, in the latter part of the speech, she asks the audience rhetorical questions—ones that do not require answers and are, instead, designed to make the listeners squirm and examine their own prejudices. Her questions include the following:

  • What does intelligence have to do with human rights?
  • Even if women were less intelligent than men, couldn't they have rights?
  • Where did Christ come from? (She asks this to make the point that although Jesus Christ was a man, that should not be an argument against women's rights, because Jesus was born of God and a woman, not a man.)

Biblical Imagery

Truth evokes several images from the Bible to support her statements. Although she was illiterate, she was a staunch Christian and had heard the Bible read aloud.

In both Gage and Robinson's accounts of the speech, Truth makes the point that Jesus's masculinity is not an argument against women's rights. Both also refer to Eve from the biblical book of Genesis, the first woman whose sin brought suffering and death into the world. Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge and shared it with her husband, Adam, causing their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and bringing about mortality. If a woman upset the world, Truth says, she should be able to "git it right side up again."

Robinson's account further mentions the New Testament figure of Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, all friends of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, Jesus learns that Lazarus has died and asks for the stone of his grave to be removed. Then, after praying, Jesus calls for Lazarus to come forth, and the dead man rises. In Robinson's account, Truth uses this story to show how much Jesus loved women—enough to restore the sisters' dead brother.

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