Sojourner Truth

Say Her Name: Ain't We Women?!

Image via /Shutterstock

In 1851, attendees of a feminist convention gathered in a packed hall in Akron, Ohio. It was a time when — even in the midst of a fight for women’s rights — mostly men spoke. They talked of dainty women — delicate and deserving of special protection.

Sojourner Truth sat in their midst. Miss Truth sat quiet, listening to men fill space with empty arguments about why women should or should not have the vote. Finally, she rose to speak and a visceral wall of hostility rose from the masses to greet her. The voice of this "n___ger woman" could muddy the message, they hissed. It could conflate the movement for women’s equality with the abolitionist movement — and that would be the death of suffrage, they feared.

But, as Dr. King liked to quote, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
 

Marching Toward Full Equality

Woodcut illustration of Ida B. Wells, lifelong fighter for justice, anti-lynching laws, and women's right to vote. Image via /Shutterstock

In the spirit of Aug. 26's Women’s Equality Day, we took to social media and the blogosphere to celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment and 95 years of women voting in the U.S. However, as some of our supporters rightly pointed out, that landmark constitutional victory did not guarantee all women the right to vote. Our efforts should have acknowledged that painful reality.

As we look back at the suffrage movement, it’s important to acknowledge how racism tainted this historic fight for the vote. Many black women activists — such as Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Anna Julia Cooper — were staunch supporters of women’s rights, yet experienced discrimination from fellow suffragists and white supremacists. These divisions, along with conflicting political interests, caused immense friction within the suffrage movement, thus revealing the challenges of fighting sexism in a deeply racist society.

Founding Mothers: Remember the Women

Spectacular fireworks over Downtown Manhattan. Via Saurabh13/Shutterstock.

I love the 4th of July! It’s coming around again quickly, and I’m seriously deciding where I’m going to be based on which city has the best fireworks. I know. It’s a little crazy for someone who preaches about peace to yearn for a celebration attached to a war. But there’s something about the 4th that reminds me of the sacrifice that freedom requires in our fallen world.

Growing up our family would pack up the van (or minivan as we got older) and make the pilgrimage to the beach in Cape May, N.J. They knew how to do fireworks. Spectacular! Later, in college, while on summer mission project in New York City, I watched the Macy’s celebration from a rooftop on Roosevelt Island — choreographed fireworks as they played the Star Spangled Banner on the radio! I wept. To this day, I shed a tear when I imagine the moment when the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. It gets me every time.

But, recently I stopped and thought for a minute: “Why is it that, when I think of the founding of our nation, the faces I see in my mind’s eye are all men (with the exception of Betsy Ross)?”

Hurricanes, Hype, and Hope

Did anyone else get the feeling, as we watched weather reporters wave their arms frantically in swirling motions across oversized maps of the eastern seaboard -- with their eyes bulging as they pushed out whole paragraphs without a single breath for a period -- that this was all hype?

Last weekend, as Irene passed over town after town in the mid-Atlantic, memories of Katrina did not materialize. By the time Irene huffed over New York City on Sunday morning, and the flood of the century was actually just a really big puddle in Battery Park and a floating lifeguard stand in Long Beach, my fear had transformed into complacency. From there I became cynical. By Sunday afternoon I found myself watching the weatherman's bulging eyes as he repeated the mantra of the day: "It's not as bad as we thought it would be, but it's not over." And I thought: "Boy, they'll do anything for ratings."

But it wasn't all hype.

A Messenger Of God's Truth

On 1879, four years before Sojourner Truth died, a Louisville, Kentucky newspaper said of her, "The oldest truth nowadays is Sojourner." It was a tribute to both the seemingly boundless energy that still marked this remarkable woman's life as she entered her 83rd year, and to the fact that for decades she had traveled the country spreading the truth of the gospel.

Her early years as a slave had developed in Sojourner an intense passion for freedom, and she committed her life to the struggle to end human bondage. Seeing a vision of freedom for all as the only just goal, she argued vigorously against those who advocated postponing the fight for women's rights in favor of black rights, carrying in her own being proof that the issues could not be separated. Her voice rang out from one end of the country to the other in a call for women's suffrage and an end to slavery.

She relied on God's provision and the hospitality of strangers as she carried her message. She talked with authors and abolitionists, preachers and presidents. But most of all, she talked with God, with whom she had an unending conversation that began when she was a child and who was her source of guidance on every step of her journey.

Sojourner remained illiterate and once said of herself, "I can't read a book, but I can read the people." Indeed her understanding of human nature was profound, and she possessed a combination of fiery wit and gentle wisdom that had an effect on all who met her.

She not only agitated for the political rights of her people, she gave herself in service to their needs. When thousands of freed slaves left the South in the 1860s, she devoted her energies to those who fled to Washington, D.C. Crowded into squalid shanties, with no hope for education or employment, the freed slaves were discarded and forgotten by the society they had served. But Sojourner, then in her 70s, gave herself to every need.

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