First Wave Feminism is defined as the time period from 1848 to 1920. Although the beginning of this initial “wave” of female activism began with the Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, NY that was held in 1848, this era drew inspiration from the French Revolution and Abolitionist Movement. It was at this first meeting that a group of over 300 women and male supporters signed the “Declaration of Sentiments” proclaiming that all men and women were equal, women had a right to education and property, and suffrage (Alexander 2021). The purpose of first wave feminism then became primarily about securing a woman’s right to vote which, they believed, was the key to receiving more rights (Alexander 2021). However, although women seemed to be fighting for a common cause, women of other races and classes, especially black women, were often not invited or welcome to participate in white feminist conventions and meetings. One black woman, Isabella Bomfree, later named Sojourner Truth, was a former slave who spoke nationally about feminism, abolition, and securing suffrage for all races (Michals 2015).
In Truth’s Speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?” (1851) in Akron, Ohio, she speaks of her personal existence as a woman as well as her opinions on first wave feminism. She not only calls attention to the disparities in feminism in relation to her own existence as a black woman, but also disputes the critics and non-believers in the feminist movement by addressing the intersectionality between gender, religion, and race (Michals 2015). Truth’s speech is notable not only for her unique perspective as a former slave, mother of thirteen, and active feminist, but also for her unapologetic rawness with her words. Truth also used her identity as a Christian to argue with a man in the audience during her speech who commented that Christ wasn’t a woman, so men and women could not possibly be equal. In response, Truth tactfully answered “Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman!” (Taylor 2023, p. 18). This intersectionality between gender and religion allowed for a compelling argument and the passion behind each word spoken was from not only pain, anger, and knowledge, but a charismatic calmness as Truth called the audience “children” and “honey” (Taylor 2023, p. 18).
Perhaps the most moving part of Truth’s speech is her ability to pull from her experiences of quite literally having to fight for her freedom, her survival, and the freedom of her children. She states, “I have ploughed and planted…no man could head me…I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?” (Taylor 2023, p. 18). This speech is remarkable for its ability to invoke ideas about women and their contributions to society.
Sojourner’s words inspired many and the way in which she spoke was held in high regard. Frederick Douglas and Wendell Phillips “held her in great esteem,” while Harriet Beecher Stowe described her as a prophetess and Erlene Stetson, a literary critic and professor, cited Sojourner Truth as a poetess (Patten 1986).
The female perspective, one which Truth has provided, demonstrates that women have worked to earn equal rights, even though they should have never had to.
Sojourner Truth (Credit: Library of Congress)
Alexander, K.L., “Feminism: The First Wave.” National Women’s History Museum. April 5, 2021. https://www.womenshistory.org/exhibits/feminism-first-wave-0.
Michals, Debra. “Sojourner Truth.” National Women’s History Museum. 2015. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sojourner-truth.
Patten, Neil A. “The Nineteenth Century Black Woman As Social Reformer: The ‘New’ Speeches of Sojourner Truth.” Negro History Bulletin 49, no. 1 (1986): 2–5. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44176646.
Taylor, E., Gillborn, D., & Ladson-Billings, G. (Eds.). (2023): 18. Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education (3rd ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/b23210