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Ain’t I a Woman? Yes, but not like I thought.

Posted by Sarah Sloane on Jan 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

“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. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.” – Sojourner Truth, as recorded by Marius Robinson*

As a young woman, I reveled in the reported versions of Sojourner Truth’s speech that was colloquially known as “Ain’t I a Woman?”; I woke up this morning intending to write a blog post about how her words set the tone at the dawning of the women’s movement in the United States, and how her words resonated with me as I came to find my identity as a woman.

However, as I was doing a little digging in order to get the right version of her words, I found that what I had learned was the version made popular by a white abolitionist named Frances Diana Barker Gage, who printed it with Sojourner’s words twisted to be more southern sounding (which was patently incorrect, as Truth was born & raised in New York, where she lived in slavery until escaping in her 20’s); Sojourner, however, spoke only Dutch until the age of nine, and reportedly was quite proud of her ability to speak English relatively correctly (as would anyone that learns a second language in their childhood, I would guess).

Throwing the phrase “Ain’t I a woman?” out of the compendium of my feminist inspirations is going to be a difficult thing. The words resonate with me – but they are likely not what Sojourner Truth actually said (the quote above is from the first transcribed version of her speech, printed less than a month after it was delivered; the more well-known version did not see the light of day until twelve years later). It’s important to me to know the strength with which she spoke, and about what – a former slave who had escaped slavery with her infant daughter, who won her son from a white man’s custody in the courts, who worked tirelessly as an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and especially discussed the rights of Black women as Black men were beginning to gain rights, after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Instead, I’m going to remember the words that were most likely what she actually said, at a time in the US when she had barely any rights (as a former slave, and as a Black woman). She reminded everyone that she was strong , that women were strong – she had worked in the fields, had lifted and carried as much as a man. She pointed out that giving a woman her rights would not take away from the rights of men, but would help by creating less burden for men in general. She spoke of how the basis of the Christian faith included the willingness of Jesus to treat women as equals, and how it was the body of a woman, not a man, that brought Jesus to our world.

The power of her words is not at all diminished by the correction; it is, in fact, enhanced by bringing to bear a more accurate vision of who she was, and what she believed. It may not have the catchiness of “Ain’t I a Woman”, but it certainly has a more authentic record of her voice, and in the end, that is what makes her such an abiding symbol of the strength of womanhood.

“I am as strong as any many that is now.” Yes.

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