Sojourner Truth is perhaps one of the most misquoted figures in history. “Ain’t I a Woman” - the phrase she is most noted for, was something she never actually said. However, this simple phrase wasn’t the only thing that was misquoted, as a heavily doctored version of her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech is the one that most of us know today. The answer to why we still get Truth’s words so wrong is buried in a story of racial tensions within the suffrage movement.
Sojourner Truth was born a slave, but gained her freedom once slavery became illegal in the state of New York in 1827. Like many prominent white suffragists, Truth advocated for women’s suffrage by traveling the country and giving lectures on the topic. She copyrighted images of herself in the form of a carte de visite, and by selling these images as souvenirs she was able to support her travels independently of a husband. Truth was a firm believer that black women needed their rights alongside black men as she feared that “if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.”
Sojourner Truth gave the speech we remember her for today in 1851 in Akron, Ohio. However, the most widely referenced version of her speech was published 12 years later by white suffragist Frances Barker Gage. Though the general theme of the speech was kept the same, both emphasizing the equalities of men and women, especially in the context of slavery, Gage changed Truth’s wording and dialect to give her speech the sound of a southern "black mammy" stereotype. However, Truth was not a slave in the south, and her years lived in New York state meant that she actually spoke with a New York State low Dutch, not southern, accent. The grammar in Gage’s version is also much poorer than the version originally recorded by Truth’s friend Marius Robinson, diminishing the image of Truth’s intelligence. You can compare the two speeches here, at the Sojourner Truth Project's website.
Why did Gage choose to twist Truth’s speech? By depicting her as a lowly former southern slave driven to speak out by the passion of a moment, Gage created an idea that black suffragists like Truth who advocated for black female suffrage were uneducated in their claims, especially when compared to the eloquent speeches of white suffragists. Changing Truth’s rhetoric mean that her speech could be used by white suffragists to advance their cause without also having to acknowledge that black suffragists were their equals. Gage’s twisted version of the speech creates an image that black women were helpless in the fight for equality, and the intelligent white women needed to be granted the vote in order to help them. However, Truth’s independence in her lecture circuit shows that this was anything but the case. Reading the original version of her speech reminds us that she was an intelligent woman dedicated to the cause of black women’s rights, and that she was much more than the racist stereotype history has made her out to be.