SOJOURNER TRUTHIn many ways, in the U.S., the abolitionist movement was a necessary precurser to the woman suffrage movement.  (There were similar movements for both causes in England and on the continent, notably in France.)  I deal here only with the movements in the U.S.A.

The abolitionist movement in the U.S. gave women the language necessary to describe their status (or more appropriately, lack of it), organizing tools and political strategies, public speaking skills, a knowledge of useful allies, and impetus.

A major impetus to suffrage was a result of the U.S. delegation attendance at the world anti-slavery convention in London in 1840.  In this famous event, women delegates were not seated or heard.  Two of them were Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Eight years later, in July 1848 Mott and Stanton called the Seneca Falls Convention for the express purpose of discussing "the social, civil, and religious rights of women..."

The roll call of the first wave of suffragists (In U.S. history, "suffragists," in the U.K. "suffragettes") is also a list of abolitionists: Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Mott and her husband James Mott, Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass... and on...

It needs to be noted that a woman's rights were not much better than a slave's. She had no legal right to the wages of her labor, no right to the custody of her children, and no legal presence save the person of her husband. She could not own property in her own name, could not contract legally in her own name, and could not travel if her husband or father objected. Many doors to education were closed to women.  It could be argued that the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent 13th Amendment to the Constitution provided freedom only for male slaves.

It is my belief that the personal and political understanding that it was within a woman's proper sphere to speak and act on behalf of another to right a terrible civil wrong (abolitionist activity) inevitably led the conclusion that activity on behalf of and the ultimate possession of women's rights also was appropriate.

The two movements had deep parallels.  At the core of each was a society-wide radicalization and redefinition of who and what was a Negro and who and what was a woman. In both cases, by redefining the nature of a class of people, the array of rights that came to them were changed.  The redefinition and subsequent rights are still in process as (for example) race relations, pay equity, job opportunities, and child care issues are debated.

I further believe that women's participation in the anti-war movement in the 1960s had direct consequence in the wave of feminism that followed.  Once again, women acted on behalf of others and thereby gained agency for themselves.

by Sojourner Truth

1851 speech delivered at the
Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio

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.

Women gained the vote in 1920 after 72 years
of the LARGEST civil rights movement
in the HISTORY of the world.


© 1995, Brooks and Gonzalez. The Women's History Project of Lexington Area National Organization for Women. This timeline may be distributed freely under the following conditions: that the use is not for profit; that it is distributed in complete, unchanged form; that this complete notice is intact and included in the distribution. Contact for additional information.

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