Female Badasses in History: Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Sojourner Truth was an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She also was the first escaped slave to win a court case against a white man to recover her son from him. She is best known for her “Ain’t I a woman” speech delivered in 1851 given extemporaneous to attack racial inequalities in the United States.
Sojourner Truth was born as Isabella Baumfree to a family of slaves in Esopus, New York. She was the first generation of her family born in the United States since both her parents came to the US as slaves from Ghana respectively Guinea. She was sold three times and forced to marry another slave by her fourth master. The same master had promised her freedom once the state of New York legislated abolition, a process starting in 1799 but not complete until 1827. When her master changed her mind claiming she had not done well enough to earn her freedom Truth escaped in 1826 together with her infant daughter Sophia. She escaped to the Van Wagner family who took her in for the remainder of the year so that she could be free. In 1827 New York State Emancipation Act was decreed and Truth was free. She had however learned that her previous owner had sold her five year old son illegally to a plantation owner in Alabama. With the help of the Van Wagner family she sued him and became the first African-American to win such a case. She recovered her son as well as all the illegal proceeds of his sale. The story of her son did take a very tragic end though for in later years he would become a sailor on a wailing vessel and vanish forever.
During her time at the Van Wagner’s, Truth had become a devout Christian. Her faith was her motivation to become involved in abolitionist activism. In 1843 she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and set forth to go and preach all over the US for the abolition of slavery. In 1844 she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, an organization founded by abolitionists and dedicated to abolition of slaver, women’s rights, religious tolerance and pacifism. There she even met Frederick Douglass.
The organization disbanded in 1847 but Truth kept on fighting. In 1851 she was at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akon, Ohio. There she would deliver her famous “Ain’t I a woman” speech.
In her speech she attacked gender and racial inequality with probably her most famous words:
“I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear de lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? (…) If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yourn holds a quart, wouldn’t ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full? (…)Den dat little man in back dar, he say women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wan’t a woman! Whar did your Christ come from? Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothin’ to do wid Him.” (Quoted from Matilda Joslyn Gage (ed.), History of Woman Suffrage, 2nd ed. Vol.1. Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1889.)
Her speech that was reprinted several times, especially during the civil war, mad Truth a famous speaker in abolitionist and women’s rights circles. In the subsequent years she spoke over a hundred times before different audiences.
During the Civil War Truth made it her mission to recruit African-American soldiers for the Union. She was employed by the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C., where she worked diligently to improve conditions for African-Americans. In October of 1864, she met President Abraham Lincoln. In 1865, while working at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, Truth rode in the streetcars to help force their desegregation. After the war Truth started a campaign to secure land grants from the federal government for former slaves but unfortunately was not successful. She dedicated the rest of her life to fight racism, racial inequality, capital punishment, and the oppression of women in the United States. She died in 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Sojourner Truth can be remembered as one of the most outstanding activists for women’s rights and racial equality of the 19th century. Not only did she overcome great adversity in her own life, she helped many people to overcome the adversity that they met and in her speeches was far ahead of her time in terms of progressive thoughts, ideas, and ideals. She truly deserves to be remembered as a hero.