Study Guide

Ain't I a Woman? Historical Context

By Sojourner Truth, a.k.a. Isabella Baumfree

Historical Context

You might already know this, but the 1800s in America were fairly chaotic. And repressive. And sexist. And more that a little evil, what with the whole slavery thing.

Just what was going on that made "Ain't I a Woman?" so critical we're still examining it today? Let's hop in our time machine—our figurative time machine, because who in their right mind would want to actually go back in time?—and take a brief tour through the turbulent antebellum period.

The Second Great Awakening

One of the reasons the good ol' (bad ol'?) 19th Century was chaotic was the result of some serious spiritual upheaval.

One of the springboards leading up to that little spat we call the Civil War, was called The Second Great Awakening. It sound kind of nice, right? The term "great awakening" makes us think of rolling out of bed at 11 a.m. to the smell of pancakes. But we're talking about a religious movement beginning in the twilight years of the 18th Century and picking up speed into the 1830s.

You've heard of tent revivals in the Bible Belt? Think of the Second Great Awakening as their granddaddy.

Evangelicalism, the belief that faith in Jesus Christ (along with innate human ability to act to better oneself) is the foundation for salvation, began to overtake the older Anglican, Quaker, and Congregationalist denominations. Baptist and Methodist congregations attracted members like flies to honey through enthusiastic preaching that engaged the audience, rather than just preaching at them.

The key was the inclusion of everyone, not just the most powerful and wealthy, which made the newer denominations all the more popular with Black people—both free and enslaved—and women.

This spirit of inclusion and egalitarianism also played an indirect part in inciting the Civil War, only the bloodiest military action to ever take place on American soil. Yup: religious movement focused on tolerance and living according to the Gospels (including that whole love thy neighbor and turn the other cheek thing), sparked social reforms that helped start a war.

But when a thing like the enslavement of fellow human beings is on the line, sometimes you have to get violent. After all, slavers and slave-owners were breaking the whole "thou shalt not murder" thing well before the Civil War came about.

We're getting ahead of ourselves, though: after all, the "Ain't I a Woman" speech happened a good decade before war broke out.

Now That We've Been Awakened, How About Getting Some Equal Rights?

Back to that Great Awakening (or should we say Awokening?): women and Black people not only became part of these religious movements, but also rose to leadership positions within the national Methodist and Baptist organizations. And because of this, they began to see a glimmer of (maybe, possibly, hopefully, finally) gaining equality in all other areas of life.

This, along with potentially freeing women from drudgery in the home, threatened the status quo of slavery-dependent agriculture in the South.

And it wasn't only the disenfranchised and enslaved portions of society calling for reform. A great many abolitionists were white male ministers who actually practiced what they preached (minister pun!) and firmly believed that slavery was morally wrong.

The male support for women's suffrage was a bit lacking in comparison. Even Frederick Douglass waffled on the issue. The fight for women's right to vote began early in the 19th Century with discontent in the status quo…a.k.a. the "Cult of True Womanhood", which considered women's place as a church-going homemaker. (Source)

It wasn't until 1848 that anybody actually got organized to make a move to change it. The Seneca Falls Convention, led by the rabble-rousing Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, produced The Declaration of Sentiment that stated—through extremely blatant mimicking of The Declaration of Independence—that women weren't simply accessories to the well-dressed voting male.

This was the start of the fight for women—although still largely focused on white women—to gain the right to vote.

So, the build up to the Civil War was full of religious change that sparked widespread social reform movements, not only limited to abolition and suffrage but included temperance (although tensions were high enough to drive someone to drink), education, and prison reform. Everyone seemed to have an agenda and those agendas often clashed.

This was the hotbed of activity that gave birth to Sojourner Truth and "Ain't I a Woman?"