Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest.
Today we’re going to discuss an essential text from the middle of the 19th Century, the transcript of a speech delivered at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. The speech is entitled “Ain’t I A Woman,” and it was delivered by the great Abolitionist and Women’s Rights activist, Sojourner Truth. But before we dive into the speech, I’d like to introduce my reading partner for this episode, Rayna Clay MacKay. Hi, Rayna!
Rayna is a wife, mom, and Obstetric Anesthesiologist. She married a dreamy Scotsman for much more than his accent and gained two fantastic bonus kids as a result. They added three more kiddos to the mix, including identical twin boys, and A daughter. They also have the best Cavoodle in the world named Hamish!
She’s a traveler by nature and has lived in over a dozen cities (thanks to medical training) across the United States. She moved from Massachusetts to Tampa Bay almost three years ago and loves the indoor-outdoor lifestyle of Florida. It's also the midway point between the California family and her husband's family in the UK. She grew up in California and Utah, which shaped her outlook on life in general. As the daughter of a single AA mother in UT, she constantly felt a sense of being other. This permeated her HS, college, and medical school (UofU) experience. While she cherishes the relationships she developed in Utah, the culture didn't mesh, and she finds that the California culture of acceptance (of all genders, religions, people, sexuality, etc.) was more aligned with her values.
Speaking of values, she values her family above all, but also loves pretty things! That includes her obsession with home renovation and decor, kids' birthday parties, and cooking beautiful, delicious food. They try to indulge their love of travel to pretty places as often as possible. She thinks this hails back to her taking a certain scripture to heart as a kiddo, "if there is anything [lovely], of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."
Her other core value is justice and equality. She is a firm believer that differences are what make us great, and they should be applauded and supported. As she’s gotten older and wiser, She’s found her voice becoming louder championing for the injustices in the medical system, and society as a whole. Her hope is that the future is more glorious with a rainbow of differing people and opinions that are equally acknowledged.
On any given day (outside of the hospital) you will find her hanging with the family, playing the NYT crossword or flipping through HGTV magazine while watching a British crime drama or The Crown. I'm happiest with my core people, and is delighted I get to throw it back to Freshman year with you!
I also like to ask each guest on the podcast what attracted them to the Breaking Down Patriarchy project. Can you talk a little about that?
Thank you so much for being here, Rayna! So before we dig into this text, let’s set the stage by talking a bit about Sojourner Truth, and the context in which she lived. Rayna, maybe you can take the first half of her story and I’ll take the second half.
Biography of Sojourner Truth
Isabella Baumfree, known as “Belle,” was one of the 10 or 12 children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. A man named Charles Hardenbergh bought James and Elizabeth Baumfree from slave traders and kept their family at his estate in a big hilly area called by the Dutch name Swartekill, in the town of Esopus, New York, 95 miles north of New York City. Charles Hardenbergh inherited his father's estate and continued to enslave people as a part of that estate's property.
When Charles Hardenbergh died in 1806, nine-year-old Isabella was sold at an auction with a flock of sheep for $100 to John Neely. Until that time, she spoke only Dutch. She later described Neely as cruel and harsh, relating how he beat her daily, often because she did not understand English. In 1808 Neely sold her for $105 to tavern keeper Martinus Schryver of Port Ewen, New York, who owned her for 18 months. Schryver then sold her in 1810 to John Dumont of West Park, New York. John Dumont frequently raped his enslaved women, and for that reason there was considerable tension between Isabella and Dumont's wife, Elizabeth Waring Dumont, who harassed Isabella and made her life more difficult.
Around 1815, Isabella met and fell in love with an enslaved man named Robert from a neighboring farm. Robert's owner, a man named Charles Catton, forbade their relationship; he did not want the people he enslaved to have children with people he was not enslaving, because then he would not own the children. One day Robert sneaked over to see her. When Catton and his son found him, they savagely beat Robert until Dumont finally intervened. Isabella never saw Robert again after that day and he died a few years later. The experience haunted her throughout her life. She eventually married an older enslaved man named Thomas. She bore five children: James, who died in childhood, Diana, the result of a rape by John Dumont, and Peter, Elizabeth, and Sophia.
In 1799, the State of New York began to legislate the abolition of slavery, although the process of emancipating those people enslaved in New York was not complete until July 4, 1827. Dumont had promised to grant Isabella her freedom a year before the state emancipation, "if she would do well and be faithful.” However, he changed his mind, claiming a hand injury had made her less productive. She was infuriated but continued working, spinning 100 pounds of wool, to satisfy her sense of obligation to him.
Late in 1826, she escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia. She had to leave her other children behind because they were not legally freed in the emancipation order until they had served as bound servants into their twenties. She later said, "I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right."
She found her way to the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, who took her and her baby in. Isaac contacted Dumont, the man who formerly owned her, and offered to buy her services for the remainder of the year, which Dumont accepted for $20. She lived with the Van Wagenens until the New York State Emancipation Act was approved a year later, and she was officially and officially free.
Isabella learned that her son Peter, then five years old, had been sold illegally by Dumont to an owner in Alabama. With the help of the Van Wagenens, she took the issue to court and in 1828, after months of legal proceedings, she got back her son, who had been abused by those who were enslaving him. Isabella Baumfree became one of the first black women to go to court against a white man and win the case.
During her stay with the Van Wagenens she had a life-changing religious experience and became a devout Christian. In 1829 she moved with her son Peter to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper for a Christian Evangelist.
She became very involved in religious life, participating in various congregations and gaining a reputation of being a preacher and singer.
The year 1843 was a turning point for Baumfree. She became a Methodist, and on June 1, Pentecost Sunday, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She chose the name because she heard the Spirit of God calling on her to preach the truth. She told her friends: "The Spirit calls me, and I must go", and left to make her way traveling and preaching about the abolition of slavery. Taking along only a few possessions in a pillowcase, she traveled north, working her way up through the Connecticut River Valley, towards Massachusetts.
In 1844, she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Florence, Massachusetts. Founded by abolitionists, the organization supported women's rights and religious tolerance as well as pacifism. Isabella lived and worked in the community and oversaw the laundry, supervising both men and women. While there, she met famous activists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Encouraged by the community, she delivered her first anti-slavery speech that year.
She started dictating her memoirs to her friend Olive Gilbert and in 1850 William Lloyd Garrison privately published her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. That same year, she purchased a home in Florence for $300 and spoke at the first National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1854, with proceeds from sales of the narrative, she paid off the mortgage on her home and owned it outright.
In 1851, Truth joined a lecture tour through New York State. In May, she attended the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, where she delivered her famous speech on women's rights, later known as "Ain't I a Woman?"
As I was preparing for this episode I remembered that I had read an author who made the point that Sojourner Truth was from the North and wouldn’t have said the word “Ain’t.” So I looked into it a bit, and sure enough, I found a website online called the Sojourner Truth project that’s dedicated to clearing up that muddled history and bringing Sojourner Truth’s authentic voice to light.
Rayna, can you tell us about that?
Two versions of the speech
Most people are familiar with the 1863 popular version of Sojourner Truth's famous, “Ain’t I a woman” speech but they have no idea that this popular version, while based off of Sojourner’s original 1851 speech, is not Sojourner's speech and is vastly different from Sojourner’s original 1851 speech. Nell Irvin Painter, a professor at Princeton University, specializing in American history and notable for her works on southern history of the nineteenth century. Professor Painter was the scholar who first rang the bell on this historical mistake. This site would not be possible without relying on her brilliant work.
The popular but inaccurate version was written and published in 1863 (12 years after Sojourner gave the "Ain't I a woman" speech), by a white abolitionist named Frances Dana Barker Gage. Curiously, Gage not only changed all of Sojourner’s words but embellished facts about her life - she represented Truth as having 13 children instead of 5 - and chose to represent Sojourner speaking in a stereotypical “southern black slave accent,” rather than in Sojourner’s distinct upper New York State low-Dutch accent. Frances Gage’s actions were well intended and served the suffrage and women's rights movement at the time; however, by today’s standards of ethical journalism, her actions were a gross misrepresentation of Sojourner Truth’s words and identity. By changing Truth's words and her dialect to that of a stereotypical southern slave, Frances Gage effectively erased Sojourner’s Dutch heritage and her authentic voice, as well as unintentionally adding to the oversimplification of the American slave culture and furthering the eradication of our nation’s Northern slave history. Frances Gage admitted that her amended version had “given but a faint sketch” of Sojourner's original speech but she felt justified and believed her version stronger and more palatable to the American public then Sojourner's original version.
The most authentic version of Sojourner Truth's, "Ain't I a woman," speech was first published in 1851 by Truth's good friend Rev. Marius Robinson in the Anti-Slavery Bugle and was titled, “On Woman’s Rights.” Robinson had been in attendance for Truth’s speech, and he wrote his recollection of her words immediately afterward.
The most common yet inaccurate rendering of Truth's speech—the one that introduced the famous phrase "Ain't I a woman?"—was constructed by Frances Dana Gage, nearly twelve years after the speech was given by Sojourner at the Akron conference. Gage's version first appeared in the New York Independent on April 23, 1863.
So Rayna, what are some things that strike you as we think about these issues and listen to these versions of the speech?
Rayna: Commentary on the speeches:
-I find it interesting that the male-female dynamic was upended from Africa v. life as a slave. Traditionally, field work was considered a female job because it was part of taking care of the domestic household. So on top of the already dehumanizing experience of slavery, now men were also subjugated to women’s work. So that must have in some way contributed to the overall demasculinization of slave men and caused disruption/distrust/competition in a way.
-I am trying to have grace for Frances Gage (as you said, she was trying to mold it into something more palatable for the suffrage movement), but I find it interesting how “White” culture, even when talking about equality, found a way to devalue/unequalize ST. Gage made her seem less educated, less elegant, “less than,” even in an effort to promote change. Obvi this is racist, but I think it leans more towards the human predicament of feeling the need to be ‘better than.”
Tell me more about that. Do you think that Frances Gage and other White activists characterized Black people as tropes and reinforced the stereotypes of the time because of the White savior complex? Like “look how great I am for helping these poor people?”
-That concept speaks to the ending with “man is in a tight place, and women are coming up on him…” Once again, I think racism/misogyny/patriarchy is born out of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of lack of control, and fear of being less than something else. We were at Disney last weekend, a man walked by with a shirt that said “in order to conquer you must trample the other man.” I had parallel thoughts of pity and laughability for this poor man child. Here was a man in his mid-40s that was so unconfident in himself that he felt the need to advertise his ability to trample someone else?! What has society done to our Anglo-Saxon men to make them feel that they constantly have to beat someone down (literally or figuratively) in order to succeed?
-“The poor men seem to be all confusion, and don’t know what to do…” I see this on the daily in the medical system. Unless men (I am making a broad assumption, I have plenty of examples where they are willing to concede or appear vulnerable, but the overall arching feeling is this) are lauded as the “experts” they waffle, and appear to have very little ability to pivot. It’s an odd phenomenon.
-I find it interesting that ST was willing to accept’s Eve’s blame. Or maybe she was using it as an arguing point? I have always had a deep disdain for anyone who talks about Eve’s original sin and makes that an argument for women being less than, less capable, or more vulnerable/sound-minded. It was the basis of the right-wing assault on HRC. (Not that I don’t think she had significant things to atone for, or did I agree with all of her policies. But! She was hands-down the most prepared, with the best resume of all the candidates. But the male patriarchy was not willing to concede that a woman could be as capable to lead as a man, and this harkens back to Adam and Eve).
I think a literal interpretation of the Bible, and that Creation story in particular, has done more to harm the female psyche than anything else in Western history. And you’re right that it still reverberates today - the fact that we have had 45 presidents in the United States, since the 18th Century, and every. Single. One. has been a man, shows that the majority of people - both men and women - still can’t trust that women are as worthy. It’s deep, deep in our cultural consciousness, and I do think it’s because it’s rooted in a narrative that so many believe came directly from God.
And yet with that said, ST doesn’t let it hold her back in terms of her actions!
-The phenomenon of women holding power because they hold the power over procreation is also brought up. I think it’s one of the reasons that men have sought to control birth control and women’s bodily rights. They are scared. We really hold all power in terms of propagating the population, and that’s a significant deficit on the part of the patriarchy.
Amy: So do you have any other thoughts or takeaways from this?
What about you, Amy?
Well in our previous episode we talked about the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, and we talked a bit about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, and that group would later include Susan B. Anthony, and how even though they all started out their social activism in the Abolition movement, their quest for women’s suffrage turned out in the end to be a quest for only White women’s suffrage. And we talked about how Frederick Douglass was a champion of women’s rights, but in the end he prioritized Black men’s suffrage. So there were these two mammoth forces changing American culture, but they both left Black women behind. And the voice who spoke up loud and clear for Black women was Sojourner Truth. So I wanted to read another quote of hers:
There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.
-I think this is the whole crux of the matter. We have allowed society to develop (and this goes alllll the way back) into a system where there are the haves and have-nots. Whether it be rights, access, treatment, money. Our entire system is based on that, so by default there has to be an oppressed. Otherwise the oppressor does not exist. And that’s not palatable or functional.
That’s a pretty bleak assessment. :) Is that based on human nature? Is it inevitable? Obviously we both believe that justice and fairness is worth fighting for, but how? Is there hope?
Rayna takes the last word.
Well Rayna Clay MacKay, thank you so very much for doing this with me! This has been a joy.
Next time we will be discussing the philosophical work The Subjection of Women, by English philosopher John Stuart Mill. This is a rather short book, which I have read probably three times and highlighted almost every paragraph. See if you can find a copy and read it, but even if you’re not able to read the whole thing, join us for an enlightening discussion next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.