Friday, April 15, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Sojourner Truth: "Ain't I a Woman?"

Many's the week when I've had trouble finding text of a famous speech by a woman, let alone a video or audio recording. But I don't think there's a better example of  how spotty the record of women's public speaking has been in our history than this one: Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech from the mid-19th century. And that isn't just because of the date in question. We really don't know what she said, as oft-quoted and -taught as this speech is.

A former slave who renamed herself and worked as an abolitionist and public speaker at a time when women in general were often forbidden to speak in public, Truth's most famous speech has had a few "authoritative" versions published. None of them agree. The rhetorical device it's most lauded for--the repetition of "Ain't I a woman?"--doesn't appear at all in the first recorded account. Truth herself could not write, and often dictated her recollections of events or speeches, but not in this case.

This happened more than once to Truth. Some of her most famous lines were later attributed to men and recast as clever and impromptu remarks. (If you've ever heard a speaker say, after a lovely introduction, "I can hardly wait to hear what I have to say," you can credit that to Truth, for example.) And, at the same time, this was a woman who remade herself, her name and often, her age.

Here's the first version of the speech, recorded by a newspaperman and abolitionist in 1851, soon after the women's convention in Ohio where she spoke; he noted at the time that it was "impossible" to record it accurately. Truth was trying to note that privileges extended to white women of the day, and to men, weren't shared with her:
I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can't she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can't take more than our pint'll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won't be so much trouble. I can't read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.
Women later added the "ain't I a woman?" phrase repeated throughout the short talk, and recorded it in a Southern dialect, even though Truth had been raised in New York state, spoke Dutch through most of her youth and didn't use a Southern accent or style of speaking. Facts ranging from the number of her children and the  mood of the audience hearing this speech were changed or exaggerated. These later versions of the speech were widely published again and again, and became the accepted version, despite the lack of evidence. They also formed the basis for Truth's image and legacy. If that's not an argument for taking charge of your speaker image, I don't know what is.

Truth made public speaking her career, and knew some of the leading thinkers and orators of her day. But in pursuing speaking opportunities, she faced plenty of resistance. Hecklers tried to keep her off the program by claiming she was really a man, a common challenge at that time, as no woman could be expected to speak so well as a man.  At one appearance in 1858, Truth, in the face of suggestions she was a man, opened her blouse and bared her breasts to the audience. If all that surprises you, it's important to note that at this time, Harriet Beecher Stowe--the bestselling author of the day, and one who herself reinterpreted Truth's famous speech--sometimes had to let her husband give her talk for her while she sat in the gallery, on her own book tour.

The Sojourner Truth Institute has a wealth of information on Truth and her ill-recorded but much-lauded record of public speaking for you to explore more. I wish I had a recording for you. This would have been a great famous speech to hear in its true form.

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