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Sojourner Truth was obviously emotional about her topic (hmm: wonder why?!), but her major rhetorical style was cold, hard logic.
Her whole point was Black women were not considered as equal to Black men or white women in activist work, but that life proved otherwise. After all, she'd worked (and been punished) just as hard as a man:
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? (9-12)
She'd also been treated differently than white women…who were treated with sexiest deference:
Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? (5-6)
There you go, folks: a couple of powerful statements exposing the fact that Black women were treated unequally. Truth used her own experiences to exposing holes in both the logic of the programs for change and in the restrictive, messed-up status quo.
Sojourner Truth couldn't read or write, but she could use her dang voice. And her voice was so powerful that this speech echoes through history.
It was spontaneous—she hadn't been asked to speak—which you can see by the jumpiness of the content and style. A written form would probably have been smoother, with more of a tie between topics, but it wouldn't have had the gritty impact it does and definitely wouldn't have captured the attention of Frances Gage later on.
Here's the point: the white man stands no chance against the resolve of slaves and women when they decide to get what's fairly owed them.
This is where Truth actually references her experiences—she's a woman as well as a former slave, but all the talk of social reform revolved around Black men and white women. Luckily, Sojourner is there to make sure everyone knows how messed up this double standard is.
Truth mentions intellect, and the fact that no one seems to be using it in the interests of equality. After all, the haves are trying to make sure that the have-nots never get their fair share…even if equality wouldn't diminish what rights those in power (white men) already hold.
Just in case the logic from the previous sections didn't get you, Truth pointed out that the religious basis for opposing women's rights was pretty much hokum. God required Mary to bring Christ into the world and Eve managed to change the status quo effectively on her own, so what could an organization of determined women do to the world? That's right: effect some serious change.
Boom, and done.
No double-talk or hidden meanings here: "Ain't I a Woman?" was a simple speech from a woman who didn't mince words. Truth stood up, said her piece, and sat back down.
This is not to say she wasn't feeling it. The topic—equality and freedom—was something she felt so strongly about that she dedicated her entire life to it. She managed that fine line of staying calm while still making her points heard and felt.
She starts off with,
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the n****es of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about? (1-3)
Those opening lines are a great example of her laid back, yet straightforward and serious tone and set the stage perfectly for her conversational tone.
Things got personal when she started juxtaposing her own experiences with the rose-colored image of the ideal woman that society was fond of. It's kind of hard to not be a little worked up when talking about how she was forced to "work as much and eat as much as a man…and bear the lash as well!" (11) So, tell her again how she doesn't have the rights of a man when her experience is showing her just as capable.
Sojourner was obviously emotional about how the Black woman was neglected in talks of freedom and rights, but she was about as straightforward as you could get, making her points as though picking up the middle of a conversation with her audience.
The best example?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. (15-16)
She wasn't talking at the audience, so much as talking with them and inviting them to see things from her point of view.
And it worked.
Truth was definitely a woman who liked to keep it simple. She didn't go off on tangents, despite the spontaneity of her speech. She just got up and told it like it was, even with uncomfortable subjects like hard labor and being whipped.
For example, she laid it out, saying:
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! (9-13).
There's really no way to make light of horrendous stuff like that.
The audience was mostly white people who had the time and money to organize conferences and campaign for women's rights. They had no frame of reference whatsoever with the type of life Sojourner was describing, and were probably especially horrified that a woman had gone through that.
Because, after all, women were regarded as dainty little things…and Truth spoke the truth that women were tough as nails.
Well, Sojourner Truth asks "ain't I a woman?" a grand total of four times.
But what's Truth's point here? Is she just supremely happy about being a woman? Is it her eighteenth birthday, and is she stressing the fact that she's no longer a girl? Does she want admission into Mills or Mount Holyoke?
Truth's point isn't just one point. She's actually making two points in one: that she's a) not treated like white women, despite being well, a woman and b) that she's treated as less competent than men, despite having done the same work as a man while being—you got it—a woman.
Sojourner comes out swinging…and she basically keeps delivering KO after KO throughout the whole boxing match—er—speech.
Here's how she enters the ring:
"Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the n****es of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?" (1-3)
In those three sentences, she lays out what, who, and why she decided to stand up and speak. The very first thing she says is that there's definitely attention being called to the cause, with so much yakking and fuss being made over the unfair state of things. This was both slyly funny, poking fun at the long-winded and ranting speeches that came before, and complimentary in that suffragists were finally making headway in being acknowledged.
She moves on to state that if women and Black men work together, they can end slavery and discrimination. This was a boost to offset the heckling the earlier speakers endured from some of the men in the audience.
Her final sentence simply opens the floor to her argument and lets her give direct responses to the points made earlier in the day. This is Sojourner verbally taping her hands, putting in her mouth guard, and getting read to slip on her gloves.
The legit final sentence of "Ain't I a Woman?" is a polite thank you from an unscheduled speaker confident in having made her points.
"Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say." (26)
Nice, but that doesn't really give us much to go on. The closing sentences just before, however, are a lot juicier.
"If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them." (24-25)
Her audience was the attendees of a conference on women's rights, which included abolitionists, white people, Black people, ministers, suffragists, and troublemakers. Let's keep that in mind while we examine Sojourner's final sentences.
First up is her reference to Eve as a force of change. Now, she doesn't actually say if being cast out of Eden was a good or bad thing, but she uses Eve as a standard for female strength and action. Quick recap: her audience was probably entirely Christian, in a time when women were considered as needing to be subjugated by men to make up for Eve leading Adam to temptation.
Okay, now consider Sojourner, a tall, female, former slave using Eve as a justification for women power. Dang.
Her point, however, was that people had held up this one woman (Eve) as the reason why everything bad had ever happened…so is it really out of the realm of possibility that a bunch of determined women could shake things up again? Short answer: no, no it's not.
Sojourner Truth was crystal clear about who she was, what she was saying, and why she was saying it.
The meaning of "Ain't I a Woman" is literal: what you see is what you get. The speech gets a little more complex because of the seriously convoluted social activism at the time—can you keep all the –isms straight?—but Truth's speech is an upfront appeal, spoken without frills or confusing language.
God (22, 24)
Jesus Christ (13, 19-21)
bell hooks, Ain't I a Woman?: black women and feminism, South End Press, 1981.
The Civil War. Dir. Jerry Zaks. Broadway. Beth Leaval, Keith Byron Kirk, Matt Bogart. St. James Theater, 1999, Theater.
Isabella worked as a housekeeper for a cult. Yes; a cult. To make things even more exciting, Isabella was accused of attempting to poison a white couple in the cult. She was acquitted, sued the couple for slander, and won…marking a legal first for a Black woman. (Source)
You've heard that history repeats itself? Like Rosa Parks, Truth had her arm dislocated by a (white) streetcar conductor when she refused to leave. So she campaigned and won the right for shared streetcars in Washington, DC. Not a bad response to that situation, huh? (Source)
Sojourner Truth also moonlighted as that era's Tim Gunn. She poked fun at suffragist fashions, contrasting their want to be taken seriously with the very silly outfits they wore She was quoted as asking, "What kind of reformers be you, with goose-wings on your heads, as if you were going to fly, and dressed in such ridiculous fashion, talking about reform and women's rights?" (Source)
Sojourner enjoyed fibbing about her age. She claimed to be over 100 for the last decade of her life and her gravestone records her age at 105. Best guess puts her at about 76 when she died. (Source)
A bunch of frat boys crashed one of her tent revivals. She managed to calm them by singing hymns and telling them her life story. Everyone else ran and hid, but not Sojourner. She sat them down and sang the equivalent of Kumbaya...and it worked. Her bio mentions how tired she got of singing, but the drunk fools kept egging her on. (Source)