“Ain’t I a Woman?” These are the most repeated and iconic words that Sojourner Truth, maybe, didn’t speak.
It’s May 29, 2021, and on this day, 170 years ago, Truth spoke before the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.
Here’s the famous portion of the speech that reformer Frances Dana Barker Gage published 12 years after Truth’s speech:
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! 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 the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most 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?”
But here’s the thing, several newspaper reporters at the time made no mention of “Ain’t I a Woman?” It took a social reformer telling the story 12 years later to interject the compelling phrase. And if you still have doubts, because Truth as raised on an upstate New York estate, speaking only Dutch during her formative years, she didn’t have the stereotypical speech patterns of Southern blacks. The catchy “Ain’t I a Women?” phrase was made up to make a point.
Sojourner Truth Told What She Knew
But that’s not the end of Sojourner Truth story. Actually, it’s barely the tip of the iceberg. For she is a true Can Do Woman. Let me explain:
Around 1797, she was born Isabella Baumfree–a slave–on the Dutch Ulster County estate of Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh in upstate New York. She spoke only Dutch until she was nine years old. And although she never learned to read or write, she understood the importance of freedom and equal rights for both blacks and women. She not only appreciated the power of speaking out and fighting for what she believed, she was also very good at both.
In 1827, although she had been promised her freedom and New York had passed an anti-slavery law, her master denied her rights. Baumfree’s response was to walk off the estate with her youngest daughter. But that was not the end of it. She had other children, one of which had been illegally sold to a plantation owner in Alabama. She raised money. Met with lawyers. Made her case in the New York courts. And she won custody of five-year-old Peter. Isabella Baumfree was the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.
But Baumfree was only getting started. Caught up in a religious revival, she experienced conversion and became an itinerant Methodist preacher, changed her name to Sojourner Truth, and started speaking out. Throughout the 1850s, some crowds who didn’t like her message of freedom and equality for blacks and women often threatened her; still she was getting heard.
During the Civil War she recruited black troops for the Union Army and worked to ensure they had necessary supplies. Her efforts came to the attention of many important people and organizations.
She met with President Abraham Lincoln. And after the war, she worked for the National Freedman’s Relief Association to help improve the conditions of blacks. She even met with President Ulysses S. Grant. What’s more, she tried to vote for the re-election of Grant, but was turned away at the polls.
For the rest of her life, Sojourner Truth continued to speak to street crowds, at suffrage meetings, and anywhere and to anyone that would listen. As age caught up with Truth, her daughter cared for her at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. She died on November 28, 1883 at the age of 86.
Remembering Truth Today
Although Sojourner Truth could neither read or write, her impact has been for the ages. She dictated her story to white feminist Olive Gilbert–entitled Narrative of Sojourner Truth, Northern Slave. William Lloyd Garrison published it in 1850.
In addition to having numerous libraries, schools and buildings named in her honor:
- Today, historical markers and statues acknowledge her work in Michigan, Ohio, New York, California and Massachusetts.
- In 1981, inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1981.
- In 1983, inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
- The US Post office issued a commemorative stamp in 1986
- In 1987, the State Bar of Michigan included her in a statute called “Michigan Legal Milestones.”
- She is among the Calendar of Saints of both the Episcopal and Lutheran churches.
- In 1997, the NASA named the Mars Pathfinder rover “Sojourner.”
- In 2002, Temple University declared her among the 100 Greatest African Americans.
- Similarly, in 2014, the Smithsonian included Truth among the 100 Most Significant Americans.
- Also in 2014, asteroid 249521 named “Truth.”
- Honored with a Google Doodle in 2019.
In answer to Sojourner Truth’s apocryphal question in 1851, Yes, she was a woman…and so much more. She was a Can Do Woman.
RosieCentral’s Can Do Women
A Can Do Woman is every woman who doesn’t let circumstances of background, color, ethnicity, money, or gender stand in her way. Rich or poor; black, white or brown; she pursues her passion–whether it is riding a motorcycle across country when such a thing is unheard of, piloting a plane (even if she has to travel to France to learn) or summoning the strength of purpose to stand side-by-side with her white sisters to fight for freedom and equality. Any woman with a dream, who allows nothing to stand in the way, is a Can Do Woman. What’s your passion? Who is your role model?
We only just began our series of Can Do Women a few months ago. As yet, we haven’t created a Sojourner Truth historical figure doll, although you can know that it’s coming. In the meantime, however, we have honored several Black We Can Do It Women, some of whom Truth even helped inspire. You can see them at our Etsy store. Among them are:
- Nannie Helen Burroughs (black suffragist)
- Bessie Stringfield (rode motorcycles cross country multiple times in the 1930s and 40s)
- Coming soon: Bessie Coleman (first black pilot)*
- Coming soon: Mae Jemison (first black woman in space)*
- Kamala Harris (first female Vice President)
- Coming soon: Amanda Gorman (America’s first youth poet laureate)*
* Completed just not yet listed.