At the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, on May 29, 1851, the formerly enslaved woman, Sojourner Truth, rises to speak and assert her right to equality as a woman, as well as a Black American. The exact wording of her speech, which becomes famous for the refrain, “Ain’t I a Woman?” has been lost to history. In fact, historians have since challenged whether Truth ever used the famous refrain as she spoke. Nonetheless, her speech becomes widely regarded as one of the most powerful moments of the early women’s liberation movement.
Born into slavery in Ulster County, New York, Isabella Baumfree escaped with her infant daughter in 1826 and chose the name Sojourner Truth. She later successfully sued a slaveowner for custody of her son, becoming the first Black woman to take a white man to court and win. She remained an antislavery activist and, after the Civil War, a crusader for the rights of African Americans for the rest of her life. Her speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention formed much of the foundation of her legacy.
There are two conflicting versions of the speech, neither of which was transcribed at the time Truth actually gave it. An account reported in the Anti-Slavery Bugle was the first to be published and does not actually include the titular phrase. On May 2, 1863, Frances Gage, a white abolitionist and president of the Convention, published an account of Truth’s words in the National Anti-Slavery Standard. In her account, Gage wrote that Truth used the rhetorical question, “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” to point out the discrimination Truth experienced as a Black woman.
Various details in Gage’s account, however, including that Truth said she had 13 children (she had five) and that she spoke in dialect have since cast doubt on its accuracy. Contemporaneous reports of Truth’s speech did not include this slogan, and quoted Truth in standard English. In later years, this slogan was further distorted to “Ain’t I a Woman?”, reflecting the false belief that as a formerly enslaved woman, Truth would have had a Southern accent. Truth was, in fact, a New Yorker.
Regardless, there is little doubt that Truth’s speech—and many others she gave throughout her adult life—moved audiences. Truth straightforwardly described of the predicament of Black women, who were not even afforded the paternalistic treatment their white counterparts received.
According to the Bugle version, she also facetiously described the predicament of white men, who were “surely between a hawk and a buzzard” with both women and African Americans demanding equality. As Truth deftly criticized not only sexism and racism, but also the racism of her fellow feminists, her speech is now regarded not only as one of the earliest entries in the canon of American feminism but also an early example of intersectionality, more than a century and a half before the term came to prominence.