Sojourner Truth, an iconic figure who fought for women’s rights and human rights, made her mark in history by fighting against the injustices of slavery in the United States. Born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in 1797, Truth became an early advocate against the practice. She escaped bondage in 1826 with her child, awaiting the state’s emancipation in 1827.
She became one of the first Black women to challenge a White man in court and win when she sued to retrieve her son, Peter, who had been illegally sold into slavery at just five years old.
On May 29, 1851, the iconic African-American abolitionist and civil rights activist delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Her speech is today remembered as one of the greatest speeches of the women’s abolitionist movement. Many readings of the iconic speech have been recorded. Celebrities have recited it and it has also been anthologized in school textbooks. A lot of people also perform the speech during Black History Month.
Indeed, the speech helped Truth to become one of the most famous African-American women of the 1800s. But to date, historians and scholars do not know exactly what Truth said that day during the Convention. A transcript of the speech was published 12 years after the convention by fellow abolitionist Frances Gage. That is the well-known version of the speech containing the iconic phrase “Ain’t I a Woman”.
But that version does not line up with the transcript published a month after the Convention by Reverend Marius Robinson in Anti-Slavery Bugle in 1851. Gage’s popular transcript uses a dialogue of a stereotypical Black slave from the South. Meanwhile, Truth lived the first years of her life in New York. Her first language was low Dutch, a dialect spoken by Dutch immigrants in America. She retained the accent after she learned to speak English, according to a report by Battle Creek Enquirer.
Note that Truth was owned by Colonel Hardenbergh in Esopus, New York, which was under Dutch control. Thus, she grew up speaking Dutch and was sold a few times as a child before she came to learn English under her new owner John Dumont in West Park, New York. Truth later escaped to freedom in 1826 with her young daughter, Sophia, and changed her name to Sojourner Truth after a “religious conversation”.
Legally free, she spoke about her experiences in slavery wherever she went and joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in 1844 after having settled in Northampton, Massachusetts. Through the association, she met abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. It was Garrison who would help Truth privately publish her book, “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave” that attracted a lot of readers.
Although Truth became famous thanks to her memoir and legal fights including the one over her son, she was still not popular outside the abolitionist communities. She then joined abolitionist George Thompson in a speaking tour throughout New York and went with him to the Women’s Convention in Ohio in May of 1851.
“Everything seemed to go wrong with the meeting,” the New Republic said of the Convention that took place at High Street’s Old Stone Church. “A number of ministers had invaded the hall uninvited and monopolized the discussion, quoting biblical texts to the effect that women should eschew all activities except those of child-bearing, homemaking and subservience to their husbands.”
When Truth heard these words during the Convention, she flinched. And without having written anything down and not scheduled as a speaker, Truth started speaking out “extemporaneously” in what would come to be known as “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. The words she said are now debated by scholars.
The first complete transcription published on June 21, 1851, in the Anti-Slavery Bugle by Robinson, a friend of Truth, did not have the rhetorical question, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
According to Robinson, who served as the recording secretary of the Convention, Truth started her speech by saying “May I say a few words? I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights.”
The well-known transcription by Gage, who presided over the 1852 conference, was published on April 23, 1863. “Ain’t I a Woman” is used four times in that version.
A popular section of Gage’s version of Truth’s speech reads: “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?”
Truth did not have 13 children but five, raising questions about Gage’s version. “Gage herself was a poet and may have taken artistic license to embellish and emphasize the statements — or perhaps she simply meant them to be a fictionalized representation the plight of all women,” biography.com wrote.
Leslie Podell, who launched the Sojourner Truth Project in 2017 and compared the two versions of the speech after speaking with dialecticians and historians, told Battle Creek Enquirer that Robinson’s version best captures Truth. She said Gage “presented this speech in a way that would not offend white bigots in some oversexualized way. It’s a fantastic piece of fantasy. It served her purpose. In that era and time, you can understand how that was acceptable and not morally reprehensible.”
Kay Siebler, an English professor at Missouri Western State University, also believes that Gage’s version is largely fiction.
“It’s a compelling fiction and one particularly White audiences love and African-Americans say, this is a more compelling speech. Rhetorically, it’s much more interesting.”