Sojourner Truth challenged prejudice on all fronts in the 19th century. She was a remarkable speaker. This is what you can learn from her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.
It’s difficult to imagine a time when women did not have the vote. It seems like such a common sense thing that all should have an equal say in the governance of a country.
But that has not always been the case. In fact, women had to fight tooth and nail throughout the 19th century and early-20th century to receive the rights they deserved.
It is to the 19th century that we head to examine one of the most remarkable speeches of all time.
The speaker was Sojourner Truth.
A noted speaker of the time, Sojourner has an amazing story. This article delves into that story before looking at what made her so influential when she stood up and spoke.
Who Was Sojourner Truth?
Born into slavery in 1797, Isabella Baumfree never knew a life without discrimination. For almost 30 years, she toiled in unjust servitude before finally making her bold escape. With her daughter in tow, she hoped to finally achieve the freedom that she’d never tasted before.
Unfortunately, discrimination has many faces. After escaping slavery, Baumfree faced backlash both for the colour of her skin and the fact that she was a woman.
But that didn’t stop her from achieving remarkable things. In 1828, just two years after escaping slavery, she stood in a courtroom to argue for the return of her son. It was here that many first discovered the eloquence and influence of the words that Baumfree spoke.
In a landmark victory, she became the first black person to ever win such a case.
Later in life, Baumfree converted to Methodism. And it was her faith that drove her to become one of the most influential women of her time. She believed that her newfound faith called on her to “<testify> the hope that was in her.” It was after this conversion that Isabella Baumfree became Sojourner Truth.
And, it was during her mission to spread hope that she gave the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.
Joining up with abolitionist George Thompson, she began touring the United States as a speaker. In 1851, she stood on the stage at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention and delivered her most famous speech.
“Ain’t I a Woman?” isn’t only interesting because of the impact that it had on those who saw Truth speak. There’s some debate over whether Truth even asked the titular question while on stage.
The speech itself wasn’t transcribed and published for 12 years after she gave it. That means there’s potential for embellishments and false recall. Even so, this is the version of the speech that historians most commonly analyse.
And you could argue that what the speech represents is more important than its word-for-word accuracy.
It’s still one of the most influential speeches of the 19th century. And it was speeches like this that led to Smithsonian Magazine naming her on its list of “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time”.
The Techniques that She Used in Her Speech
There’s no denying that Sojourner Truth was an amazing woman, even if you don’t take her speaking into account.
Few can match the bravery that she showed in the early parts of her life. The fact that she continued her fight after escaping slavery speaks volumes about her character.
But for budding influencers, it’s her most famous speech that holds the most interest. These are the three techniques that she used to make it so effective.
Technique #1 – She Spoke Directly to Her Audience
During the first part of her speech, Truth speaks to the audience directly about the struggles that she’s faced in life.
We’ll look at how effective that technique proved to be a little later.
What’s interesting about Truth’s speech is the number of narrative transitions she makes. After asking the pivotal question that gave the speech its name, she started talking directly to the audience:
“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?”
While Truth didn’t directly invite audience participation, she welcomed it and took it in stride. The words “That’s it, honey” created an instant connection with her audience. She made it clear that she wasn’t just talking for herself. She spoke on behalf of all of the women in the audience that day.
Speaking directly to your audience engages them on an emotional level. You don’t necessarily have to make them a part of the show. But you have to make it clear that you’re not standing on stage to satiate your own ego. You’re sharing your story but you’re also looking to influence others. Moments of direct connection, such as this, help you to build a connection.
Technique #2 – She Showed No Fear
Sojourner Truth had every reason to feel fearful. As an escaped female slave, there were likely many who knew of her that would see her returned to her captors.
But in this speech, Truth has a single mission – to fight for the rights of women.
She approached that mission with no fear. In fact, she directly challenged that thought processes of men.
Drawing from her faith, she said:
“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.”
Truth recognised that she spoke to a Christian audience, which allowed her to draw on what they already knew. She brings up a common objection to women’s rights and challenges it immediately. The repeating of the question “Where did your Christ come from?” hammers home the point.
Without a woman, Christ could not possibly exist.
She drives the point home with the direct challenge that man didn’t contribute at all to the birth of Christ.
This passage destroys the objection with a logic that all in the audience could relate to. However, it’s the directness of the statements that really stands out.
Truth was not a woman who minced words and danced around her points. She drove them home and challenged her audience. This made her as authentic as they come.
The lesson here is that you cannot compromise your beliefs in an effort to keep others happy. Truth knew she’d face objections, even in her own audience, to her speech. Instead of compromising herself, she used those objections to reinforce her own points.
Fear did not exist in Truth’s world. She had the bravery to show her story and to use it to inspire others.
Technique #3 – Repetition as an Influencing Device
Now, we come to the key question that Truth asked during her speech – Ain’t I a woman?
Truth asks this question four times during her speech. Each time, she uses it as an introduction to a different story that shows she’s every bit as powerful as a man.
Take the first asking of the question as an example:
“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!”
Again, you see the direct challenge to a common argument. Sojourner uses her own story to shoot down the idea that women are dainty creatures with no strength of their own. She drives that point home when she says that no man could do what she did better.
She followed the second use of the pivotal question by pointing out that she could “work and eat as much as a man.” The third use of the question speaks directly to the strength of women. She talks about the 13 children she bore and the grief she carried after seeing so many of them carried into slavery.
The fourth and final asking of the question has no follow-up. Truth leaves it to hand in the minds of her audience.
Truth’s use of repetition ensured that her key thread stood the test of time. If the audience remembered nothing else from the speech, they’d remember this passage. Better yet, she used her own story to reinforce the point that she wanted to make. She defined herself as an equal to both the men and the women in the audience.
In doing so, she helped other women recognise the true strength that they have.
Express Your Truth
Sojourner Truth’s amazing speaking career saw her become an influential figure in the women’s rights movement. She personified the very strength that she spoke about, which meant that no man could deny her words.
She provides us with plenty of examples of how to use your story to engage an audience. Tragedy defined so much of Truth’s life. Yet, she had a talent for showing how that tragedy could inspire change in the world.
There’s much that you can learn from her. And with Speakers Institute, you can discover how to put Truth’s techniques into action.
If you want to express your truth and unlock the power in your words, we recommend that you do the following: