More than a hundred years have passed since the day Sojourner Truth stood before an assembled body of white women and men at an antislavery rally in Indiana and bared her breasts to prove that she was indeed a woman. To Sojourner, who had traveled the long road from slavery to freedom, the baring of her breasts was a small matter. She faced her audience without fear, without shame, proud of having been born black and female. Yet the white man who yelled at Sojourner, ‘I don’t believe you really are a woman,’ unwittingly voiced America’s contempt and disrespect for black womanhood. In the eyes of the 19th century white public, the black female was a creature unworthy of the title woman; she was mere chattel, a thing, an animal. When Sojourner Truth stood before the second annual convention of the women’s rights movement in Akron, Ohio, in 1852, white women who deemed it unfitting that a black woman should speak on a public platform in their presence screamed: ‘Don’t let her speak! Don’t let her speak! Don’t let her speak!’ Sojourner endured their protests and became one of the first feminists to call their attention to the lot of the black slave woman who, compelled by circumstance to labor alongside black men, was a living embodiment of the truth that women could be the work equals of men.
It was no mere coincidence that Sojourner Truth was allowed on stage after a white male spoke against the idea of equal rights for women, basing his argument on the notion that woman was too weak to perform her share of manual labor that she was innately the physical inferior to man. Sojourner quickly responded to his argument, telling her audience:
Well, children, whar dar is so much racket dar must be something out o’kilter. I tink dat ‘twixt de niggers of de Sour and de women at de Norf all a 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 women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to have de best places . . . 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 as any man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well—and ain’t I a woman? I have borne five children and I seen ’em mos all sold off into slaver); and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus hear—and ain’t I a woman?
Unlike most white women’s rights advocates, Sojourner Truth could refer to her own personal life experience as evidence of woman’s ability to function as a parent; to be the work equal of man; to undergo persecution, physical abuse, rape, torture; and to not only survive but emerge triumphant.