Study Guide

Ain't I a Woman? Introduction

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

Ain't I a Woman? Introduction

History is full of rich white men saying stuff. And sure—a lot of these speeches are amazing.

But then there are the others. You know the speeches we're talking about: the out-of-touch ones. Some of these speeches are so full of academic lingo that they should probably come with a decoder ring. Some of these speeches are so removed from reality that you wonder if these dudes ever left their mansions. And some of them are so patronizing that you wonder if these guys learned everything they knew about a lack of privilege from reading about Dickensian orphans.

Enter: Sojourner Truth and her "Ain't I a Woman?" speech.

This is the antidote for textbooks filled with stuffy rich guy prose. Because not only did this woman talk the talk (so eloquently she gave this insanely famous speech 100% extemporaneously), but she walked the walk.

Yeah. Most people can't live up to the last name "Truth." But Sojourner isn't most people.

Sojourner Truth was born as Isabella Baumfree, but she chose Sojourner Truth as her name later in life. Sojourner in Old French means "to travel, to seek" (and Truth is self-explanatory). She chose a name for herself that defined her as a truth-seeker, a fitting name for an abolitionist and women's rights activist who had actual life experience with her cause.

In 1851, Truth stood up at the Ohio Woman's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio and gave a completely spontaneous speech we know as "Ain't I a Woman?" (But we also have to take the speech we know today with a grain or five of salt. Truth grew up speaking Dutch in New York, and her speech was transcribed later with poetic license to make her sound like a Southerner.)

  

But creative editing aside, Truth's speech is flat-out, jaw-droppingly amazing…probably because she knew what she was taking about. She'd lived it. She stood up as a female former slave and made the audience regard her as deserving of the rights of white men.

History would a) prove her right and b) immortalize her. Because Truth was truthfully speaking truth before most people knew what truth was.

And yes—we gave you a lot of "truth" in that sentence. But we didn't give you even half as much as Sojourner does in "Ain't I a Woman?"

What is Ain't I a Woman? About and Why Should I Care?

Intersectionality.

For all of you who don't know that word, here's a handy-dandy definition straight from The New Yorker:

In 1989, the race-theory and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the principle of "intersectionality," by which multiple identities coexist and complicate the ways in which we typically think of class, race, gender, and sexuality as social problems. (Source)

Okay, that definition is a bit complicated. But hey—so is intersectionality.

Basically, the idea of intersectionality states that you can't fight the good fight (against racism, sexism, or homophobia, for example) if you're just looking at a small percentage of the demographic. So if you're fighting against homophobia, but only take into account the struggles of gay men and not lesbians…you're doing it wrong. If you're fighting against racism, but only take into account the struggles of Black men and not Latina women…you're doing it wrong.

And if you fight against sexism, but only take into account the struggles of white women and not Black women…you're doing it wrong.

Which brings us directly to Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" Truth is doing a bunch of things in her speech—she's speaking out against the treatment of all women, she's speaking out against the treatment of all slaves and former slaves, and she's speaking out against the marginalization of Black women even within the feminist movement.

In short, she was being intersectional long before it was called intersectionality.

But why should we care about a word like intersectionality, one that spellcheck thinks is a misspelling? And why are the words of one long-dead woman still relevant?

Because discrimination still overlaps.

If you face discrimination as an older Asian disabled woman, you're probably facing a multi-headed hydra of discrimination: because you're older, because you're Asian, because you're a woman, and because you're disabled. And all of that rolls into a snarled mess of inextricable discrimination.

The same thing stands if you're discriminated as a Black, gay, trans man. You'd be facing discrimination from multiple angles, and that discrimination is going to build upon itself.

To think in terms of intersectionality is to acknowledge that discrimination and prejudice can happen for many different reasons, and all at once. But to refuse to think in terms of intersectionality is to refuse to admit that prejudice can overlap and compound itself.

And, as Sojourner Truth proved way back in 1851, living as a woman oppressed by sexism and racism didn't just mean having to deal with the two distinct evils of sexism and racism. It meant having to deal with the exponential oppression caused by sexism and racism working in tandem.

Yeah. We know. It's a lot to think about.

But take another look at Truth's crystal-clear, thought-provoking speech. Because she was giving voice to a term—intersectionality—that wouldn't be coined until 1989…and she gave her famous speech in 1851.

Ain't I a Woman? Resources

Websites

The Abolitionist Movement in 10 Minutes or Less
This page is a History Channel run-down on the abolitionist movement. The build-up, major players, and major events are given a thorough treatment. If you're not inspired, you're probably a robot.

The Life of Sojourner Truth
Prepared for the Sojourner Truth Institute, this site details her life, including biographies, scholarly articles, and a family tree. It's all the truth about Truth.

The Suffrage Movement in 10 Minutes or Less
The History Channel run-down on the suffrage movement, including an article, videos on the whole of women's rights movements, and speeches from history.

The Truth Speaks
This is great for getting to know Sojourner Truth a little better with quotes from throughout her life. The page also gives a comparison of some of the different published records of "Ain't I a Woman?" The rest of the site has a short bio and tons of links.

Even the Government Agrees, Women's Rights are Cool
There's an entire National Park dedicated to Women's Rights. Why yes, it is located in Seneca Falls, just like the 1848 convention that kick-started the whole movement and gave Sojourner Truth a platform for "Ain't I a Woman?" three years later. Field trip, anyone?

Just Can't Get Enough?
Try on Sojourner Truth's autobiography for size. Decide for yourself if there's more fact or fiction in the short piece.

Articles and Interviews

Ain't I a Woman?
This is Frances Dana Gage's infamous account of Truth's speech, including MST3K asides.

Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl
Harriet Beecher Stowe's article, including an interview with Truth, set off the myth of Truth as a native African slave living in the South.

Video

Ain't I a Woman? Out Loud
Kerry Washington reads "Ain't I a Woman?", bringing Sojourner Truth to life.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know, and Probably More, About Sojourner Truth
Pretty dated, but this is a decent, if long, discussion of Sojourner Truth's life.

Images

Pretty dated, but this is a decent, if long, discussion of Sojourner Truth's life.
One of the cards she sold to support herself toward the end of her life.

A Peek At Her Personality
One of the most well-known images of Sojourner Truth.

Lincoln and Truth
The president and Sojourner Truth met thirteen years after "Ain't I a Woman?"

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