• Jai Kasera

America’s Answer When Asked “Ain’t I a Woman?”


Photo/Bill of Rights Institute

The fight for gender and racial equality has long been fought in America. Women have been discriminated against because of their gender, blacks have been discriminated against because of their race, and black women have been discriminated against for both. Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist who lived in the 1800s who found that society held both her gender and race against her. Although abolitionists and women’s rights activists actively collaborated with each other, Sojourner Truth revealed the extent to which the abolitionist and women’s rights movements could not continue to do so during her era through her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”.


Sojourner Truth endured many hardships throughout her lifetime. She was bought and sold as a slave a total of four times, and had five children, with her first in 1815. After escaping to a nearby abolitionist family in 1826, she moved to New York City in 1827 and became a preacher who gave charismatic speeches on abolitionism and equal rights for all. Originally named Isabella Baumfree, she changed her name to “Sojourner Truth” because she believed that God called on her to preach the truth. She met with famous abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, and women’s rights activists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In 1851, she gave a lecture tour, including a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio. There, she gave her iconic speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” It touched upon both the abolitionist and women’s rights movement, and “challenged notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality” (womenshistory.org).


Truth had an unwavering determination to push for what she believed in, no matter the cost or effort. In 1817, a law was enacted in New York which abolished slavery after 1827. Even so, Truth decided to escape slavery before this law came into force, running away from her slave master, John Dumont, in 1826. Although she would have been freed a year later, Truth harbored the conviction of escaping as early as she could, despite the risks involved in doing so. Additionally, after she escaped slavery in 1826, she successfully sued for custody of her 5 year old son, Peter. Although slavery was supposed to be abolished in New York in 1827, Peter was illegally sold to slavery during this year without Truth’s notice by her old slave master, John Dumont. Upon realizing this, she filed a lawsuit to get her son back. Eventually, she won back custody of her child and became the first black woman to ever win a court case against a white man. In addition to being able to prevail in a court case against a white man, it was especially to difficult to win the case due to the pro-slavery nature of Alabama; the fact that Truth was able to do so was unprecedented. Additionally, Truth was known for finding strength in the face of adversity: “Sojourner encountered fierce opposition from pro-slavery groups wherever she traveled. She was often attacked, and on one occasion, she was beaten so severely that she was left with a limp for the rest of her life” (wams.nyhistory.org). Truth travelled around the country to give speeches about the women’s rights and abolitionist movements, however she was often put in danger because of it. Nevertheless, she pushed herself through any hardship she faced if that meant being able to stick to her beliefs. Despite these characteristics, however, she was pushed aside by both the women’s rights and abolitionist movement and was not able to unite the two.


Truth’s speech at the 1851 women’s rights convention at Akron, Ohio, “Ain’t I a Woman?,” explored the current treatment of women and black people. Throughout her speech, she asserts that women were not treated equal to men and that black women were not treated like women at all. She stated, “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?” (nps.gov). Truth demonstrates that she had worked and been punished just as hard as a man, yet she was considered as a weak and feeble woman. Her phrase “and no man could head me,” suggests that she performed better at her manual labor, even compared to men. Visually, Truth’s robust, muscular stature established the impression that she was taller and stronger than many other men. Additionally, Truth’s use of the rhetorical question twice in the short excerpt emphasizes the difference between the treatment of women like her and men. Although there was no difference in the abilities of men and women, women were unjustly regarded as inferior to men in all aspects.


The speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” also revealed the disconnection between the women’s rights and abolitionist movements. In the second sentence of her speech, Truth says, “I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon” (nps.gov). She suggests that by working together, black people and women could fight for their rights simultaneously and bring down the “white men” who had been oppressing their rights for so long. However, later in her speech, she also reveals how blacks and women have not been able to work together. In this moment, Truth describes how being both black and a woman caused her to be regarded as neither of the two: “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?” (nps.gov). Truth was regarded as both a woman and an African American, but because of this she was not being treated like either. Society tried to improve the treatment of white women and black men, but black women were completely disregarded. Additionally, Truth uses these lines to blow up the notion of the Cult of Domesticity, or Cult of True Womanhood, a conception that only genteel, white womanhood counted as womanhood. She describes that white women were thought to “need” to be “helped,” “lifted,” and “have the best place everywhere.” This implies that women could not do so themselves, and that they required a man to help them because the women did not possess the same, superior abilities of the men. However, Truth soon after describes how she is able to do as much work, eat as much, and be punished as much, if not more, than men. By first stating the original notion of the Cult of Domesticity, and following up by showing how it was misconstrued, Truth encourages her audience to stop looking at women as inferior to men.


Moreover, Truth’s use of the rhetorical question is different in this passage compared to in its use when she argues for equality between men and women. In these sentences, Truth asks her audience “ain’t I a woman?” to force them to acknowledge that she, a woman, is not able to enjoy the same pleasures and treatment that white women receive. This dual-purpose of the question “ain’t I a woman?” adds to the effect of her speech, as it highlights that Truth was treated unequally based on both being a woman, and being a black woman.

The conflict between the abolitionist movements and the suffrage movements could be seen even in the most powerful organizations, and amongst the most famous leaders of the two groups. A powerful example of this tension was the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), formed in 1833. The goal of the organization was to fight for racial equality and the immediate abolition of slavery, and it was formed by William Lloyd Garrison, an American journalist and abolitionist. Other members of the society included Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. However, although the AASS included women in its ranks, they were not able to have an active role in the society, including prominent women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan. B Anthony. In 1833, for example, only white women were allowed to the original gathering of the organization, and even they were not allowed to participate in important roles. In 1840, the AASS was invited to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, England, to meet with other aboltionists and movements. However, women were not allowed to participate in the convention and were excluded by being forced to sit in a separate gallery and watch the convention from there. Garrison arrived at the convention late, but when he learned that women were not being allowed to participate in the convention, he, too, sat with the women in the gallery. The AASS split in the same year, into two groups: those who followed Garrison, a radical activist who believed the Constitution was illegal because it supported slavery, and the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society led by Arthur and Lewis Tappan, who were less radical and wanted to utilize moral suasion to put an end to slavery. However, the split was also largely due to the conflict of women’s rights, and each party’s beliefs as to the involvement of women in their activities. Garrison wanted to increase the active participation of women, while the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society “attracted fewer women to their ranks and relegated them to secondary roles, such as raising funds to support men’s activities and agendas” (pbs.org). The creation of the AASS and the attempt to involve women in the organization, followed by the split between the organization due to conflicting opinions on women’s rights shows how the abolitionist and women’s rights movements were not able to collaborate during the time.


Following the women's rights convention in 1851, the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) was formed in 1866, which comprised both women’s rights activists and abolitionists such as Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass. By this time, slavery had already been abolished in 1865, so the focus of former aboltionists shifted slightly from fighting against slavery to fighting to procure rights for black men, specifically the right to vote. The AERA advocated to “secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color, or sex” (brittanica.com). However, the proposal of the 15th amendment in 1869 by Ulysses S. Grant led to turmoil within the AERA. The 15th amendment presented a bill to end voter discrimination based on race, but it did not address suffrage for women: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (constitutioncenter.org). This amendment is similar to the goal of the AERA; however, it does not mention that the right to vote will not be “denied or abridged” by sex. Because of this, women like Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan. B Anthony vehemently opposed the bill. They believed that suffrage for women should come at the same time as suffrage for black men. Meanwhile, many within the AERA supported the bill, such as Frederick Douglass and a woman named Lucy Stone, who was an influential abolitionist and women’s rights activist. This led to the two parties starting to argue, resulting in an eventual split in the AERA between those such as Frederick Douglass who believed it was “the Negro’s hour” (nps.gov) and those like Sojourner Truth who believed that the suffrage for women and black people should be granted simultaneously. This caused a further split into the creation of two new organizations in 1869: the National Woman Suffrage Association, founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and the American Woman Suffrage Association, founded by Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, who was an American pastor who fought for the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) was a women-only organization, and it advocated for the creation of a federal amendment that granted suffrage to women. On the other hand, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was an organization composed of both men and women, and it executed a state-by-state campaign to promote female enfranchisement. However, these two organizations were not only different in their executions of how they fought for women’s suffrage, but they also had different fundamental principles. The NWSA, in response to the 15th amendment excluding the right to vote from women, was formed to fight for women’s suffrage, but not for universal suffrage. On the contrary, the AWSA was formed to fight for both women’s suffrage and universal suffrage, valuing the rights of women equal to the rights of adults of different wealth, income, social status, and other restrictions. Instead of the two progressive forces, the women’s rights and abolitionist movements, trying to work together to further both of their causes, they ultimately chose not to and instead fought against each other. This led to even more disarray, with prominent organizations splitting up further and former allies dividing between the newly formed organizations. Activists like Lucy Stone who used to fight for both the abolitionist and women’s rights movement ended up choosing one movement to advocate for during this debate, emphasizing how the two movements could not be fought for simultaneously. Even a woman like Sojourner Truth, who embodied the traits that both movements were trying to champion, was not able to unite the two movements and instead got pushed away from both.


The split between both the AASS and AERA, although abrupt, could almost be predicted by Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” In her speech, she states how although there were social movements advocating for the rights of women and other movements advocating for the rights of black people, the movements did not overlap and help black women earn their rights. Because of this, the two movements at the time would not have been able to collaborate and work together to fight for a common goal, as society looked at both movements as different and disconnected. Both the AASS and AERA are examples of organizations that tried to fight for both abolitionism and women’s rights simultaneously within the same organization, but failed in doing so. At the time, while most women’s rights activists supported and fought for abolitionism, not all abolitionists supported the women’s rights movement (pbs.org). When these two organizations were created and tried to fight for the two movements, it was often the abolitionists who eventually split off from the rest of the organization because they prioritized the rights of African American men over those of women. This suggests that there was simply not enough room for both movements during the time, and activists eventually had to choose to either fight for the abolitionist or women’s rights movement. Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?,” explores these notions and helps explain why an organization during the 1800s could not successfully fight for both movements.


Despite the obstacles and the fact that it took another half century for women to get the right to vote after slavery was abolished, Truth had a tremendous impact on the American public during her time. She preached all over the world, spreading more awareness about the fight for women’s rights and the need to support the movement. Her speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?,” also revealed how both the women’s rights and abolitionist movements were failing black women. Her work was later recognized when she was invited to the White House and met Abraham Lincoln. Moreover, because the American society is more progressive in the present, her work still affects the fight for women’s rights today. For example, in her argument for the creation of the Violence Against Women’s Act bill passed by the House in 2013, which increased the protection for Native American women, immigrants, and LGBT people, Congressman Gwen Moore stated, “As I think about the LGBT victims who are not here, the native women who are not here, the immigrants who aren’t in this bill, I would say, as Sojourner Truth would say, ‘Ain’t they women?’” (gwenmoore.house.gov). Gwen Moore refers to the Violence Against Women’s Act bill passed by the House in 2013, and how House Republicans tried to prevent this bill from applying to all types of women. Moore countered with a dialogue similar to that of Truth, asserting that no matter the race, ethnicity, or characteristics, all women should be protected. Truth’s words still permeate through the actions of women’s rights activists and politicians trying to ensure equal rights for women today, showing the power of her speech and work. Although she originally addressed the mistreatment of women who were black, her same beliefs can also be applied to women who are LGBT, native, and immigrants, and are presently being applied in this way. Furthermore, in 2017, Black Women United, a nonprofit organization, organized a march called “Ain’t I a Woman?” which aimed to include more black women in the women’s rights movements following the “overwhelming whiteness of the women’s march” (gwenmoore.house.gov). Even today, other women’s rights activists continue the work of Truth, aiming to ensure that both white and black women are represented and treated fairly. During the 1800s, it was difficult for abolitionists and women’s rights activists to work together to further their goals simultaneously. However, because of the greater inclusivity and progressiveness of American society today, Truth’s work and the goals attempted by organizations in the 1800s that supported both the abolitionist and women’s rights movement can now be fought for.


Through the opposition she faced, Sojourner Truth demonstrated the impossibility of linking together the women’s rights and abolitionist movements during the 1800s. This conflict was encapsulated by her short, extemporaneous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”. Although both movements shared the characteristics of being progressive, revolutionary, and supportive of the rights of underrepresented groups of people, they were unable to work together because of their initiatives that were not considered to be linked by society, as well as the disagreements between the two movements that were sparked because of a fundamental difference in their ideas and priorities. This can be seen by analyzing the AASS and AERA, and how both organizations attempted to fight for both abolitionism and women’s rights but ended up failing to successfully fight for both. Instead, it resulted in the two organizations splitting into one party composed of primarily abolitionists, and another party composed of primarily women’s rights activists. Because of this resistance to work together, when Sojourner Truth asked the rhetorical question “ain’t I a woman?” to her era, she received an overwhelming “no,” highlighting how hard the fight was during her time. But, the fact that she is still remembered today, and that so many fights have been won, means that if she asked her question now, the answer might be “yes.”


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