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Susan B Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Gloria Steinem. Who in America doesn't know these names? Sojourner Truth. Hers is not a household name even though she was an early leader in both the suffrage and abolitionist movements. Say her name in most any feminist or civil rights circle and one likely will hear back, “Now children, ain't I a woman?” in reference to her iconic “Ain't I A Woman?” speech that is tightly interwoven with her name and her legacy. It is, however, a speech she never gave.
In May of 1851, at The Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio, abolitionist and women's rights advocate Sojourner Truth, herself a freed slave from New York, took the stage and said, “May I say a few words? I want to say a few words about this matter.” Then she proclaimed, “I am a woman's rights.”
Her speech was not written down anywhere; Sojourner Truth could not read, and so no official copy of the speech exists. It was, however, transcribed and published in the June 21st anti-slavery publication The Bugle. The famous phrase “Ain't I a woman” is found nowhere in the piece.
In 1863, white abolitionist Francis Gage published the version we know now. Gage gave Sojourner Truth a decidedly strong southern slave dialect even though Truth spoke with a low Dutch New York accent. Gage left few of Truth's words in her efforts to recreate Truth to fit Gage's own selected audience.
Sojourner Truth's story is as much a story of the racist divide in the suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as it is her own story of abolition and suffrage. That we still teach “Ain't I A Woman,” stripped as it is of her Dutch heritage and own words, tells us how far we still have to travel to mend that divide.
Sojourner, like other Negro women of her time, was not welcome in the white suffrage movement. In fact, many leaders of the time believed suffrage should be reserved for white women. By the 1890's, white women who supported suffrage for all women had been pushed out of much of the movement's leadership and The National Women's Suffrage Movement was actively working for a restricted law that would bar women of color from voting. This gave rise to the National Association of Colored Women which was tasked with fighting both sexism and racism, a battle which often turned violent and would last for decades after the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment.
Once the 19th Amendment was enacted, many leaders of the suffrage movement and their white, mostly southern members joined with white men to suppress Black women's right to vote. They supported poll taxes, literacy tests, and a variety of intimidation tactics including arrests and beatings. This continued until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The enacting of a law cannot in and of itself end the racism of a nation or a movement. The law is a beginning, not an end. This is why The Women's March on Washington – Indiana (WMWIN) works diligently and intentionally on full equality for us all.
We were born out of a march and carry the word in our name, but WMWIN is not just about taking to the streets. We march on classrooms and history books. We march on legacy projects and bedtime stories.
The Women's March claims our history and refutes those who would deny it, because as Edmond Burke said, “those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” We embrace our history, broken and torn bits and all, as part of our healing process. We honor our history in homage to those whose shoulders we stand on. We teach our history and pass on our legacy to our daughters and granddaughters in the hopes they someday will stand on our shoulders.
For WMWIN, August 18th is not a day for marching or celebrating. Rather, it is a day, like the 17th and the 19th, for telling the stories of Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth who never asked “Ain't I a woman?” but stood as a freed slave and proclaimed “I am a women's rights.”
We encourage everyone to explore the history of suffrage, feminism, and civil rights in America. Below are a few resources to consider.
Books for younger girls:
SOJOURNER’S TRUTH (ON MY OWN BIOGRAPHIES), 2005, by Gwenyth Swain, illustrated by Matthew Archambault
WHEN HARRIET MET SOJOURNER, 2001, by Catherine Clinton, illustrated by Shane W. Evans Books for adults:
AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN IN THE STRUGGLE FOR THE VOTE, 1850-1920, 1998, by
SISTERS IN THE STRUGGLE: AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS-
BLACK POWER MOVEMENT, 2001, by Bettye Collier-Thomas, V.P. Franklin
Videos on YouTube:
“Women of Color Excluded by Suffrage Celebrations” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=- xsE5CEi6Ww)
“First Wave Feminism Without White Women” (https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=Gj23X2ngUQs)