This Week in Feminist History

Guest Post, · Categories: Feminist History

On May 29th in 1851…

Sojourner Truth delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. Sojourner was born into slavery in Ulster County, New York in November of 1883, but escaped to freedom with her daughter in 1826. Two years later she went to court and recovered her son, becoming the first black woman to win a case like that against a white man. In 1843 she gave herself the name Sojourner Truth, and left her city to go across the country “testifying the hope that was in her.” One of her best speeches was the one she gave extemporaneously at the Women’s Convention. It is now known as “Ain’t I a Woman,” after a line in one version of the speech re-written by a white woman using a stereotypical “Southern slave” dialogue. Historians consider this version inaccurate not just because the woman wrote it down 25 years later, but because Sojourner Truth was from New York and grew up speaking Dutch as her first language. Many historians consider the version written down by Marius Robinson to be the most accurate. He was at the convention, worked with Sojourner, and printed his transcription just a month later in the Anti-Slavery Bugle. The version of the speech printed by Robinson is: “I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.”

On May 30th in 1907…

… French ethnologist and resistance member Germaine Tillion was born in Haute-Loire, France. She spent her childhood in Clermont-Ferrand before studying social anthropology in Paris. She earned degrees from the École pratique des hautes études, the École du Louvre, and the INALCO. While preparing for her doctorate, she worked in Algeria studying the Chaoui and Berber peoples. When she returned to Paris in 1940, it was occupied by Germany. Germaine assisted a Jewish family in their escape by giving them her family’s papers and joined the French Resistance. She became one of their leading commanders and worked with the network of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Most of her work involved helping prisoners escape. In 1942, a man who had infiltrated her network betrayed her to the Gestapo. They arrested her and sent her to Ravensbrück concentration camp along with her mother, who was also in the resistance. Germaine analyzed the camp from within, recording information she later released as Ravensbrück: An eyewitness account of a women’s concentration camp. Her piece described the camp functions, administrative operations, and prisoner movements. She also wrote about the gas chambers, which other scholars claimed didn’t exist. Her mother died in the camp, but Germaine escaped in spring of 1945 with the help of a Swedish Red Cross rescue operation. After the war, she continued her work in North Africa, the Middle East, and Algeria. She lived to be 100 and died in April of 2008.

On May 31st in 1931…

Shirley Verrett, an African-American operatic soprano, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. She grew up in a family of Seventh-day Adventists, who didn’t approve of the idea of her having a career in singing, despite allowing her to sing in church. Nonetheless, Shirley went on to study at Juilliard in New York, and in 1961 she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Her debut was in 1957, in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. Her debut for the New York City Opera was in 1958 when she played Irina in Lost in the Stars, and her European debut was in Rasputin’s Tod in Cologne, Germany in 1959. Shirley appeared in many concerts and operas in the 60s as a mezzo-soprano. In the late 1970s, she began to take on soprano roles, performing parts such as Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Desdemona (Otello), Leonore (Fidelio), and more. She sang the role of Tosca in Norma opposite Luciano Pavarotti, in a performance televised on PBS around Christmas. She continued performing through the 80s and 90s, throughout the U.S. and Europe. In 1996 she became a Professor of Voice at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. Shirley spoke openly and frankly about her experiences as a black woman in the world of musical theater, especially in her memoir, I Never Walked Alone. She died in November 2010 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the age of 79.

On June 1st in 1797…

…. early American suffragist Abby Hadassah Smith was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Abby was the youngest of five daughters born to a clergyman-turned-farmer and his wife, an early suffragist. Abby’s mother authored one of the earliest anti-slavery petitions in the U.S., which John Quincy Adams presented to Congress. The entire family supported abolition, women’s rights, and education, and the family house was a stop on Connecticut’s Freedom Trail. Abby and her sister Julia lived together as adults. They were local suffragists and attended meetings in Hartford. In 1872, the town of Glastonbury attempted to raise taxes—but only on the sisters and two other town widows. None of the local men had their taxes raised. In protest of the taxes and their related inability to vote in town meetings against such proposals, the sisters refused to pay. A local newspaper ran a story about them, which then spread to papers across the country. When Abby began to protest their taxation (and the taxation of other disenfranchised women), the town seized seven of her cows and sold them. When Abby tried to speak at a town meeting in her own defense, they denied her permission. Instead, she mounted a wagon outside and gave her protest to a gathered crowd. In response, the town seized 15 acres of pastureland to also sell. Abby and her sister took the town to court and won their case, after studying law on their own to help defend themselves. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop the town from taking their cows (which they had bought back) away from them again two more times. Her sister Julia wrote a book about the case entitled Abby Smith and Her Cows. Abby spent her life speaking out for women’s suffrage until she died in July of 1879 at the age of 82.

On June 2nd in 1907…

… Harlem Renaissance author Dorothy West was born in Boston, Massachusetts.  She was born to Christopher West, a former slave, and Rachel Pegues Benson (who was one of 22 children!). Dorothy wrote her first story at the age of seven and had her first published story in the Boston Post when she was only 14. After attending the Girls’ Latin School, she went to Boston University and then the Columbia University School of Journalism. In 1926, at the age of 19, she entered a writing contest sponsored by Opportunity (a journal published by the National Urban League). Dorothy tied for second place with her story “The Typewriter,” and the woman she tied with was none other than Zora Neale Hurston. Around this same time, Dorothy moved to Harlem, where she unwittingly became a part of the Harlem Renaissance. As she said much later, in 1995: “We didn’t know it was the Harlem Renaissance because we were all young and all poor.” Langston Hughes, another writer of the Harlem Renaissance, gave Dorothy the nickname “The Kid” and it stuck. She later traveled with him to Russia for a year working on a film on American race relations that was never produced. During the Renaissance, Dorothy’s biggest contribution was publishing the magazine Challenge (and later its successor, New Challenge), which published the groundbreaking essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing” by Richard Wright. Later, Dorothy would remark about how hard it was for black women to get published, let alone have a career in writing, prior to the Harlem Renaissance. She was one of the first female writers of color to have her work published in the United States when her first novel The Living is Easy came out in 1948. She worked as a journalist for several decades until her work gained a resurgence in the 80s and 90s, thanks to a republishing of her novel by The Feminist Press, and her inclusion in the anthology Daughters of Africa. At 85 years old, she published her second novel, The Wedding. The novel was a bestseller and led to the publishing of The Richer, The Poorer; a collection of her short stories and reminiscences. The Wedding was also turned into a two-part movie by Oprah. Dorothy West died in 1998 at the age of 91. Asked before her death what she wanted her legacy to be, she replied, “That I hung in there. That I didn’t say I can’t.”

On June 3rd in 1664…

Rachel Ruysch, the best-documented woman painter of the Dutch Golden Age, was born in The Hague. Rachel’s father was a professor of anatomy and botany, and as a child, Rachel practiced drawing the many botany samples he had. She painted in the style of Otto Marseus van Schrieck, becoming competent enough over time that she taught her father and sister to paint as well. When she was fifteen, she became an apprentice of Willem van Aelst, a prominent flower painter. She studied with him until his death in 1683. By age 18, Rachel was producing and selling her own work. In 1693, she married fellow artist Juriaen Pool, a portrait painter, with whom she had ten children. During their marriage, she continued to paint, mostly for a circle of patrons who commissioned her work. Rachel was the first female member of the Confrerie Pictura in The Hague and was later also a member of The Hague Painter’s Guild along with her husband. In 1708 she worked as the court painter for Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine. She continued working for him until his death in 1716. Rachel’s paintings featured a realistic painting of flowers in minute detail, as part of large floral arrangements. Many historians consider her to be one of the most talented still life artists. By the time of her death at the age of 86, she had produced hundreds of paintings; 250 of which were officially documented. Historians can establish which paintings she painted at what age because she signed her age on each one.

On June 4th in 1866…

… Finland’s first female minister Miina Sillanpää was born as Vilhelmiina Riktig in Jokioinen, Finland. She was one of nine children born to peasant parents during the Finland’s famine years. She began working at age 12, first in a cotton factory and then in a nail factory. When she was 18, she moved to Porvoo and got work as a maid. It was then that she changed her name to Miina Sillanpää. She later worked as the caretaker at an employment agency, then as a food inspector, and then as the secretary of the Social Democratic Party Working Women’s Association. Miina was active in politics, especially with regards to campaigning for the rights of working women, and single women. In 1907, she became one of the first nineteen female members of the Parliament of Finland. She served for a total of 38 years, from 1907-1910, 1914, 1917, 1919-1932, and 1936-1947. In 1926 the Väinö Tanner government elected her the Minister of Social Affairs, making her Finland’s first female minister. She also acted as an official elector for the President of Finland and wrote articles in several women’s magazines. She died in April 1952 at the age of 85.


Amy is a former literature major with a penchant for the past and a tendency to wonder why popular history involves so many boring white men. She lives in Connecticut where she has too many books, several cats, and lots of tea. She often wishes there was a way to look like snapchat filters in real life.

3 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. CleverManka says:

    It is now known as “Ain’t I a Woman,” after a line in one version of the speech re-written by a white woman using a stereotypical “Southern slave” dialogue. Historians consider this version inaccurate not just because the woman wrote it down 25 years later, but because Sojourner Truth was from New York and grew up speaking Dutch as her first language.

    WOW. Just…wow.

    • burningupasun says:

      I know! And I didn't include it, but if you go to the wikipedia article, I think, they have that rewritten version and it is just so. racist. Honestly "using a stereotypical 'Southern Slave' dialogue" does not do it justice.

    • Onymous says:

      God damnit historians, could you just once be wrong in a good way.

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