Sojourner Truth, Unveiled
The leaders of the [women's suffrage] movement trembled on seeing a tall, gaunt black woman in a gray dress and white turban, surmounted with an uncouth sunbonnet, march deliberately into the church, walk with the air of a queen up the aisle, and take her seat upon the pulpit steps. A buzz of disapprobation was heard all over the house, and there fell on the listening ear, 'An abolition affair!" "Woman's rights and niggers!""I told you so!" "Go it, darkey!" . . Again and again, timorous and trembling ones came to me and said, with earnestness, "Don't let her speak, Mrs. Gage, it will ruin us. Every newspaper in the land will have our cause mixed up with abolition and niggers, and we shall be utterly denounced." My only answer was, "We shall see when the time comes."
--First-wave feminist Frances Gage, reflecting on the occasion of Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech
"I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right."--abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth on her escape from slavery.
The "Ain't I a Woman" speech attributed to Sojourner Truth is far more widely cited than the quote above. But this quote gives me an enhanced sense of the flesh-and-blood Sojourner Truth. I envision her as forthright, not one to suffer fools, and courageous.
Sojourner Truth's legacy and contributions were celebrated today in the U.S. Capitol's Emancipation Hall as First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others unveiled the bronze bust of her.
"I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves, serving as the first lady of the United States of America," Mrs. Obama said to loud applause at a ceremony at the Capitol Visitor Center attended by Battle Creek residents and direct descendants of Truth.
An early crusader for women's rights to vote and also for an end to slavery, Truth met presidents Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and Ulysses S. Grant in 1870, and delivered her signature "Ain't I a Woman?" speech at a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. She tried to vote on two occasions but was turned away both times. She died in November 1883 at her home in Battle Creek...
Truth's sculpture will remain on permanent display in the underground visitor center's main space, called Emancipation Hall in part because slaves helped build the Capitol...
Few minority women are enshrined in the Capitol. There are several statues of American Indian women, but no Asian or Hispanic women, according Donald Ritchie, a Senate historian.
Many of the statues in the Capitol's collection were given by the states in the 19th century, Ritchie said. Most of the collection's diversity has come in the last several decades.
Pelosi said Truth wouldn't remain for long the only black woman honored with a statue in the Capitol because a statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks will soon be placed there.
In 2006, President George W. Bush signed into law a requirement that a bust of Truth be placed in a "suitable, permanent location in the Capitol." Clinton co-sponsored the measure when she served in the Senate.
The National Congress of Black Women, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of black women and their families, has pushed for Truth to be memorialized in the Capitol for almost 10 years.
Kim Fuller, a member of the organization from Philadelphia, said black women have not been represented at the Capitol for "far too long."
"But now we are," said Fuller, 49. "And who better to begin the representation -- this is not the end of the representation ... who better to begin than Sojourner Truth?"
Though Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech is oft-quoted, the context in which she gave the speech seems to be less widely known. It sounds like a real swoon-and-clutch-the-pearls fest.
The speech was recorded by Frances Gage, feminist activist and one of the authors of the huge compendium of materials of the first wave, The History of Woman Suffrage. Gage, who was presiding at the meeting, describes the event:
- The leaders of the movement trembled on seeing a tall, gaunt black woman in a gray dress and white turban, surmounted with an uncouth sunbonnet, march deliberately into the church, walk with the air of a queen up the aisle, and take her seat upon the pulpit steps. A buzz of disapprobation was heard all over the house, and there fell on the listening ear, 'An abolition affair!" "Woman's rights and niggers!""I told you so!" "Go it, darkey!" . . Again and again, timorous and trembling ones came to me and said, with earnestness, "Don't let her speak, Mrs. Gage, it will ruin us. Every newspaper in the land will have our cause mixed up with abolition and niggers, and we shall be utterly denounced." My only answer was, "We shall see when the time comes."
- The second day the work waxed warm. Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Universalist minister came in to hear and discuss the resolutions presented. One claimed superior rights and privileges for man, on the ground of "superior intellect"; another, because of the "manhood of Christ; if God had desired the equality of woman, He would have given some token of His will through the birth, life, and death of the Saviour." Another gave us a theological view of the "sin of our first mother."
- There were very few women in those days who dared to "speak in meeting"; and the august teachers of the people were seemingly getting the better of us, while the boys in the galleries, and the sneerers among the pews, were hugely enjoying the discomfiture as they supposed, of the "strong-minded." Some of the tender-skinned friends were on the point of losing dignity, and the atmosphere betokened a storm. When, slowly from her seat in the corner rose Sojourner Truth, who, till now, had scarcely lifted her head. "Don't let her speak!" gasped half a dozen in my ear. She moved slowly and solemnly to the front, laid her old bonnet at her feet, and turned her great speaking eyes to me. There was a hissing sound of disapprobation above and below. I rose and announced, "Sojourner Truth," and begged the audience to keep silence for a few moments.
- The tumult subsided at once, and every eye was fixed on this almost Amazon form, which stood nearly six feet high, head erect, and eyes piercing the upper air like one in a dream. At her first word there was a profound hush. She spoke in deep tones, which, though not loud, reached every ear in the house, and away through the throng at the doors and windows.
- from History of Woman Suffrage, 2nd ed. Vol.1. Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1889., edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage
Here's the text of Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech. This version has been revised from the 19th-century dialect in which Truth spoke.
"Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. 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. But what's all this here talking about?
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? 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? I have borne five children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or Negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
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.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say."
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