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.
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.
Sexism is alive and well in America. We all know that.
Just this week President Trump’s nominee for a post on the Federal Reserve Board had to withdraw his candidacy because of nasty remarks he has made about women over the years. The only surprise is not what he said, but the fact that he was called out for those remarks. Over the years, over the centuries really, powerful men, including our current President have suffered no penalty at all for insulting women.
When did things start to change? If you depend on the media to tell you, the story will probably be about the Me-too movement of the last few years. The backlash against powerful men who thought they could exploit women has been much publicized since the first accusations surfaced a few years ago. But it turns out that women’s power has been an important factor in American political life for more than 100 years.
I know this now because I just finished reading Patricia Miller’s 2018 book Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took On Washington. Miller tells the story of Madeline Pollard who in 1893 sued a prominent Kentucky Congressman for breach of promise of marriage. Such cases were not unknown, because marriage was almost the only chance women had to obtain a secure life. But things were changing. It was a time when more and more women had to find a way to make a living, even though most jobs and professions were closed to them. Unfortunately, many men, including some of the most prominent citizens, found it easy to take advantage of women and girls who were trying to build their own lives.
Madeline Pollard was an ambitious young woman in her late teens or early twenties (there are still many unanswered questions about her life) who was trying to get an education. She met Congressman William Breckenridge, member of one of Kentucky’s most prominent families and a veteran of the Confederate Army, while she was travelling on a train to her school. He introduced himself to her, she asked him for advice, one thing led to another and soon she became his mistress. This was no short affair. It lasted for eleven years and through the birth of two babies (both of whom died) before his wife died.
Unfortunately, by the time he became a widower, Breckinridge was very short of money and needed a marriage to a wealthy, socially prominent woman to move ahead in his political career. But he had reckoned without Madeline. Unlike most women in her position, she was unwilling to give up and be silent about what he had promised.
Miller tells the story of how Madeline gradually found supporters and brought her suit against Breckenridge. Up until the very end, the Congressman did not seem to realize that he could be held responsible. When he lost the suit, he confidently announced that he would run for Congress again and gathered his usual team of supporters around him.
To the amazement of the politicians, it was the women of Kentucky who finally defeated Breckenridge. Scores of women marched in protest against him. Even though they could not vote, they warned their husbands, brothers, and sons not to give Breckenridge another term in office. And they won! He never again served in Congress.
One final mystery that Miller clears up in her book was the source of money that made it possible for Pollard to pay the cost of going to court. It appears that there were several wealthy widows who financed the trial. They never announced their support, but they provided the resources needed to eventually bring down the Colonel.
That certainly sounds to me like a good message for women today. It will be women standing up for other women that will finally succeed in combatting the double standards that have for so long limited women’s participation in society And if you need some encouragement along the way, you might want to read Bringing Down the Colonel and cheer on Madeline Pollard and her supporters who were among the first to enlist for the cause.
Last Monday we celebrated Labor Day, but the day did not offer much reason for working people to celebrate. The president struck a blow at the spirit of the day by cancelling scheduled salary increases for federal workers, citing a need to save money. It seems that the tax breaks for executives and corporations have to be paid for by workers lower in the hierarchy.
Still, there are bright spots on the horizon. This week we have also had a chance to see a
number of women who are working hard to protect all Americans. Even though women were the last major group of citizens to be given the right to vote in the United States, they have finally come into their own as powerful voices for all of us.
The week started with the presentation of the documentary film, The Notorious RBG, a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has devoted much of her career to persuading her fellow judges of the importance of women’s rights. When Justice Ginsburg completed law school and looked for positions, she found that women were consistently discriminated against in employment. She was turned down for a clerkship on the Supreme Court because, she was told, women just were not appointed to such positions. When she was hired to teach at Rutgers law school, she was frankly told that she would be paid less than a man would be because women did not have families to support.
Over the years, Justice Ginsburg has worked patiently, supporting small changes such as using “gender” instead of “sex” when talking about discrimination. It’s a small change, but it has moved discussion away from the emotion-laden word “sex” to a more neutral term.
Gradually Justice Ginsburg and others have gained acceptance for the idea that women and men should be paid equally for equal work and hired for their skills rather than
their gender. And women must be allowed to speak out on issues of importance. Having a voice and speaking out is an important part of being a citizen.
If you ever want a quick refresher in the history of how women have been silenced over the years, you should read Mary Beard’s short book called Women; a Manifesto. Beard, a well- known classical scholar, tells how women’s voices have been silenced over the centuries. Perhaps it started with Telemachus, the
young son of Odysseus, when he rebukes his mother for expressing an opinion: “go back up into your quarters” he said. “Speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”
But women are no longer willing to be silenced. It has taken hundreds of years to develop their voices, but at last we are seeing it happen. More women are running for elective positions in 2018 than have ever run before. And this week we were able to see some of the results.
At the Senate Judicial Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, some of the most memorable questions came from Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamela Harris. Whatever the outcome of the appointment may be, thousands of people across the country have had the satisfaction of seeing troublesome questions raised—questions about a woman’s right to choose, about limitations on presidential powers, and about the future of health care in America. Women spoke and attention was paid.
Now it is up to all of us to keep on speaking up—with our votes, with our actions, and with our voices. Democracy is not a spectator sport.
Although it will be more than a year before we face another presidential election, the media is already filled with stories of men and women who have declared themselves candidates. You may think we have quite a few colorful and unusual candidates in this cycle, but have you ever heard about the candidate from the past who spent Election Day in jail and who wasn’t allowed to vote?Victoria Woodhull
The year was 1872, and the candidate was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman who declared she wanted to be president of
the United States. Her presidential campaign raised questions from the time it started. Whether it was legal or not is still an undecided question. Victoria and other members of her Equal Rights party claimed that women were defined as citizens in the U.S. Constitution and they had the right to vote and run for office. She based her claim on the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Women are persons and are therefore entitled to vote. The argument persuaded some people, especially women who had never been allowed to vote whether they were citizens or not.
And who was Victoria Woodhull? Born in Ohio in 1838, she had grown up in an unstable and impoverished family. She declared she had been “a child without a childhood” because her father had put his daughters to work as soon as he realized they could tell fortunes and claim healing powers. Victoria escaped from him by running away at 15 to get married, but the husband she chose was as shiftless as her father. He quickly became an alcoholic and a philanderer. Fed up with his neglect and dependence, Victoria divorced him and decided to make life on her own terms with her two children.
Some women in those circumstances might have struggled to maintain respectability by turning to teaching, but respectability was not high on the list of Victoria’s priorities. She had discovered spirituality and believed in her power to foresee events to come. Her sister Tennessee was also a clairvoyant and both sisters were quite willing to use their talents as well as their sexual appeal to earn money. Both were at various times accused of being prostitutes, but they were clever enough to use their sexual availability to their advantage. During the late 19th century when a married woman could lose her husband, children, and livelihood by a single slip into adultery, while married men were free to consort with prostitutes and enjoy their sexual adventures without losing anything. Tennessee and Victoria claimed the same privilege.
Following Victoria Woodhull’s trail offers some tantalizing clues about what 19th century America was like. Who knew that these women in their long skirts and corsets were asking the same questions we are asking today? Certainly I had never known how much Victoria’s spiritualist beliefs influenced the women’s rights movement. She was not the only member of the group who believed that spirits speaking to them from beyond the grave gave them ideas for their campaign. Spiritualism, which had started about 1848, the same year of the first Women’s Rights Convention, attracted many American radicals. Campaigners for both abolition of slavery and for women’s rights tended to gravitate toward the group because it welcomed new ideas and encouraged individualistic thinking. Victoria Woodhull first gained fame, and made a living, by going into trances and predicting what would happen in the future. She believed firmly that spirits spoke directly to her and guided her in her life. Perhaps it was only natural that people who lived unconventional lives were attracted to the idea that they could find truth on their own with the help of spirits rather than through conventional religion with its unbending rules.
Whether or not Victoria found the truth in spiritualism, she certainly found worldly success. At least she, her second husband, Captain Blood, and her sister Tennessee Claflin became rich through their association with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria and her sister met Vanderbilt, whose wife had recently died, when they moved to New York. Victoria and Tennie (as she was called) charmed the elderly Vanderbilt, who had been famous for being attracted to beautiful women. When Victoria began to offer him advice about investments, he decided to set up the two sisters as brokers. Their unconventional business attracted many customers and they made a great deal of money for themselves. Perhaps it was Victoria’s business success that gave her the courage to enter political life.
Victoria Woodhull’s declaration that she would be a candidate for President of the United States was a bold move that electrified voters in 1870. In May 1872, the name of Victoria’s People’s Party was changed to the Equal Rights Party. The party officially nominated Victoria for president and she chose Frederick Douglass, the well-known ex-slave and public speaker, as her vice-presidential running mate. (He later said that he had never heard anything about it.) Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Isabella Beecher Hooker, strong supporters of women’s right to vote, supported Victoria’s candidacy, but neither of them believed she had a chance to be president. Because Victoria’s spirit counselors had told her she was destined for high office, she herself firmly believed she would win. This was the first presidential election in which women’s suffrage was an issue, because it was the first one held after the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.
While the three different suffrage groups were arguing among themselves, the traditional political parties also struggled over their candidates. Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, was seeking a second term, but the so-called Liberal Republicans split from the main party and nominated Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune. Greeley also got the Democratic nomination. After the turmoil of nominations the campaign itself was one of the most bitterly-fought campaigns in American history.
Victoria’s unquestioning faith in her spirits led her astray when it came to politics. In the end it wasn’t the search for voting rights that brought her down, it was the familiar question about sexual purity and scandal. Victoria and her sisters had lurid pasts compared to those of the other women leading the suffrage movement, but these respectable women also had many secrets to hide. The intrigues and infidelities of leading male citizens touched the lives of their wives as well as their mistresses. Henry Ward Beecher, a distinguished minister and civic leader, was especially vulnerable. His sister Isabella Beecher Hooker was one of Victoria’s strongest supporters, but when rumors about her brother started circulating, she was torn. Unfortunately, Victoria, because of her friendships with brothel managers and prostitutes, knew many of the most scandalous stories in New York.
Victoria Woodhull believed in sexual freedom, as many of the suffragettes did, but she practiced it more than many others. This made her vulnerable to political opponents who spread stories about her and pilloried her in the press. Thomas Nast in his cartoons made her a special target as “Mrs. Satan”. After that cartoon appeared Victoria’s political life was dead. Her speaking engagements were cancelled and her supporters fled to other candidates. Embittered by the desertions, Victoria finally printed an article revealing the affairs of Henry Ward Beecher and other leading citizens. This is what led to her arrest and was the reason she spent Election Day in jail rather than at the polls. Some of the women’s suffrage leaders did attempt to vote; Susan B. Anthony cast a ballot, but her vote was not counted and she was given a $100 fine for the attempt. The election which seemed to promise vindication for women’s rights proved to be a miserable failure for them.
Today, as we look back from the enormous new freedoms in sex and marriage that have been gained over the last hundred years and more, it’s hard to know what to think of Victoria Woodhull. She pioneered many of the ideas we now accept as desirable. Who would go back to the bad old days when women weren’t allowed to vote or manage their own money or divorce their husbands and keep custody of the children? At the same time, we have to admit that Victoria would have been a terrible president. Going into trances and listening to the voices of spirits got her a long way, but they probably wouldn’t have provided a clue about how to reconcile the North and South after the long destruction of the Civil War. We can admire her spirit in making public some of the sins of hypocrites who were running the country, but we have to admit that her unsavory activities (and her disreputable family) set back the suffrage by decades. Women didn’t finally get the vote in the United States until the passage of the 19th amendment 1920.
My next book, the second in the Charlotte Edgerton Mystery series, Death Visits a Bawdy House, which will be published later this month, dips into some of the same issues that plagued Victoria Woodhull. Charlotte discovers that New York City in 1843 was called Sin City because of the visibility of sexually free women on city streets. Victoria Woodhull would have felt right at home.
Perhaps it is the long curls falling over her cheeks that makes Elizabeth Barrett Browning look like a stereotypical wan, Victorian poet. Although her love sonnets, especially “How do I love thee…” still live on in many readers’ imaginations and are sometimes quoted in wedding toasts, they have become too saccharine for many of us. Poets’ reputations veer up and down almost as quickly as those of basketball coaches or rap artists.
When she died in 1861, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was so popular and admired that when William Wordsworth died, she had been considered as a logical successor as England’s poet laureate. Her book-length poem Aurora Leigh went through twenty editions between its publication in 1857 and 1900. With the new century the wind shifted and there were no more editions of the poem until 1978. Virginia Woolf, who never forgot Barrett Browning, wrote in 1932 that “Nobody reads her, nobody discusses her, nobody troubles to put her in her place.”
Now we are in another century and Elizabeth Barrett Browning is being looked at in a new light—not as a poet of love and harmony, but as a disruptive radical. She spoke out on many social issues including child labor.
The Cry of the Children
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years ?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, —
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows ;
The young birds are chirping in the nest ;
The young fawns are playing with the shadows ;
The young flowers are blowing toward the west—
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly !
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free.
Slavery was another favorite subject of Barrett Browning and her feelings about this were no doubt influenced by her family’s history as slave-owners in Jamaica. Elizabeth was aware, as was the rest of the family, that they had cousins and other relatives who were of mixed African and English blood. Some of the mixed-race children born to slaves on the Jamaican plantation that was home to Elizabeth’s grandfather, were acknowledged, others were not. Elizabeth and her siblings, who were dark skinned, probably had some African blood. Some critics speculate that a desire not to have more mixed-race grandchildren was the reason for Elizabeth’s father’s refusal to let his children marry. Although it’s hard to figure out why a man who did not want grandchildren would produce twelve children of his own.
The fluttering Victorian poet that many of us picture when we see some versions of the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is not the real EBB. She was a woman immersed in the social issues and politics of her own age. After she married Robert
Browning and moved to Italy, she became a staunch defendant of the Italian war for independence from Austria, just as her friend Margaret Fuller was. When she wrote her longest poem Aurora Leigh, she wrote about a woman’s struggle to maintain her independence from the man she loved and the marriage he proposed:
If I married him
I should not dare to call my soul my own
Which so he had bought and paid for: every thought
And every heart-beat down there in the bill.
Her concerns were the same ones that women struggle with today. It’s time to free her from the tyranny of being seen just as a poet of love. A good place to start is with the book Dared and Done: the Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning by Julia Markus. It’s not a complete biography of her life, but a very readable account of her surprisingly happy marriage with another great poet. Together they faced many of the same issues that dual-career families face in the 21st century. It gives us a new picture of what those Victorians were really like.