Sojourner Truth was born a slave and became a popular spokesperson for abolition, women's rights, and temperance. A history-maker from the start - she was the first black woman to win a court case against a white man when she won custody of her son after running away - she became one of the era's best known figures.
Her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech is known in several variants, because Sojourner Truth herself did not write it down; all copies of the speech come from secondhand sources at best. It was delivered at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio on May 29, 1851, and was first published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle on June 21, 1851.
Truth's public life and remarks contained many quotations that have endured throughout time.
Selected Sojourner Truth Quotations
- And ain't I a woman?
- There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again. -- Equal Rights Convention, New York, 1867
- It is the mind that makes the body.
- 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.
- Truth burns up error.
- Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
- Religion without humanity is poor human stuff.
Two Versions, One Speech
Truth's most famous speech, "Ain't I A Woman," was passed down through history in a decidedly different version than the one she originally delivered. During the American Civil War, her remarks regained popularity and was republished in 1863 by Frances Dana Barker Gage. This version was "translated" into a stereotypical dialect of slaves from the South, whereas Truth herself was raised in New York and spoke Dutch as a first language. Gage also embellished Truth's original remarks, exaggerating claims (for instance, claiming that Truth had had thirteen children when the real Truth had five).
Gage's version includes a framing device depicting a hostile crowd won over by Truth's almost miraculous speech. It also contrasts the "regular" English spoken by bystanders with the heavy dialect of Gage's version of Truth:
- "Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place!" And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunders, she asked "And a'n't I a woman? Look at me! Look at me! Look at my arm! (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a'n't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear de lash a well! And a'n't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen 'em mos' all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a'n't I a woman?
In contrast, the original transcription, written down by Marius Robinson (who attended the convention where Truth spoke), depicts Truth as speaking standard American English, without markers of an accent or dialect. The same passage reads:
- "I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart - why can't she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, - for we can't take more than our pint'll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won't be so much trouble. I can't read, but I can hear. I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again."
- History of Woman Suffrage, ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, 2nd ed., Rochester, NY: 1889.
- Mabee, Carleton, and Susan Mabee Newhouse. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. NYU Press, 1995.