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Sojourner Truth’s biography is difficult to reconstruct. According to some sources she was born Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, New York and escaped slavery with one of her daughters (three of her children having been sold) in 1826. Others state that she was born Bell Hardenbergh within the household of a Dutch Pietist family. Some accounts claim that she had a longstanding relationship with her owner, John Dumont, before fleeing the Dumonts and becoming Isabella van Wagenen upon entering the service of an Ulster County family of that name. In this version of Truth's biography, she was freed one year before New York State granted general emancipation in 1827.
A similar ambiguity applies to Truth's public life. It is debatable whether Truth’s most famous speech actually included the question “ain’t I a woman?” or if this was a folksy flourish added by the person who reported it. Another famous question, “Frederick, is God dead?” – posed by Truth to Frederick Douglass during a public debate – is variously recorded as occurring in 1847, 1850, 1852, 1859 and 1863 and the location of the debate also changes according to the source. What is known with confidence is that Truth was a renowned and widely respected reformer and minister who did speak publicly to large audiences throughout her life.
Truth moved to New York City and joined several dissident Methodist sects, including the infamous Kingdom of Matthias, a short-lived charismatic movement built on a sexually scandalous communal family that collapsed when its founder Matthias Pierson landed in jail for extortion and murder. The small savings Truth had accumulated while working in New York City had been deposited in a common fund run by Pierson and after his conviction she found herself penniless. In her biography she reflected that “she had been taking part in a great drama, which was, in itself, but one great system of robbery and wrong.” In 1843 she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and began a career as an itinerant preacher. Over time, her sermons moved increasingly towards secular, ethical concerns.
Truth rose to prominence as an abolitionist and women’s rights advocate in the 1850s, giving her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Truth did not read or write, but dictated many letters and other writings including The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, a full-length biography dictated to Olive Gilbert and published by a Boston printer in 1850.
The complaints of black women differed significantly from those of their white sisters. Slave societies were not organized around a feminine domestic sphere and a stable family structure did not function as a primary unit of social organization. The oppression experienced by married, white women issued from property laws and conceptions of femininity that simply did not apply to slaves. Slave marriage was almost never legally recognized or respected. So their chosen male partners did not bear any legal relation to slave women. This meant that the source of oppression enslaved black women faced was fundamentally different: white women were treated, to varying degrees, as the property of their husbands; slave women were the actual property of a slave owner. Furthermore, as slaves, black women did “men’s work” as well as “women’s work," which rendered early feminist attacks on the oppressive ideals of femininity moot. The sexual exploitation of female slaves was, however, particular to their gender, and male notions of sexual entitlement and ownership of women’s bodies is one example of oppression that crossed racial lines.
Truth’s brief but powerful “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech was allegedly given without preparation, following several arguments from the floor by men concerning the supposed intellectual and physical inferiority of women. It rhetorically invoked solidarity between women (presumed to be white) and blacks (presumed to be male) without resorting to the potentially offensive analogy made by many suffragists between women and slaves. By addressing her speech to “white men” who – between women and Negroes both demanding rights – “will be in a fix pretty soon,” Truth succinctly provided a connection between the two groups by way of a common enemy. The speech went on to provide a rousing defense of women’s equality with men, while however simultaneously functioning as a sly critique of a women’s movement run by white women who had never been forced to work.
Truth continued to work as an activist and minister for the rest of her life. She campaigned against slavery, advocated for women’s suffrage and championed prison reform. She was also an adherent to Sylvester Graham's health reforms and eventually moved to Battle Creek, Michigan where she died in 1893.
Written by Rebecca H. Lossin, Ph.D. candidate in Communications, Columbia Journalism School, Columbia University
Ernest, John. “Misinformation and Fluidity in Print Culture; or, Searching for Sojourner Truth and Others,” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, 33:1, 2016
Griffin, Gabriel. “Sojourner Truth,” Oxford Dictionary of Gender Studies, 2017
Sojourner Truth and Olive Gilbert, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth a Northern Slave. http://www.digital.library.upenn.edu/women/truth/1850/1850.html#25
McCook, Matt. “Sojourner Truth's America,”Fides Et Historia, 43 (1), 104-105
Painter, Nell Irvin. “Sojourner Truth,” Oxford Bibliographies