This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
Nearly a century after “the shot heard round the world,” there was a meeting that captivated the attention of everyone globally.
A courageous Black woman, whose name is as synonymous with the women’s suffrage movement as anyone else’s, went to the White House, where she met President Abraham Lincoln.
The Oct. 29, 1864, meeting between Lincoln and Sojourner Truth was a loud and profound statement for the battle for women’s rights and African American freedom.
Truth would not support the black vote until women had equal rights, and she carried those concerns from the White House to her death in 1883.
Since African Americans — because of slavery — were denied the ability to learn to read or write, Truth had her conversation with Lincoln transcribed by her friend Lucy Coleman. Many dubbed a photo of Truth and the president as two freedom fighters showing mutual respect and admiration, surpassing social class and gender lines.
According to one historian, Truth told Lincoln that before he had become president, she had never heard of him.
“With a smile on his face, Lincoln responded he had known of her work [as an abolitionist] well before they met,” according to biography.com.
“The significance of the historic visit was the power of challenging Americans imagination by having a female ex-slave demand democracy to include women,” said Kesho Scott, associate professor of American studies and sociology at Grinnell College in Iowa. “Sojourner Truth had already opened the back door for white women with privilege, by asking them to face facts, by asking ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ And by doing so, she was asking a similar question of democracy: ‘Ain’t I included?’”
Black women in the American context know that racism has been an obstacle to gaining democratic rights and full participation in the opportunities of a democratic society because their lives have been dominated by survival first, Scott said.
“They strategically waited for the vote by creating their own Black Women’s Clubs, and when the vote came, they used it,” she said. “In 2019, many women in these economic hard times are faced with Truth’s choice: survival or liberation. And, many of us carry a dual strategy of uplifting our lives in sisterhood coalitions and force democracy to keep its door open.”
The meeting between Truth and Lincoln was one of mutual respect and honor, a rare moment that transcended race, socioeconomic status and gender lines, said Mari Moss, a member of Manhattan (NY) Community Board 10 and Neighborhood Advisory Board.
“The significance of Sojourner Truth’s influence in the women’s movement was beyond invaluable to women everywhere,” Moss said. “Especially when it comes to women of color, for without it, women of color would not have been able to vote and would have had more hurdles to overcome just to gain the same rights.
“The history of the women’s movement alone signifies the Importance for women to harness their influence toward for the greater goals of women’s rights which are still greatly needed today,” she said.
Even with 100 years of being able to vote, women of color and women’s rights still have milestones to reach, Moss said.
“At the time of the ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech, who could imagine a woman having no say over how her children are raised, let alone being able to keep them after giving birth to them and nurturing them?” she said. “Even in the United States, quiet as it may try to be kept, countless mothers are enduring this distress as the government separates families and mothers for their children.
“Women of color do not have the same opportunities or equal pay as their counterparts,” Moss said. “They still have an uphill battle when it comes to gaining the same respectful considerations for executive jobs in the upper echelons of power and influence, Yet in the spirit of Sojourner Truth, we continue to journey on toward justice and equal rights as feminists, if not for ourselves, for the sake of our children who will inherit the for the decisions we make today.”
Moss added that all still benefit from the decisions Sojourner Truth made. From speaking up in Akron, Ohio, to meeting with Abraham Lincoln, whose respect for her solidified her immense influence as an icon of the feminist movement.
Although the movement itself came to a standstill in 1861 because of the Civil War, Truth had garnered enough respect to land a meeting with the president, said author, activist and music artist Sean XLG Mitchell.
“Undoubtedly influenced by Sojourner’s efforts, following the war in 1866, Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association, an organization that was dedicated to all people regardless of gender and race,” Mitchell said. “Sojourner Truth’s relentless work and heroic activism helped to expand the boundaries of a movement that changed the course of history.”