The following is a guest post by Arlene Balkansky. Arlene recently retired from being a librarian in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room, and was a regular writer for Headlines and Heroes.
On May 29, 1851 at the Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth delivered what would become her most famous speech. But what did she say? Over the years, attempts to answer that question have focused on two very different newspaper accounts. Neither of the articles quote what became the speech’s well-known title, “Ain’t I a Woman,” although the title is derived from the later article.
Minister Marius Robinson, one of the secretaries of the convention, provided his account within three weeks of the convention in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, the newspaper he edited. He quoted a succinct, powerful speech packed with ridicule particularly toward white men who opposed women’s rights.
The June 13, 1851 issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator only briefly covers Truth’s speech, but corroborates Robinson’s account with what is included:
Several anti-slavery newspapers reprinted longer coverage than The Liberator citing The Home Journal, which mainly corroborated Robinson’s account, but instead of presenting a speech, provided an account in the third person and described the coverage as a condensation:
The biggest variation was the closing sentence, which was greatly softened from “But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.” The reprinted Home Journal version instead concluded, “But the women are coming up, blessed be God, and a few of the men are coming up with them; but they have a heavy burden to bear, for the slaves and the women look to them for protection.” Quite the opposite of Robinson’s transcription with no hawk and buzzard menacing white men, but instead giving these men a paternalistic, protective role.
Twelve years passed before the more famous version of Truth’s speech appeared in the midst of the Civil War in both the Congregationalist journal, The Independent, April 23, 1863, and in the abolitionist newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, May 2, 1863. Frances D. Gage, who had presided over the 1851 Woman’s Rights Convention as its president and who was also a staunch abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, provided this later account. The most controversial aspect of this version is its apparent attempt to imitate Southern slave dialect. While Truth had been enslaved and escaped, this happened in the North. She was born in Ulster County, New York, nearly 100 miles north of New York City. She never lived in the South and spoke only Dutch until she was nine years old, according to the Narrative of Sojourner Truth. She could have retained some sort of Dutch accent when speaking English, but that would be nothing like the dialect Gage gave her. Emphasizing Southern slavery, though, would prove a more useful tool to Gage in 1863, rather than recalling already abolished slavery in a Northern state loyal to the Union.
While some of this speech’s meaning is similar to Robinson’s 1851 account, there is hardly any similarity of wording, even if the dialect is ignored. The repeated and best-known phrase, “ar’n’t I a woman?” from which this version gave the speech its famous title of “Ain’t I a Woman,” did not exist in Robinson’s version. The closest line from Robinson would be “I am a woman’s rights.”
Gage states that her impetus for her recollection is the publication of an article about Truth in the April 1863 issue of The Atlantic. The article by Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sibyl,” also employs dialect when quoting Truth, but its use is not as extreme as Gage’s.
There is agreement between Robinson and Gage about the impressive power of Truth’s speech on May 29, 1851, its massive effect on the convention audience, and the impossibility of reproducing it adequately, with Gage’s account unsurprisingly conveying a higher level of excitement.
Did Truth choose a version? She stayed with Marius Robinson and his wife Emily in Ohio in 1851 and it is believed that Robinson went over his version with her prior to its publication. This vetting would not have occurred with Gage who was in Union-occupied South Carolina when her version was written and published in the spring of 1863. There is no evidence, though, that Truth, who never learned to read or write, contested Gage’s version, which was included in the Narrative of Sojourner Truth as early as 1875. Gage’s account, as well as Stowe’s profile, added to Truth’s fame while she continued to lecture until 1880.
There were many obituaries following Sojourner Truth’s death on November 26, 1883, but one that appeared in multiple newspapers emphasized that her mind was “penetrating, clear, logical and original,” her language was “grammatically correct,” and her “enunciation and pronunciation was faultless.”
This appears to be an attempt to correct the record regarding Truth’s May 29, 1851 speech and other such characterizations, but the more famous Southern dialect version was also reprinted when Truth died.
In 1972, Gage’s version was presented without dialect by Miriam Schneir in her Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings and such versions continue to appear to the present. In 1996, though, Nell Irvin Painter provided detailed examinations of both Robinson’s and Gage’s versions in her book, Sojourner Truth: A Live, a Symbol. “We cannot know exactly what Truth said at Akron in 1851,” Painter stated. “She put her soul and genius into extemporaneous speech, not dictation, and lacking sound recordings or reliable transcripts, seekers after Truth are now at the mercy of what other people said that she said.” (p. 174). Still, Painter concluded that Marius Robinson’s version was the more reliable. That judgment remains valid.
- Nell Irvin Painter. Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
- The Sojourner Truth Project
- Ain’t I a Woman? A Suffrage Story for Black History Month
- Search Chronicling America* for more historical newspaper coverage of Sojourner Truth
- Sojourner Truth: A Resource Guide
- Sojourner Truth and the Power of a Portrait
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.