Sojourner Truth’s battle cry still resonates 170 years later

Her famous “Ain’t I a woman?” speech helped launch the women's suffrage movement and symbolizes America’s ongoing fight for fairness and equity.

An 1864 imprint of Sojourner Truth includes her words "I sell the shadow to support the substance." Truth sat for portraits and sold pamphlets to underwrite the cost of her activism as she traveled the country fighting for human rights. On May 29, 1871, Truth delivered her famous "Ain't I a Woman" speech at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. The speech is credited with helping to launch the women's suffrage movement in the United States.
Courtesy of The Library of Congress

For Barbara Allen, the ironies of traveling to Angola, Indiana, on June 6 are fairly obvious. She’ll be participating in the unveiling of a statue at the Steuben County Courthouse honoring the legendary formerly enslaved abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.

The first irony is that Sojourner Truth is Barbara Allen’s sixth great-grandmother, born in 1797 in New York State and who died in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1893. The second irony is that at least once during Truth’s Indiana tour in 1861, she was arrested for speaking. It was a risk she took every time she stepped on a podium, and Allen can feel that resolve flowing through her veins.

“Just like she would holler for some rights, I’ve always had the need to speak up and speak out. And that’s where my personality comes from. When I look back on my own life, I think, ‘Oh my God, life just goes in circles, and I’m in that circle.’ “

That full-circle moment amplifies the growing stature of Truth, an iconic symbol of the interwoven threads in the fight for racial and gender justice in America. Allen has written a children’s book about her revered ancestor, “Remembering Great Grandma, Sojourner Truth,” which she self-published in January. She hopes her own public readings and speeches will help her three granddaughters connect more deeply with their iconic legacy.  At a time when the country is embroiled in wrenching debates about the need to acknowledge past grievous wrongs, Sojourner Truth’s story of courage, strength and self-made mastery offers an important template for the pursuit of fairness and self-expression.  

Truth was a commanding presence without uttering a word, standing at nearly 6 feet tall. Born Isabella Baumfree, the details of her life are vivid and wrenching. She was sold on multiple auction blocks, raped by at least one owner, and watched her own children sold. Truth also became one of the first Black women in American history to win a legal case against a white man for selling her son Peter.

With her powerful voice, inflected with the Dutch accent of her former enslavers, Truth instinctively used the power of her bearing and persona to captivate audiences. She wore ornate bonnets and clothing to disarm the stereotypical expectations of the people she encountered. In many ways, Truth demonstrated a keen pre-social media savvy about how to market herself in the feminist and abolitionist realms.

Her spiritual awakening, her drive to travel throughout America condemning slavery and demanding equality for women all seemed to coalesce in her legendary remarks at the May 29, 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron—the famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech, delivered on the spot with no preparation, as were all of her speeches. It has since been performed on countless stages, recited at festivals and delivered during school competitions as a declaration of strength, pride and overcoming obstacles.

Though Truth and other Black female activists chafed at the comparisons white feminists drew between their societal status and slavery, they agreed on the urgent need for fairness and equity in the quest for women’s rights. As Johns Hopkins historian Martha S. Jones notes in her 2020 book “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All,” Truth never wavered in her belief that she was best suited to symbolize the need for gender justice. Jones writes:

“Truth had waited her turn in Akron, following women whose remarks showcased their high levels of education, status, and experience. She could not match such credentials. Still, during her years on the lecture circuit she had learned to riff off the remarks that preceded her own, and it paid off. Truth reframed the convention, resetting its goals as defined from the perspective of a Black woman. She began, ‘I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights.’ There, as she was, unlettered and unrefined, Truth made the case that she was the truest embodiment of women’s rights. Slavery was no mere metaphor and the labor it demanded had made Truth the equal of any man.”

“I have as much muscle as any man and can do as much work as any man,” Truth said in Akron.

Truth continued:

“Then they talk about this thing in the head—what’s this they call it? (an audience member whispers ‘intellect’) That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?”

There’s yet another irony contained in the lore connected to Truth’s speech:  it’s more than likely that she never actually said the words, “Ain’t I A Woman?” When an official document outlining the proceedings of the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention was published, Truth’s speech was not included.

But journalists Marius R. Robinson and Emily Robinson, who wrote for the Anti-Slavery Bugle, were in the audience and provided a transcription of her remarks for that newspaper. Twelve years after the Convention, abolitionist and women’s rights activist Frances Dana Barker Gage published her own interpretation of the speech. (The Sojourner Truth Project has produced an online comparison of the two main written versions.)

It's easy to get tangled up in those kinds of details about an historical icon’s life. Allen offers another example: though in the speech Truth declares that she bore 13 children, historians have only been able to confirm the birth of five, the youngest of which was Allen’s fifth great grandmother, Sophia.

After years of keeping the vivid stories she’d learned during bedtime to herself, Allen says it was only when the city of Battle Creek erected a statue in her honor in 1999 that the truest depths of her link to Sojourner Truth set in.

“It was the way people in the crowd looked at me, and there were 3,000 people in that crowd,” Allen says. “The respect they showed, and the way they talked about how her life inspired them, it was a little overwhelming.”

And when local historian Michael John Martich and his wife Dorothy introduced themselves to Allen, her fate was sealed.

“They had copies of Sophia’s death certificate and ones belonging to other relatives. My mother didn’t really have much information about Sophia, so I all I did know is that (Truth) went back for one of her children. That’s when I understood how much people loved and revered her, and I knew I had a responsibility to make sure that my life honors her.”

Truth is also part of the ongoing discussion about who America honors in public spaces. In August of 2020, as part of the commemoration of American women’s suffrage, a bronze monument depicting 19th century women’s rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth was unveiled in New York City’s Central Park, the first to depict real women instead of mythical females like Alice in Wonderland.

But the path to a final monument was filled with controversy. The original design only included Stanton and Anthony, and the ensuing outcry added to mounting public objections to what’s been termed as “whitewashing” of American history. So as confederate statues and ornate sculptures for other historically controversial figures are pulled down, last October, the Mellon Foundation announced a $250 million commitment to create contextualize and relocate existing monuments to better reflect America’s diversity and include the contributions of activists whose work has been ignored or sidelined.

As the 170th anniversary of Truth’s historic speech nears, Allen says her children’s book is a labor of love and necessity.

“I’m going to have to sell some shadow, this book, to support some substance,” she says, laughing while borrowing one of her great grandma’s iconic sayings to describe her own journey.  After a career in finance, a stint in divinity school and raising two sons, Allen says she had an epiphany, much like the one that made Isabella Baumfree change her name.

“I woke up in the middle of the night, and I clearly heard God’s voice telling me to write a book,” Allen says. Something about Truth’s story always resonated with her.

“She always knew, even as a little girl, that she had a bigger purpose than just being a slave,” Allen says. “When her slave master promised to free her, and then broke that promise, can you imagine having the strength to walk away?”

What’s more, Allen says, after Truth had mustered the nerve to leave, she turned around and went back to the plantation to retrieve her youngest daughter, Sophia. “If she hadn’t gone back, I probably wouldn’t be here,” she says. “I owe my life to that kind of courage.”

Allen has finally embraced the opportunity to continue the message her ancestor fought to transmit, loudly and clearly.

“We can use our voices to make change,” Allen says. “That’s why I think she’s being recognized so much right now. Her life shows that you can help change history by that spoken word.”

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