Skip to main content
The University of Iowa Libraries

Guides

Spotlight Series Displays Master List: Ain't I A Women

Spotlight Series” displays are meant to connect the library to the UI cultural houses and resource centers.

Basket Turtle

Sojourner Truth. From a carte de visite, possibly made in 1864, with an inscription below the picture: "I sell the shadow to support the substance."
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-119343).


Ain't I a Woman

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 thirteen 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 your 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.

Storyteller

Sojourner Truth ( c. 1797 – 1883 ), preacher and feminist abolitionist. Born Isabella Baumfree enslaved in the Dutch-speaking Hudson River Valley of New York, the woman who renamed herself Sojourner Truth in 1843 functions historically as several overlapping symbols: the strong black woman, the bold slave woman, and the poor and black feminist in middle-class, white, or male movements. In the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, Truth addressed heterogeneous audiences in support of the abolition of slavery, women's rights, woman suffrage, and the relocation of former slaves in the west. Her knowledge of the Bible and her effectiveness as a preacher brought her enthusiastic audiences, whether she was talking religion, abolition, or women's rights. Truth was the only former slave woman able to sustain a decades-long public career and should, therefore, also be recognized as a prime example of the poor people's self-empowerment through the medium of the Holy Spirit.

Despite her obvious intelligence and wit, Truth did not read or write. Other women (notably Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frances Dana Gage ) published the widely circulated accounts that made two rhetorical questions synonymous with her memory: Stowe's “Frederick, is God dead?” in the nineteenth century; Gage's “Ar'n't I a woman?” in the twentieth. Truth uttered neither phrase. Nonetheless she continues to function as a means of electrifying audiences and cutting off discussion, as though whoever evokes Sojourner Truth must always have the last word.

Isabella's first language was Dutch and her first religion Dutch Reformed. During the Second Awakening, however, she belonged to the current of extreme Methodism known as Perfectionism, later known as Pentecostalism, which stressed personal experience over education, distrusted the established ministry, gave opportunity to women preachers, and expected the world to end immediately. During the millenarian movement of 1843 known as Millerism, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth on the day of Pentecost and set out on her own as an itinerant preacher. (Millerism also empowered Ellen White, the founder of the Seventh-Day Adventists.) Taking shelter in the Northampton Association for Education and Industry in western Massachusetts, she encountered feminism and abolition, the movements to which she dedicated her life. While in Northampton Truth dictated The Narrative of Sojourner Truth ( 1850 ). She sold it and, later, photographic portraits (cartes-de-visites) to support herself and her family. The Narrative and photographic portraits give Truth a rare visibility among nineteenth-century black women, whether formerly enslaved or free, rich or poor.

Truth was one of many feminist abolitionists torn by the suffrage politics of the 1860s. She held to the traditional line supporting universal suffrage until it became apparent that an insistence upon woman suffrage would doom black men's votes. Forced to choose between votes for black men or for women in the late 1860s she came down in favor of black male suffrage and the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Resources