Many people are familiar with the “Ain’t I a Woman” speech given by Sojourner Truth, but fewer know the story behind the speech–or the different accounts of the speech and its delivery. According to a story described in the 1878 book Sojourner Truth’s Narrative and Book of Life by Mrs. Frances D. Gage, who presided over the meeting at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, where the speech was given, when Sojourner Truth entered the meeting, some asked that she not be allowed to speak. Gage allowed her to speak and Gage’s later account reports that when Truth finished,
Amid roars of applause, she turned to her corner, leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes and hearts beating with gratitude. She had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty, turning the whole tide in our favor. I have never in my life seen anything like the magical influence that subdued the mobbish spirit of the day and turned the jibes and sneers of an excited crowd into notes of respect and admiration. Hundreds rushed up to shake hands, and congratulate the glorious old mother and bid her God speed on her mission of ‘testifying again concerning the wickedness of this ‘ere people’.”
Ask students to read Gage’s transcription of the speech. What do they notice about the way in which the speaker’s language is described in this transcription? Introduce another report of the speech, for example this one from the Anti-Slavery Bugle, June 21, 1851, a month after the event. What differences do they notice between the two transcriptions and descriptions of the event? What impression of Sojourner Truth do they get from each report? Inform students that Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in Ulster, New York around 1797, given the name ‘Isabella’ and remained enslaved in New York until 1826. How does this information about where she lived change their thinking about the two very different transcriptions of the speech?
Sojourner Truth continued to travel around the country in support of abolitionist and women’s rights. As she traveled she sold books telling her story and cartes de visite of her image. Some of the images included the phrase, “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” In addition, some of the images included her knitting and posing with an image of her grandson James Caldwell, who fought in the Civil War. Ask students to study the images. Why do students think she used these props? How do they think this may have connected with the “Ain’t I a Woman” speech?
Learn more about photographs from the Civil War era in this blog post on photographs and how they were used as part of the Civil War effort.
Though this speech is nearly 200 years old, it is still used in oratory contests, speeches, and events throughout the United States. It is seen as an iconic and important speech that cements Sojourner Truth as an important person within the abolitionist movement. Ask your students why they think that this speech continues to resonate with audiences today. Invite them to share their hypotheses in the comments!