On May 29, 1851, Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and formerly enslaved black woman, addressed a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. The state of Ohio was in the midst of drafting a new constitution at the time, and this convention was organized to urge lawmakers to ensure that the new document expand the legal rights of women. The convention was also one of several annual events held in the years following the 1848 voting rights convention organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others in Seneca Falls, New York.
The women’s rights movement of the 19th century was largely led by white women and shaped around their experiences. Some white women’s rights activists were also active abolitionists who believed in a common womanhood across racial lines. But others had no interest in advocating for the rights of non-white women. Even some white activists sympathetic to the needs of black women advised against interracial coalitions, fearing that the movement for [white] women’s voting rights and legal equality would only attract fiercer opposition if it attempted to also promote racial equality and denounce slavery. In many ways, the women’s movement did adopt a segregated approach. The 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, however, did not and included among the event’s speakers a black woman named Sojourner Truth.
Born into slavery in New York in 1797, Truth’s birth name was Isabella Baumfree but she adopted the name Sojourner Truth after escaping enslavement as an adult. As a speaker, preacher, and leader, Truth traveled and worked tirelessly to denounce slavery and defend the rights of African Americans and women. In her speech, she asserted her belief in women’s equality and urged men to not fear giving women their rights. “You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much,” she said to the crowd, addressing the Ohio legislature and men nationwide, “for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seem to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble.”
Today, many people learn about Sojourner Truth’s famous speech as, “Ain’t I A Woman” — but historians widely believe that the speech she actually gave on that date did not include that phrase. The text quoted above is taken from a transcription published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle in 1851. A later version of the address, printed in The New York Independent in June 1861, is believed to have been rewritten by white feminist and abolitionist Francis Gage in an effort to make the message more palatable to white audiences. Unlike the 1851 transcription, “Ain’t I A Woman” is written in a Southern dialect that Sojourner Truth — who never lived in the South and spoke low-Dutch for much of her childhood — would not have used. Gage also inserted biographical details that were not included in the original version, such as a reference to having “birthed thirteen chillen,” when Sojourner Truth regularly stated that she had five children. The later version became widely popular and soon was the only version most people knew existed.
Sojourner Truth survived the Civil War and the abolition of slavery that followed, dying in Michigan in 1883. We do not know what she thought of Gage’s version of her speech or the attention it received. Today, “Ain’t I A Woman” is the phrase most widely associated with Truth’s name, and the speech is among the most famous addresses by a black woman in America. But the story of that speech’s creation, and the way it grew to overshadow and obscure the actual words of the real Sojourner Truth, may offer an even truer statement about the reality of black womanhood.