“a’n’t I A Woman?”

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In the violent, restless decade before the Civil War some close ties were forged between the woman s-rights movement and abolitionism. The great feminist Susan B. Anthony, for instance, was a paid agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society, while Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist, was a frequent speaker at woman’s-rights conventions. But if the relationship was occasionally a close one, it was rarely tranquil. Many feminists held that supporting the antislavery issue weakened their own cause, and there were abolitionists who felt woman’s rights were merely a red herring. At times the controversy became bitter and heated, as it did when the proceedings of an 1851 woman s-rights convention in Akron, Ohio, were interrupted by the appearance of the lean, fantastic figure of Sajourner Truth.

Born a slave in New York State in the last years of the eighteenth century and christened Isabella, Sojourner adopted her name in 1843, when, she said, the voice of God commanded her to take to the road and spread His word. During her travels she came into contact with the abolitionists and adopted their cause. She soon became something of a legend: a lanky, energetic woman who, though illiterate all her life, could quote endless Scripture and hold any audience spellbound. Her speeches were powerful enough to get her mobbed in Missouri and cudgeled in Kansas. But nowhere could she have been more effective than in her appearance at Akron. The following dramatic account of the episode was recorded by Frances Dana Gage, an Ohio feminist who was presiding over the 1851 convention.

The leaders of the movement trembled on seeing a tall, gaunt black woman in a gray dress and white turban, surmounted with an uncouth sun-bonnet, march deliberately into the church, walk with the air of a queen up the aisle, and take her seat upon the pulpit steps. A buzz of disapprobation was heard all over the house, and there fell on the listening ear, “An abolition affair!” “Woman’s rights and niggers!” “I told you so!” “Go it, darkey!”

I chanced on that occasion to wear my first laurels in public life as president of the meeting. At my request order was restored, and the business of the Convention went on. Morning, afternoon, and evening exercises came and went. … Again and again, timorous and trembling ones came to me and said, with earnestness, “Don’t let her speak, Mrs. Gage, it will ruin us. Every newspaper in the land will have our cause mixed up with abolition and niggers, and we shall be utterly denounced.” My only answer was, “We shall see when the time comes.”

The second day the work waxed warm. Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Universalist ministers came in to hear and discuss the resolutions presented. One claimed superior rights and privileges for man, on the ground of “superior intellect”; another, because of the “manhood of Christ; if God had desired the equality of woman, He would have given some token of His will through the birth, life, and death of the Saviour.” Another gave us a theological view of the “sin of our first mother.”

There were very few women in those days who dared to “speak in meeting”; and the august teachers of the people were seemingly getting the better of us, while the boys in the galleries, and the sneerers among the pews, were hugely enjoying the discomfiture, as they supposed, of the “strong-minded.” … When, slowly from her seat in the corner rose Sojourner Truth, who, till now, had scarcely lifted her head. “Don’t let her speak!” gasped half a dozen in my ear. She moved slowly and solemnly to the front, laid her old bonnet at her feet, and turned her great speaking eyes to me. There was a hissing sound of disapprobation above and below. I rose and announced “Sojourner Truth,” and begged the audience to keep silence for a few moments.

The tumult subsided at once, and every eye was fixed on this almost Amazon form, which stood nearly six feet high, head erect, and eyes piercing the upper air like one in a dream. At her first word there was a profound hush. She spoke in deep tones, which, though not loud, reached every ear in the house, and away through the throng at the doors and windows.

“Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin’ out o’ kilter. I link dat ‘twixt de niggers of de Souf and de womin at de Norf, all talkin’ ‘bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all dis here talkin’ ‘bout?

“Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mudpuddles, or gibs me any best place!” And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked, “And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a’n’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ‘em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?