I found myself quoting “Ain’t I a woman?” in an online exchange yesterday about body image, and it got me to thinking about how Sojourner Truth’s story isn’t told as a body image story … but it is.
Sojourner Truth was born as a slave in New York State. When New York abolished slavery, Truth (whose name came to her in a vision) became an abolitionist and a women’s rights activist.
She is most famous for baring her breasts at the Akron Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, saying, “Ain’t I a woman?” She was, among other things, making a reference to a well-known image of a kneeling black woman in chains, with the caption “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?”
Truth’s point, however, was somewhat different than it is often thought to be in these times. She was not asking white women to include her in their struggle (though she called for that at many other times). Instead, she was defending the rights of all women against a male argument that said women were too delicate and fragile for emancipation.
Part of Truth’s speech (recast into more contemporary English than she used):
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? 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?
She’s already a hero of feminists and African-Americans, for this speech and much more. So she was already my hero. But I never really thought about her as a hero of the size acceptance movement, and a foremother for the work Laurie and I do. “I have a right to be accepted as who I am, even if I don’t look like you think I should look.”