Sojourner Truth and Shaping the Fight against Gender Norms in the 1800’s

From the very beginning of her activity as women’s rights leader, Truth had embodied the woman in the black. In her path-breaking performances in New York City in 1867 she embodied the sophisticated and seasoned political activist in a radically inclusive form. She said that people who are black, who are poor, who are illiterate, who are not true women, could be empowered to choose for themselves the leaders who govern them. Truth had matured as a political activist over a long and turbulent career that had taught them both the multitudinous paths by which people become qualified for anything. She had had grounded gendered black power in the vitality of the working woman. Always disturbing the hierarchies, Truth honored the shaping energy of labor as the defining human activity. Unlike many other activists at that time, Truth tended first and last toward women. For her, the Fourteenth Amendment portended worry, not triumph, if “colored men get their rights” before women are enfranchised.

Truth had been born a slave in the late 1790s in Ulster County, New York. She had escaped from slavery and in the 1820s belonged to communities of radically egalitarian evangelicals. Her legal freedom from slavery came when she was liberated under a New York statute of 1817 that freed slaves under forty in 1827. Like many former slaves, she found sanctuary in a city – in this case New York. Here she met reformers such as Arthur Tappan, and in 1843, she changed her slave name Isabella to the resonant name of her future – Sojourner Truth (Fitch, 421). By 1850, she had published her famous autobiography Narrative of Sojourner Truth – A Northern Slave, which told the story of her abusive early years as the property of New York owners. Some gaps exist in the biography of Sojourner Truth, but by the 1840s, she was living in a utopian commune in western Massachusetts. With the encouragement of William Lloyd Garrison and his family, she had become part of a network of reformers, attending and speaking at meetings of antislavery reformers. In 1850, she attended the first annual woman’s rights convention in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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Throughout this decade, she supported herself as a live-in domestic. She also sold her Narrative and gave dramatic speeches on woman’s rights. Having no permanent home, she often stayed with leaders of the woman’s movement including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Thus, Truth became part of an informal association of female reformers. Other black women including free-born Nancy Prince and Charlotte Forten were part of the prewar woman’s movement, but as was the case with white women, commitments were made on an individual basis because there was no permanent sustaining organization devoted to woman suffrage. Still, women learned how to begin the process of changing American opinion on voting for women by circulating petitions and giving speeches. Newspapers began to cover their conventions and often expressly noted “colored people scattered through the audience” (Penn, 17).

In the Reconstruction period, when it was obvious that freed blacks needed the protection of the ballot in the South, Truth insisted that women should get the vote along with black men. Most of the activists who clamored for woman suffrage after the Civil War had been energetic abolitionists. They were black and white, male and female, and they included Stanton, Anthony, Douglass, Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell, Truth, Parker Pillsbury, Charles Lenox Remond, Frances Dana Gage, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, William Lloyd Garrison, and Robert Purvis. Douglass, Truth, Remond, Harper, and Purvis were black, but not of one mind about the suffrage issue as it evolved out of the older demand for woman’s rights (Hertha, 86). The broad agenda of woman’s rights – securing women rights to their wages, their inheritances, and the custody of their children; admitting women to institutions of higher learning and the professions; and permitting women to vote, hold office, and serve on juries – dovetailed with the needs of black people, who also lacked a wide range of civil rights.

Suffrage priorities – whether or not to support the Fifteenth Amendment giving black males the right to vote without any mention of women – split reformers. From the breach emerged two competing woman suffrage communities – the National Woman Suffrage Association headed by Stanton and Anthony, which supported universal voting, and the American Woman Suffrage Association led by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, which supported black voting first. Each sought the blessing of Sojourner Truth.

After the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment that gave constitutional status to the emancipation of all slaves, the organized movement of abolitionism broke up. For William Lloyd Garrison, longtime president of the American Anti-Slavery Society and Truth’s previous ally, Confederate defeat and the Thirteenth Amendment closed the work of abolition. Many others, including Truth and Wendell Phillips, who then became president of the society, saw black suffrage as necessary to sustain emancipation. The passage of black codes by southern legislatures virtually reinstalled slavery, and the rape and murder of black Republicans by white supremacists demonstrated that by itself emancipation would not bring freedom to blacks.

In this climate of violent reaction, the American Anti-Slavery Society concentrated on the radical Republican goal of enfranchising black men. Blacks were the strongest supporters of the Union and the Republican party in the South, but black women could not be enfranchised without giving the vote to much larger numbers of southern white women, who would probably vote Democratic. Soon Congress with its heavy Republican majorities wrote and passed further constitutional amendments, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth, which the states ratified between 1865 and 1870.

In this setting of political progress, universal suffrage supporters formed the Equal Rights Association, an organization important to Sojourner Truth. While she and many other abolitionists agreed with Douglass that “this hour belongs to the Negro,” she also supported woman suffrage in tandem with black male suffrage (Hewitt, 207). Attending meetings in 1866 in Boston and New York, Truth championed rights for blacks and for women in the name of black women.

In the 1866 meetings both attended, Truth sounded vexing themes – themes of race and gender that are still with us. Truth questioned whether formal emancipation in 1865 had given black men an advantage over white women. She also said no to the question would the vote, of itself, satisfy the needs of all women. Truth pointed to the persistence of class discrimination and discrimination in the lives of poor black women. Truth with other abolitionist saw the necessity for continuing the work of emancipation in the South. She also refused to separate her sex from her race. Black women were women, she insisted; their concerns were women’s issues, just as the concerns of white women were women’s issues. Most abolitionists were content to pretend that woman suffrage meant the same thing to women of all races whether black, white, or red. Truth shredded the pretense, however, she never attacked white women directly.

When the leaders of the National Woman Suffrage Association spoke of black women, they usually demeaned black men. In the 1860s – as in later times – black women occasionally found white champions, but often at the expense of black men. Paulina Wright Davis, for instance, claimed that freedwomen did not want to marry freedmen out of fear of losing their children and their earnings (Hertha ,112). Black women were smarter than black men, Davis held, because they had learned from their mistresses. Black men, she said, had learned from their masters and wanted only to whip their wives.

When Truth pointed to the weaknesses of black men as an argument for black women’s legal and economic rights, she focused more on money than personal violence. Recalling the refugees in Washington and perhaps the husbands of her hardworking daughters in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived, she depicted black men as strutting idlers: “when the women come home, they ask for their money and take it all, and then scold because there is no food” (Stetson & David, 178). Money and its control by husbands was the context of her famous quote: “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” (Stetson & David, 178).  Because the vote could be a means of passing legislation to protect wages, Truth argued that she wanted to keep agitating for woman suffrage before federal policy hardened. White women needed the vote, but black women needed it even more, having less education and a more limited choice of jobs. “[W]ashing,” she said, “is about as high as a colored woman gets” (Stetson & David, 180). Such legal and economic suffrage arguments sprang from her personal experience.

Her view of women’s need for legal rights contained another jab at men, but men of a different standing, who were well-educated white lawyers. In Ulster and Westchester counties, and Washington, D.C., she had been in court three times, and from this personal experience came her view that “in the courts women have no right, no voice; nobody speaks for them. I wish woman to have her voice there among the pettifoggers” (). As a poor working woman, Truth knew life at the bottom of the economic ladder. Even as she acknowledged, like Harper and other leaders of the suffrage movement, political inferiority to poor men, Truth felt needs more economic than political. She returned repeatedly to a theme she had sounded as early as 1851: her right to equal remuneration because she worked like a man. This time she included immigrant women who labored: “I have done a great deal of work; as much as a man, but did not get so much pay. I used to work in the field and bind grain, keeping up with the cradler; but men doing no more, got twice as much pay; so with the German women. They work in the field and so as much work, but do not get the pay. We do as much, we eat as much, we want as much” (Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, vol.2, 189). Truth wanted the independence that comes from having one’s own money. “When we get our rights,” she concluded, “we shall not have to come to you for money, for then we shall have money enough in our own pockets; and may be you will ask us for money” (Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, vol. 2, 193). Truth’s ideas ranged far from the vote but stayed within the prevailing ideology of woman suffrage, equating women’s voting with a recasting of the entire political economy.

Throughout her activity and career as abolitionist and fighter for women’s right, Sojourner Truth argued that sexism was grounded in economic inequality; that women had to be freed of their own stereotypes of pure womanhood in order to realize themselves as women; that voting rights, while they should not have to do with gender, should not have to do with class or race. In doing so, Truth shaped and enriched a tradition of black feminist activism extending into our own time. In her great statement of the problems of black working women in their families, Truth recognized a critical juncture in the relations of black women and black men, emerging from changes in their legal and economic conditions: “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” (Fitch ; Mandziuk, 53). In her attack on sexism in the black working family, Truth argued that the solution to structural problems in the postwar black family was a radical economic one: equal pay for equal work. Grounded in the conditions of labor of black women both enslaved and free, Truth’s feminism always expressed her solidarity with the brigades who labored in the fields and went out washing, cooking, and cleaning for other people. In judging male-female inequity, Truth emphasized that the inequity within the black family was part of the greater inequity in society, which showed itself dramatically in the inequity between white and black women.