Isabella was born in the Catskills region of New York, north of New York City and south of Albany, in 1797, when New York was still a slave state. She did hard work in the fields during her early life, building strength and stature that she would point to with pride later in life.
Perhaps the second most important and transformative moment in her life was in 1827-28, when she successfully sued for the return of her five year old son, who had been sold South to Alabama in violation of New York’s gradual emancipation laws. She became the first black person to win this kind of case ever. Her victory was achieved with the help of Isaac and Maria Van Wagener, an antislavery couple who took her in during 1826 (and whose last name she took until the 1840s), the Quakers, and Dutch lawyers in Ulster County, New York. The first most important moment was probably the establishment of her relationship with God, as she would become a fervent believer and evangelist. Using today’s language, we would probably call her a Pentecostal.
Isabelle Wagener “re-branded” herself as Sojourner Truth in 1843.
Sojourner Truth, circa 1870 – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Sojourner Truth would go on to become one of the most prominent black female supporters of abolition and woman’s suffrage in the 19th century. She is certainly one of the most well known black women from the era in modern American memory. Much of that fame stems from her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.
Truth was illiterate, but she developed into a powerful speaker nonetheless. Nell Painter, a Sojourner Truth biographer, notes that fellow negro abolitionist Frederick Douglass described Truth as giving “quaint speeches” that had a “strange compound of wit and wisdom, of wild enthusiasm and flint-like common sense.” In an age where oratory ability and education were held in high esteem, Truth gained fame for having the former, despite lacking the latter.
In 1851, Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, where she gave her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech:
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?
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? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.
An excellent rendition of the speech is given by actress Cicely Tyson: