We call it “intersectionality” now, but the idea that women experience multiple layers of oppression due to their gender, race, and class is not a new one.
The terms “interlocking oppressions” and “simultaneous oppressions” have been used for nearly 200 years to describe the social and political constructs that Black women in America have always known: sexism and racism are rarely two separate entities and experiences.
They are often sexism and racism. Together. Enmeshed. Inseparable.
Sojourner Truth knew this, and it was the basis for one of the most famous speeches in the history of American Feminism.
Born into slavery in 1797, Isabella Baumfree lived in New York where she was sold multiple times before marrying and becoming a mother. In 1827, refusing to run away in shame, she “walked away by daylight” after her master failed to honor his promise to set her free according to the New York Anti-Slavery Law of 1827. Years later, she converted to Methodism and became a traveling preacher, changing her name to the apropos Sojourner Truth – and the abolition and women’s suffrage movements would never be the same.
While attending the Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, she delivered the groundbreaking speech “Ain’t I A Woman?” to an eager audience. She spoke extemporaneously, but her address was recorded some years later. The words we have now do not likely match the exact way Truth would have spoken, nor is there proof that the famous refrain “Ain’t I A Woman?” was repeated as she spoke. But the heart of her message – rhetorical or not – was that she would not choose between abolition and feminism. She would not fight for one cause and not the other, because she could not.
She had to fight against both sexism and racism. Together. Enmeshed. Inseparable.
Her Blackness did not override her Femaleness and advancing women’s rights at the expense of the abolitionist movement wasn’t an option.
We honor the words of this Founding Mother of Intersectional Feminism, spoken 170 years ago this month, today and every day when we proclaim the legacy she passed down to all women who still fight for racial, gender, political, and social equality:
“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
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?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”