The story of women’s political activism in America and their battle for voting rights has often pivoted around the 19th Amendment. But in her powerful new work of history, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, Professor Martha S. Jones of Johns Hopkins dramatically expands that story and centers Black women in its telling. She draws out the challenges they faced—and the many strategies they developed in the fight, which hold important lessons for our current moment. In this excerpt, Jones looks at the figure of Sojourner Truth, her battle to define herself on her own terms, and the narrowness of vision she had to fight in order to claim her rightful place in the suffrage movement.
Few who met Sojourner Truth forgot the experience. She was an imposing presence, standing six feet tall and speaking with a Dutch accent she had acquired during her early life in Upstate New York. Truth attracted audiences as a former slave and advocate for abolition and women’s equality, and she eventually commanded the podium with unrivaled frankness, humor, and personal testimony. She once told a story, for example, that included a struggle between her desire for freedom and the need to care for her children. She adorned herself in bonnets, shawls, and, later in life, dresses crafted from fine fabrics. Truth knew that audiences had questions about what kind of woman she was, and she became as deliberate as any woman of the 1850s about crafting her own image. Wasn’t she a woman?
Truth’s early life had been unorthodox. Born enslaved, Truth had claimed her own freedom, endured separation from her children, spent years living in a utopian, free love community, and by the 1840s had finally settled in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she embraced antislavery activism. As she embarked on a political career, Truth hoped audiences would understand her point of view—and so she sat for a series of interviews with a white abolitionist, Olive Gilbert, to whom Truth dictated key episodes of her life story. The resulting Narrative of Sojourner Truth, published in 1850, became a peer to the era’s best-known slave narrative, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a Slave. It also became Truth’s calling card, and she sold the pamphlet on the lecture circuit. But self-definition for a woman unable to read and write was not a straightforward task. Gilbert’s desire to show white Americans the wrongs of slavery did not mesh with Truth’s story about a Black woman’s hardships, losses, and the irreconcilable choices she faced when enslaved. The problem of being spoken for and about by others would haunt Truth’s entire public life.
There was no precedent for the moments when Truth stepped to the podium at the women’s conventions of the 1850s. On the antislavery circuit, Truth had kept the hospitable company of white Americans who evidenced little prejudice. She counted among her friends British antislavery lecturer George Thompson and radical Quakers Isaac and Amy Post of Rochester, New York. Though she never held office, Truth appears to have avoided the ambivalences that had troubled Hester Lane in the American Anti-Slavery Society a decade earlier. These associations, along with her ties to figures like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, buttressed Truth as she became the first Black woman to join the new national women’s movement.
Truth was indeed a first when she arrived in Worcester, Massachusetts, in October 1850—Black women had not been among the women’s meetings of 1848 in Seneca Falls and Rochester, New York. She arrived, the sole delegate representing Northampton, Massachusetts, to face as large an audience as she had ever encountered. Over one thousand people filled Brinkley Hall to capacity, with others milling about outside after being turned away. In Worcester, women presided but shared leadership with men. And they dominated the podium. Others spoke about Truth long before it was her turn. Speakers expressed sympathy for the enslaved. They affirmed their commitments to the antislavery cause. One resolution strongly alluded to the distinct plight of enslaved women as targets of sexual assault: “The claim for woman of all her natural and civil rights, bids us remember the million and a half of slave women at the South, the most grossly wronged and foully outraged of all women.” In Worcester, Truth alone embodied that memory. She finally took her turn and delivered a speech full of biblical allegory that lightly touched upon women’s political rights.
Ill-fitting for Truth was how speakers juxtaposed the condition of “women” against that of “the slave.” President Paulina Davis drew a parallel between “Woman” and “the contented slave” as two figures who had not yet claimed their rights. Abby Price lamented how, in “many countries,” women “were reduced to the condition of a slave” and decried how “the very being of a woman, like that of a slave, is absorbed in her master!” Price especially implored men: “Will you...dim the crown of [your sisters’ and wives’] womanhood, and make them slaves?” Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not attend the Worcester meeting, but her letter to the convention echoed the sentiments of Davis and Price, warning men “so long as your women are mere slaves, you may throw your colleges to the wind.” These deliberations left Truth alone to carve out her own space, as a woman who began life enslaved but who was now free, who stood alongside women in the North rather than existed as a captive in the South. Truth was not a metaphor. She was alive, with presence, voice, and her own views about women’s equality.
In the following year, as plans for a next women’s convention came together, organizers wondered whether including women like Truth posed a problem; Truth and others had introduced the issue of racism into meetings called to combat sexism.
Pittsburgh-based journalist Jane Swisshelm objected to how, during the 1850 meeting, delegates had introduced “the color question,” what she deemed a sidebar and a distraction. “The convention was not called to discuss the rights of color; and we think it was altogether irrelevant and unwise to introduce the question.” To succeed, women should not take on the “additional weight” of problems that concerned Black men. And Swisshelm doubted that Black women would expect to make gains through a women’s movement: “As for colored women, all the interest they have in this reform is as women. All it can do for them is raise them to the level of men of their own class.”
Swisshelm published her thoughts in her newspaper, the Saturday Visiter. But if Truth had gotten wind of the suggestion that she might undercut the women’s meeting, she did not take it to heart. In May 1851, she made her way to the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron and took a seat among the scores of delegates. As she listened to the proceedings, once again Truth heard speakers compare the slave to the woman, much like she had in Worcester. This time, however, Truth responded. Her words were nearly lost for all time—the members of the Publishing Committee left Truth’s words on an editing room floor when they published sixty pages of official proceedings.
But in the audience at Akron, journalists Marius and Emily Robinson made certain Truth’s speech survived. The two were long-time antislavery activists, teachers of African American children, lecturers on the antislavery circuit, and, by spring 1851, editor and publishing agent of the Salem, Ohio, Antislavery Bugle. Witnesses to the entirety of the women’s proceedings, the Robinsons published their own version of the deliberations, beginning with the keynote address delivered by Frances Dana Gage. When it came to Truth, the Robinsons aimed to do their best to convey her words and their force. They deemed her remarks “most unique and interesting” and admitted that it was difficult to capture the effect that Truth had had on the audience as a speaker who was Black, a woman, a former slave, and an exceptionally talented orator who mixed humor, colloquialism, and her own life experience to great effect.
Truth had waited her turn in Akron, following women whose remarks showcased their high levels of education, status, and experience. She could not match such credentials. Still, during her years on the lecture circuit she had learned to riff off the remarks that preceded her own, and it paid off. Truth reframed the convention, resetting its goals as defined from the perspective of a Black woman. She began, “I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights.” There, as she was, unlettered and unrefined, Truth made the case that she was the truest embodiment of women’s rights. Slavery was no mere metaphor and the labor it demanded had made Truth the equal of any man: “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man.” This experience was also the philosophical foundation for a women’s movement. She urged: “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.” Truth then spoke to the men in the room, turning to the Bible, the book that blamed women for humankind’s earthly woes, for a perspective on justice: “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.”
Truth never spoke the words most often attributed to her Akron speech—“Ain’t I a woman?” That refrain was later put in print by Frances Dana Gage, who in 1863 used it to tell a sensationalized story about Truth that she hoped would rival another told by Harriet Beecher Stowe, “The Libyan Sibyl,” published that same year. When she took the podium, Truth risked having her words misrepresented and mythologized. Unable to read, she did not write out her speeches nor could she correct the transcriptions produced by others. Still, she spoke plenty, always emphasizing that she was neither a symbol nor just like white women. In 1858, she bared her breasts before an Indiana audience, driving home the fact that she was capable of nursing children—her own and those of white women—the truest test of a woman. When Black women like Truth spoke of rights, they mixed their ideas with challenges to slavery and to racism. Truth told her own stories, ones that suggested that a women’s movement might take another direction, one that championed the broad interests of all humanity.
Excerpted from Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All by Martha S. Jones. Copyright © 2020. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.