In the period surrounding the Civil War, not all black female activists fought for their rights as women. Francis E. W. Harper, for example, was an organizer of black women who, like most other black women of her time, believed that the economic and political needs of her race trumped the needs of her gender.1
Sojourner Truth was unique among 19th century women in being aware and defensive of both her gender and her race. She recognized the special troubles of black women, having suffered much herself at the hands of slavery. As a preacher in the North, she not only advocated abolitionism, but also women’s rights and protection of the poor. Sojourner Truth was the only one to speak for black women as people under the double edged sword of race and gender oppression at a meeting of the American Equal Rights Association in 1867. Here she claimed that, “If it is not a fit place for women, it is unfit for men to be there”.2 She recognized that rights for black women would mean rights for all.
Like other black women, Sojourner Truth was locked out of black society dominated by male leadership, and instead affiliated with white abolitionist and feminist circles. She achieved her leadership status by presenting herself as an isolated, marginal figure after she became an itinerant preacher and changed her name.3 Truth especially emphasized the need to rethink the prevailing notions of black women. Her famous speech in which she repeated the refrain, “and a’n’t I a woman?”, delivered at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, as well as others of her powerful speeches, redefined the image of black women as the “brave” and rejected the culture’s standard notions of true “womanhood” and femininity.4 She recognized the double burden that women of color must bear, but instead of hoping for a return to accepted norms of femininity, she envisioned black womanhood as having been shaped by the conditions of slavery to be more masculine.5 Truth embodied the practical, “folk” ideal of womanhood. She regarded herself as being as strong as a man, and put forth her ideas that women and men were innately equal in her speeches. She did not aspire for personal goals of advancing her professional career, but worked instead for the good of the black community and for women’s rights, and through religion, to bring the community closer to God. Truth is unique because unlike most other black female activists, she had begun her life as a slave and shared many characteristics with most free black women who were also illiterate and poor.6
Sojourner Truth and other black female abolitionists advocated equality for all people, regardless of their race or gender. Their experiences as women of color living in a world that was hostile to them gave them a broader perspective to the conditions of oppressed people, and motivated them to work harder to achieve their goals. Black women in the antebellum period suffered oppression from more than one source, and felt the heavy hand of racial and gender discrimination both as slaves and as free women. History often overlooks the importance of understanding women’s history, but the broad efforts and accomplishments of black female abolitionists cannot be overlooked. Going into the 20th century, the ideas of Truth, Maria W. Stewart, and others would continue to influence African American women and lead them toward the development of a black feminist perspective.
Part 1 of this series can be found here.
1. Gerda, Lerner, ed., The Female Experience: An American Documentary (Oxford University Press, 1992), 355-356.
2. Ibid., 487-489.
3. Kristin Waters and Carol B. Conaway, ed., Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions: Speaking their Minds (Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Press, 2007), 129-134.
4. Ibid., 157-162.
5. Ibid., 163-165.
6. R. J. Young, Antebellum Black Activists: Race, Gender, and Self (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1996), 136-140.