Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Woman of the Week - Sojourner Truth

At least once a week, I am going to post about a womyn who has worked hard for equal rights. This womyn may be famous or she may be obscure, she may be alive or dead, but she will be someone that everyone needs to know. At first, I was not going to start with Sojourner Truth, because I assumed that every feminist knows who she was and likewise, thinks of her with the utmost respect. Unfortunately, a few months ago I discovered that I am wrong! The counselor that I used to see in Milledgeville, who claims to be a feminist and has taught feminist classes, did not know who she was, and I must say, in my opinion, if you do not know, then you cannot claim to be a feminist. *I do not say womanist, because it is inconceivable to me that there could be a womanist who does not know and honor Sojourner Truth.

I remember reading about Sojourner Truth in school during history class and I thought she was the coolest person I had ever read about. Sadly, it was only a two-page spread in my history book. Her famous speech, "Ain't I a Woman?" was printed and it was noted that when she was once questioned on whether she was "a man in disguise" she showed her bare breasts to the crowd. It silenced her misogynistic oppressor, but it unleased a hunger for justice and an admiration for an unbeatable womyn that will never die. I framed her speech and wonder with agony why one never finds her speech on educational or inspirational posters. Here it is:
(as adapted to poetry by Erlene Stetson, from the book, "Ain't I a Woman! - A Book of Women's Poetry From Around the World")

Ain't I a Woman?

That man over there say
a woman needs to be helped into carriages
and lifted over ditches
and to have the best place everywhere.
Nobody ever helped me into carriages
or over mud puddles
or gives me a best place...

And ain't I a woman?
Look at me
Look at my arm!
I have plowed 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 to it-
and bear the lash as well
and ain't I a woman?
I have borne 13 children
and seen most all sold into slavery
and when I cried out a mother's grief
none but Jesus heard me...
and ain't I a woman?
that little man in black there say
a woman can't have as much rights as a man
cause Christ wasn't a woman
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
together women ought to be ale to turn it
rightside up again.

Sojourner Truth is originally named Isabella and is born a slave in upstate New York in 1797. During late 1826, she escapes to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia. Sadly, she had to leave the other children behind because they were not legally freed in the emancipation order until they had served as bound servants until their twenties. Then, around 1828, she wins a law suit to recover son Peter, who had been illegally sold into slavery in Alabama. She also converts to Christianity around that time. In 1846, Isabella adopts the name Sojourner Truth.

During the years of 1844-45, she joins the utopian Northampton Association in Northampton, Mass., where she meets the anti-slavery reformers Giles Stebbins, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Parker Pillsbury, Frederick Douglass and the health reformer Sylvester Graham. She also meets Olive Gilbert, an abolitionist-feminist who later wrote the Narrative of Sojourner Truth.

In 1850, Truth starts attending anti-slavery and women's rights conventions. In 1851she joins abolitionist George Thompson's speaker's bureau, traveling to Rochester, NY, where she stays with Underground Railroad leader, Amy Post -- in May, attends women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, where she delivers the famous "Ain't I a Woman" speech, later recorded by Frances Gage.

In 1852, she became famous for asking Frederick Douglass at an abolitionist meeting, "Is God gone?" Truth continues to wow audiences and it is in 1858 when she bares her breasts to an audience in Indiana.

In 1862, the London World Exhibition awards a prize to William Story's statue, Libyan Sibyl, which was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe's romanticized description of Sojourner Truth.

The next year, even though Truth is ill, she writes for the "Anti Slavery Standard" and also brings food that Thanksgiving to the soldiers of the 54th regiment, Mass Volunteers (the "Glory" regiment), as her grandson, James Caldwell, is a member.

In 1864, while employed by the National Freedman's Relief Association, she visits Abraham Lincoln. In 1865 she works at the Freedman's Hospital in Washington and while there, rides the Washington, DC, streetcars to force their desegregation. (She was only a hundred years ahead of her time!)

Truth keeps on speaking during the 1870s on giving freedmen their land out West, on temperance, on female suffrage and against capital punishment.

In 1883, Sojourner Truth dies due to tumors in her leg. She lived a long life, but her legacy is not over!

1890 Frances Titus collects $44 from Truth's friends around the country, along with funds from Battle Creek community leaders, and uses the money to erect a monument on Truth's gravesite. The inscription reads, "Born a slave in Ulster Co., New York in the 18th century, died in Battle Creek, Mich., Nov. 26, 1883, aged about 105 years. -- 'Is God Dead' --" Francis Titus had been Truth's traveling companion and biographer and a few years later, she commissions artist, Frank Courter, to paint the meeting between Truth and President Lincoln.

In 1961 an historical marker, commemorating the members of Truth's family who are buried with her in the Oak Hill cemetery plot, is erected by the Sojourner Truth Memorial Association, at the urging of local historian Berenice Lowe.

Before 1961 and after, Sojourner Truth receives many honors, including the honor of having a Mars probe named after her in 1997. To find out even more about her life visit this website:

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