Women in history

The Truth about Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth is an American heroine. She fought for the abolition of slavery and for rights for women. Her story is told in American classrooms, her picture is featured on U.S. stamps, and quotes attributed to her are repeated over and over again. But almost everything we know about her is secondhand and many of her pictures and quotes are distorted or even downright false.

Sojourner Truth is the name she chose for herself after having lived half a lifetime as Isabella Baumfree or Isabella Von Wagener. Born in 1797, or thereabouts, in New York State, Isabella was a household slave for about thirty years of her life. Her first language was Dutch, not English, just as it was for many of the inhabitants of upstate New York at that time.

When slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, Isabella was legally freed. However, after being freed, ex-slaves still owed their former masters several years of labor. Isabella decided in 1826 that she had repaid her owner sufficiently and she walked away from his household carrying her infant daughter. She moved in with a nearby anti-slavery family who negotiated a bargain with her former owner to pay off her labor obligations. To the surprise of many, she remained friendly with her former owner and his family for years afterward. Her experiences as a slave in New York were dramatically different from those of the Southern slaves who were part of the widespread plantation society.

Although she had very little education and never learned to read or write, Sojourner Truth had an impressive physical appearance, a mesmerizing eloquence, and an abundance of courage. When she discovered that her young son, Peter, had been sold illegally to a Southern slave owner, she sued for his freedom, thus becoming the first African American woman to sue a white man in court and win.

Shortly after Truth had gained her freedom, she became an ardent Christian, embracing the emotional religion of the Methodists. Throughout her life Truth remained strongly religious, becoming a disciple of several charismatic religious leaders. After she moved to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper, she became acquainted with the many of the most prominent free blacks in the city’s religious community.

In 1843 Isabella’s life changed. She named herself Sojourner Truth because she felt called to spend her life urging people to embrace Jesus. She joined a religious community in Massachusetts and began her career as a preacher supporting abolition and women’s rights. Her remarkable physical appearance—she was almost six feet tall—combined with her deep, far-reaching voice, made her a memorable presence wherever she appeared.

Sojourner Truth’s most famous speech, usually remembered as her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, was given at a women’s right conference in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Her speech was reported a month later in the Anti-Slavery Bugle by Rev. Marius Robinson who attended the conference. In his report, and other contemporary reports, no one mentioned her ever asking the question “Ain’t I a woman?” It would be another decade before that question appeared in print.

Anti-slavery coin 1830s

The record of Sojourner Truth’s life has been shaped by the people to whom she entrusted her story. Unfortunately, the gulf between her and the white women who recorded her story was almost unbridgeable, so the written accounts of her life and experiences were often distorted. During the 1850s, Truth dictated her autobiography to Olive Gilbert, who wrote the book that was later published as the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a book that is still widely available today.

Harriet Beecher Stowe also played a part in publicizing the life of Truth. She wrote an article that appeared in the Atlantic magazine in 1863 called “Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl”. Stowe’s version of the story presents Truth speaking in a Southern dialect as in this exchange:

“Well, Sojourner, did you always go by this name?”

“No, ‘deed! My name was Isabella; but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa’n’t goin’ to keep nothin’ of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked Him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them. Afterwards I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people.

But of course, Sojourner Truth never spoke in this Southern dialect. She had never visited the South and never even seen a plantation. Although we have no recordings, she no doubt spoke in the clipped upstate New York accent that she had learned as a child.

In May 1863, a version of Sojourner Truth’s most famous speech was published by Truth’s friend, Frances Dana Gage, but unlike Rev. Robinson’s account of the speech, it was given in exaggerated Southern dialect and featured the question “Ar’nt I a Woman?” Despite its inaccuracy, this was the version of the speech that has been republished over and over again. It is still the one most people remember. We have no recordings of the original speech, but an account of the changes and recordings of the two versions can be found at The Sojourner Truth Project.

During the Civil War, Sojourner Truth recruited soldiers for the Union army. After the war she organized a project to resettle former slaves in Kansas, but was unable to get government funding for her efforts.  She never gave up trying until her death in 1883.

Much of reliable information we have about Sojourner Truth’s life comes from the biography written by Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth; A Life; A Symbol (1997; rev. 2018). Not only does Painter tell the story of a remarkable woman’s life, she also paints a vivid picture of what life was like for both white and African American people throughout much of the 19th century. Reading Painter’s historical account added a great deal to my understanding of the painful controversies that convulsed the country at that time. I highly recommend the book, especially because many of the struggles of those years continue today.

A Radical Message from a Quiet Voice–Lucretia Mott

Visitors to the Capital Building in Washington D.C. can view an austere marble sculpture featuring three pioneers in the struggle for women’s rights. Standing at the front of the group is a demure women in a Quaker bonnet—Lucretia Mott, a woman whose mild appearance is at odds with the fiery spirit that guided her life. She was a rebel who proclaimed her controversial opinions fiercely and effectively for more than half a century.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott

Born Lucretia Coffin on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts in 1793, Lucretia became aware of the inequality faced by women while she was still very young. When she began teaching as a 17-year-old, she quickly noticed that the male teachers were paid far more than women were. She never forgot that.

It was while she was teaching that she met her future husband, James Mott. The two were married in 1811 in Philadelphia where her family had moved after leaving Nantucket and its shrinking whaling industry. James started a business and the young couple became active in the Philadelphia Quaker Meeting and soon began raising a family.

At Quaker meetings, unlike most religious groups at that time, women as well as men were allowed to speak to the group. Lucretia was such an inspiring speaker that she was soon appointed a Minister, which among Quakers was an honorary, unpaid position.

Lucretia Mott

The most contentious issue of the day was slavery, and Pennsylvania, a free state bordering two slave states, was in the middle of the debate. Although most Quakers were anti-slavery, they differed in how to support abolition. Some advocated a gradual freeing of slaves, some wanted former slaves to be resettled in Africa. Lucretia soon identified herself as one of the more radical Quakers advocating an immediate end to slavery and a full integration of former slaves into American life. To hasten the end of slavery, Lucretia refused to buy products made or harvested by slaves—sugar from the West Indies and cotton from the Southern slave states—even though her children and her husband sometimes complained about her decision.

As her children grew older, Lucretia was able to devote more of her time to social activism. She worked tirelessly for abolition and helped to found the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-slavery Society, a group that lasted longer than any other women’s anti-slavery group in America.

In 1838, Lucretia participated in the week-long celebration of the opening of Philadelphia Hall as a major center for anti-slavery groups. Many Philadelphians objected to interracial meetings. Some yelled insults at participants to protest the presence of mixed-race groups in their city. When Lucretia gave her talk to a women’s group, her listeners could hear men and boys gathering outside the hall, threatening violence. The African American women in the audience were even more fearful than the white women that they might be targeted. To protect everyone, all the women, black and white, linked arms and walked outside together. Violence was averted that night, but the struggle was far from over.

The World Anti-Slavery Conference held in London in 1840 marked a turning point in Lucretia Mott’s life. Although she was already an outstanding spokesperson for the anti-slavery movement, neither she nor any of the other women who attended the meeting were allowed to participate in the conference. All of the women were required to sit in a separate section of the room where they could listen to the men make speeches. Despite this slap in the face, Lucretia benefited from attending the meetings because it was there that she met the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The two soon became close friends.

World Anti-slavery Conference 1840

Together Stanton and Mott organized a meeting in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, a meeting which is usually considered the official start of the campaign for women’s right to vote. At the close of the meeting, both of them signed the Declaration of Sentiments, a document that concluded with these words: 

Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation—in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.

Together Lucretia Mott, the quiet little Quaker, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her more flamboyant friend, energized the women’s rights movement in America for the next half century. Neither of them lived to see women win the right to vote, but neither of them ever gave up the struggle. If you’d like to read more about Lucretia Mott, there is an excellent recent biography by Carol Faulkner called Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America.

As for the sculpture in the Capital that honors women’s rights, that too had a long, painful path to achieve its present position. It was unveiled in 1921, but soon moved to the Crypt of the Capitol where it stood among the brooms and mops stored there. In 1995, women’s groups finally pushed Congress to vote for its return to the Rotunda. And it was finally moved there in 1997.

Winning the right to vote required great courage, persistence, and patience on the part of many women. Like those I mentioned in previous blogs, Abigail Adams, and the Grimke Sisters, Lucretia Mott deserves to be remembered as one of the strongest and most dedicated of the pioneers in women’s suffrage.

Sisters against Slavery

As I noted in my last blog post, when America’s Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they did not address the question of whether women should be allowed to vote. Although Abigail Adams urged them to consider the rights of women, they laughed that idea off. Instead, they turned their attention to a big question the new country had to face—whether or not its citizens should be allowed to own slaves. That issue continued to grow as the 19th century began. And it had an overwhelming impact on the question of women’s rights.

By 1804, the states were almost equally divided between those which allowed slavery and those that outlawed it. The movement to abolish all slavery in America began in the northern states and by the 1820s a number of people in Pennsylvania and New England were speaking out about the evils of slavery. Although almost all Southerners supported slavery, there were a few who opposed it. Among the anti-slavery Southerners, two women stand out—Angelina and Sarah Grimke. They became the only known Southern women to work actively for the abolitionist movement.

Blake-Grimke House, 321 E. Bay St. Charleston Historic District Charleston County Photo By: Kate Stojsavljevic, Clemson University Graduate Program in HP

The Grimke sisters were born in Charleston, South Carolina, into a wealthy slave-owning family. Sarah was the older, born in 1792, while Angelina, the youngest of the family’s 14 children, was born in 1805.  Although their brothers and sisters accepted the traditional slave-owning views of their family, Sarah and Angelina rebelled. They were both devoutly religious and decided that Christian beliefs were incompatible with owning slaves. Teaching slaves to read was forbidden in South Carolina, but nonetheless the two of them enraged their father by secretly teaching some of their household slaves to read.

Eventually both Sarah and Angelina Grimke decided that living in the South was incompatible with their moral beliefs, so they moved to Philadelphia where they joined the Quakers and became active in the anti-slavery movement. Angelina admired the anti-slavery writings of William Lloyd Garrison, but when she wrote him a letter of support, he published it in his magazine The Liberator. Even though her opinions were compatible with the views of most Quakers, she was disciplined for speaking out without permission.

The idea of women speaking in public, especially when there were men in the audience, remained controversial even in the abolitionist movement. As both Angelina and Sarah Grimke became well known speakers for the anti-slavery movement, they drew more and more criticism. Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote that women should remain silent and let men speak for the cause. In response, Angelina wrote a series of letters to Beecher asking for an explanation of exactly what a woman’s role should be. In one of her letters she wrote:

No one has yet found out just where the line of separation between them [men and women] should be drawn, and for this simple reason, that no one knows just how far below man woman is, whether she be a head shorter in her moral responsibilities, or head and shoulders, or the full length of his noble stature, below him, i.e. under his feet.  

None of the traditionalists could answer Angelina’s question to her satisfaction, so the Grimke sisters continued to be active public speakers in the anti-slavery movement. Angelina met her future husband, Theodore Dwight Weld, at an anti-slavery convention in 1836. Although Weld supported the activism of both Grimke sisters, he discouraged them from continuing their public speaking. Nonetheless because the invitations continued to arrive, neither sister completely gave up speaking before both men and women.

Abolitionist meeting

In 1838, Angelina spoke about the anti-slavery movement before the Massachusetts Legislature, thus becoming the first woman to address such a body. She also defended a woman’s right to petition as both a moral and political right. Because women could not vote, petitioning a governing body was the only means by which they could influence legislative policy and assert their status as citizens. Over time, Angelina’s speeches came to focus more on women’s rights than on abolition.

After Angelina and her husband had children, she stepped back from public speaking and devoted more of her time to correspondence and taking care of the household. Theodore Weld had serious economic problems, so he and his wife decided to open a school to support their growing family. Sarah moved in with them and both sisters taught at the school.

In1870, after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment which stated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State…”.  Angelina and Sarah Grimke took their last public action. Both of them had grown old by this time but nonetheless they made their way to the polls during a blinding snowstorm to cast their votes. Men and boys jeered at them for the attempt, but because they were elderly women, they were not arrested. Neither, of course, were they allowed to vote. Nonetheless at least they had tried.

When the Grimke sisters died, women were still not considered full citizens. That victory would have to wait for younger generations. But in their lifetimes, both Angelina and Sarah Grimke pushed the country a little closer to acknowledging that women should indeed be allowed to be active participants in the country.

Carrying the Torch for Immigration

This week, as usual, has been filled with chatter about what people in Washington are saying about immigration. Several people commented on the familiar poem by Emma Lazarus especially the final words, which are framed as a quotation from the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”.  

Statue of Liberty

Who was Emma Lazarus and why did she write those words? Well, one thing is certain, she wasn’t thinking about the current immigration debate. Born in 1849 in New York City, Lazarus came from a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family which had been settled in America since before the American Revolution. Lazarus was educated at home by tutors. She studied German and French as well as American and British literature and started writing poetry while she was very young perhaps inspired by the fact that her great-great-grandmother had been a poet.

Lazarus published her first book of poems and translations when she was eighteen and became a successful writer while she was still in her twenties. She published translations from European literature including works by Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich Heine, and Victor Hugo. She also wrote novels and plays. Her work was admired by critics such as William Cullen Bryant and was  well-received by readers.

The Lazarus family, including Emma, was part of a cosmopolitan social world in New York and did not attend religious services or participate very much in Jewish events until the 1880s.  It was the pogroms in Russia, which followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, that awakened Lazarus to the danger facing many Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. Lazarus became an activist, working to help the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who fled to the United States during the last decades of the nineteenth century. She volunteered to work with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society and also helped to found a technical high school for immigrants.

While Emma Lazarus was pursuing her writing career, other people were promoting the idea of building a Statue of Liberty. In 1865, Edouard de Laboulaye, a French philosopher and a strong abolitionist, had proposed that a monument be built as a gift from France to the United States. He wanted the statue to commemorate the perseverance of freedom and democracy in the United States and to honor the work of the late president Abraham Lincoln. Ten years later, in 1875, an agreement was reached by which France would pay for the statue while Americans would provide the pedestal on which it would be installed.

Fundraising is never easy and the Americans who supported the building of the statue tried a number of ways to finance it. President Grover Cleveland was asked to give $50,000 of public money to help pay for the pedestal, but he refused. Congress also refused to authorize any payment. The money would have to come from ordinary citizens. Fundraisers then got the idea of holding an auction of art and manuscripts to support the effort. It was at this point that Emma Lazarus was asked to write a poem to be donated to the auction. The sonnet she wrote was “The New Colossus“, a copy of which is now enshrined in the pedestal of the statue.

Although Emma Lazarus is now the poet most closely identified with the Statue of Liberty and with immigration, she did not live long enough to know about the honor given her work. She was not mentioned when the statue was installed in 1886, and her poem was not engraved and placed inside the pedestal until 1903. By then Emma Lazarus had died, probably of leukemia, in 1887 at the age of 38. Her poem about immigration and the role it has played in the development of America, however, remains very much alive and people still quarrel about its meaning.  

Cooperating across Borders to Save the World

The news has been so filled with disaster stories these past weeks that it’s hard to decide which of them to worry about first. But probably the one that tells us about the greatest threat to the world is the story of disastrous climate change. A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us about how changing weather conditions may affect the food supplies of millions of people. Scientists and governments will have to work together to help people make changes that may save many of us from starvation.

Sometimes we forget that science has always been international. The search for knowledge about the natural world and the forces that control it has ignored national boundaries and spread to governments and people worldwide. Some of the best examples of scientific cooperation came about a couple of centuries ago when America was seen, from the European viewpoint, as a new country. Botanists were among the early explorers who discovered and described the plants and animals that Native Americans had long known about but were unknown in other counties. Last year, I wrote a post about David Hosack, an early botanist who shared his knowledge and his plants with scientists across Europe.

Botany was recognized as an important science because at that time most medical treatments depended on using medicines derived from plants. Fortunately, it was also a science that did not require expensive equipment or training. One of the earliest American botanists was a woman who lived and died years before the United States was formed.

Jane Colden

Jane Colden was born in Orange County, New York, in the Hudson River Valley in 1724. Her parents had emigrated from Scotland and the family lived on a large estate where they observed many plants and animals unfamiliar to them. Jane was an intelligent and curious child and even though women were not generally encouraged to embark on serious studies, her father helped her to study and draw the plants that surrounded them. He also taught her the system developed by the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, to classify plants.

Jane soon began corresponding with botanists in both Europe and America. She was a skilled illustrator and developed a technique for making ink impressions of leaves. Between 1753 and 1758, she catalogued more than 300 species of plants that she found in the area near her home. She also asked Native Americans and some of the Dutch settlers in the region about medicinal uses for these plants and was able to share that information with other scientists. Her scientific work was cut short when she married and a few years later died, apparently in childbirth, at the age of 42. Unfortunately, few of her letters have been preserved and we know about Jane Colden mainly through comments about her written by better-known botanists. Her only remaining manuscript is at the British Museum in London.

Jane Colden drawings

It is inspiring to read about the way Jane Colden and other 18th century scientists exchanged information and specimens across national boundaries. Without these exchanges, difficult though communication was in those days, science would not have enriched the lives of so many people. Have we lost the ability to do that just when global cooperation is most urgently needed?

Now that we have established lightning-fast communication that allows information to flow across the globe, it is time for many countries to work together even more than in the past. The threats brought by global warming require worldwide cooperation. Let’s hope the scientists and private citizens will be able to keep the work going without allowing political struggles to build walls between countries. Tariffs and secrecy may protect corporations but they often work against the welfare of ordinary people who depend on shared knowledge to maintain their wellbeing. We have to remember that we’re all in this together on one small, troubled planet.    

Are men mature enough to handle presidential debates?

Almost all of the news comments on the Democrats’ debates held this past week mentioned that for the first time women were a prominent part of the lineup. Ever since Samuel Johnson made his famous quip about women preaching in public, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all” women have had to prove themselves worthy of speaking out in public settings.

After all, it was more than a century after the establishment of the United States that a woman was first elected to Congress. That was Jeannette Rankin, who was elected from Montana in 1913. Rankin had become a public figure by her work in the women’s suffrage movement. Before running for Congress, she had been the first woman to speak before the Montana state legislature. There she urged that women should be allowed to vote. She succeeded in getting the vote for Montana women and moved on to fight for a national vote on suffrage.

Jeannette Rankin

Women had been fighting for the right to vote since 1848 and it was through the struggle to win that right that many women became accustomed to speaking in public and making their voices heard. They had many years of struggle, because it wasn’t until 1920 that the Women’s Suffrage amendment was finally ratified.

Women have served in Congress now for more than 100 years, but their move into power positions has been very slow. It’s hard to believe that in 1984, it was considered daring for the Democrats to nominate Geraldine Ferraro as their vice-presidential candidate. She was the first woman to appear in national debates before the election and her appearance was a welcome change for many voters, although of course, her team did not win the presidency.

Last week’s debates, however, showed a distinct change in the power structure of the debates. Many of the male candidates thought their best way to win attention (and potentially votes) was to interrupt as often as possible and take over the argument. But on Thursday night they were put in their place by Kamela Harris who had one of the most-quoted lines of the debate, “The American people don’t want to watch a food fight. They want us to put food on the table.” And a few minutes later she made a stinging attack on Joe Biden—no one interrupted her then.

And Harris wasn’t the only woman who raised the level of the debates. Elizabeth Warren, during the first debate, stuck to her points and talked substance instead of yelling and interrupting. And we can’t forget Amy Klobucher who quietly mentioned that the three women on the debate stage had far longer records than the men in fighting for reproductive rights for all women.

There is no question that women today are ready to speak out about national policies. Perhaps the more relevant question today is: are men ready to engage with them on a level that will benefit all of us?

Women on the Money-Harriet Tubman

Four years ago I wrote a blog post about the initiative being undertaken by the Treasury Department to update the twenty dollar bill by replacing the picture of Andrew Jackson with a woman—the first woman to be honored on a major currency in America. The United States has lagged behind the rest of the world in having women pictured on currency. Dead white men have monopolized U.S. currency ever since the country began issuing money. But now we have a chance to move into the 21st century. Let’s not lose it.

After several years of work on the project, The Treasury Department came up with a plan to design a new twenty dollar bill the most commonly used paper currency—the one that comes out of the ATM each time we go to our bank to replenish our supply of cash.

The new design features Harriet Tubman, a 19th century activist who helped many Americans escape from slavery and begin their journey to freedom. The plan was to release the new bill in 2020, the one hundredth anniversary of the passing of the suffrage amendment that gave women the right to vote. 

Suddenly last month, the New York Times reported that Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury, announced “the design of the note would be delayed for technical reasons by six years and might not include the former slave and abolitionist”. Further reporting, however, soon revealed that planning for release of the bill was well underway. No convincing reasons have been put forth for delaying the release for another seven years.

Reactions from Congress came quickly. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat from New Hampshire, introduced the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act of 2019, which would compel the Treasury Department to print $20 bills with Tubman’s likeness as soon as 2021.

Perhaps the only way to get Washington to move ahead with its project is for all of us to weigh in on the decision. Andrew Jackson has had his day. It is time for the country to recognize a woman who rescued scores of people from slavery, served as a spy for the Union during the Civil War, and devoted her life to making the lives of others better.

You can help by letting your Senators know you support Senator Shaheen’s bill. Perhaps it would also be a good idea to contact the Treasury Department and let Secretary Mnuchin know Americans are watching and hoping that the promise made to release the new bill in 2020 will be kept.