On May 28-29, 1851, a Women’s Rights Convention was held in Akron, Ohio, to rally support for women’s suffrage. That year, Ohio was holding a Constitutional Convention, and petitions were being collected across the state asking the legislature to give women the right to vote. It was on the second day of this meeting that Sojourner Truth gave her renowned “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. Truth was a former slave who fought not only for women’s rights, but for equality for all people. Her speech was first mentioned in the June 6, 1851 issue of the New-York Daily Tribune which reported that she “delighted her audience with some of the shrewdest remarks made during the session” (Image 7, col. 2). In the June 21, 1851 issue of the Salem Anti-Slavery Bugle, editor Marius R. Robinson, who attended the convention and served as its recording secretary, wrote that her speech was “one of the most unique and interesting….It is impossible to transfer to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience” (Image 4, col. 3).
Robinson’s article includes the first transcription of this significant speech, and in both it, and the description of the speech provided in the New-York Daily Tribune, not one not one instance of the question “Ain’t I a woman?” appears. “I am a woman’s rights,” she said at the beginning of her discourse. “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it.”
So why is the version we are so familiar with different from what Sojourner Truth the original transcription? In 1863, Frances Dana Barker Gage, a native of southeastern Ohio and leader of the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention, published her version of the speech in the May 2, 1863 issue of the New York National Anti-Slavery Standard. Her version expanded on the original speech, adding the famous “And ain’t I a woman?” question in addition to other content and the dialect of a Southern slave. “And ain’t I a woman?” part of Gage’s version says. “Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed 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 it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?” (Source: Internet Modern History Sourcebook, Fordham University).
This version was reprinted several times, including in Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage’s History of Woman Suffrage and eventually became the historic standard. Because Sojourner Truth was from New York, it is not likely that Gage’s version of the speech accurately reflects Truth’s dialect. There are several other historical inaccuracies in the speech as well that have led historians to debate whether this version is authentic.
Regardless of the words that Sojourner Truth actually said, the sentiment of the speech remains the same: Women are as strong and smart as men are and deserve the same rights that men have. Though this speech did not directly affect the Ohio Constitution of 1851 as women were still not granted the right to vote, this and Truth’s other activities to help promote equality and social reform made an impact on United States history. Today, she is known as one of the early leaders in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements who worked tirelessly to see her ideals realized.
If you want to learn more about Sojourner Truth and her social activism, search for her on Chronicling America! American newspapers published during and after her lifetime reported on her contributions to United States history. Limit your search by date to newspapers published before 1884 to find information about her activities and read firsthand accounts of what her contemporaries thought of her.
Chronicling America! is a website that provides access to information about historic newspapers and select digitized newspaper pages, produced by the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). NDNP is a partnership between the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Humanities and state projects, such as the Ohio Historical Society. For more information about Ohio’s participation in the program and digitized newspapers, please visit the Ohio Digital Newspaper Program website.
By Jenni Salamon, Project Coordinator, NDNP-OH