Wednesday, October 23, 2019
October 23, 2019: The 1850 Women’s Rights Convention: Sojourner Truth
[On October 23-24, 1850, the first national Women’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester, MA; it followed the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention but was the first to bill itself as national, and it featured more than 900 attendees (triple the 1848 numbers). So for the convention’s anniversary, I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy a handful of representative such attendees!]
On the benefits and limitations of remembering a striking individual’s communal contexts.
In this post on Sojourner Truth, I highlighted how the emphasis in our collective memories on her 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech (along with being likely inaccurate when it comes to her voice, as historian and Truth biographer Nell Irvin Painter has demonstrated at great and convincing length) has led us to under-remember many other aspects and stages of Truth’s long and multi-part life and activist career. But even if we focus on that speech itself (and separate from those important questions of dialect and representation), I would argue that the general depiction of it is a moment of intensely individual expression, while the truth is quite the opposite: Truth delivered the speech as part of a highly communal event, the May 29th, 1851 women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio. Organized by one of Ohio’s most prominent activists, Frances Dana Gage, as the culmination of a year of efforts to get women’s suffrage onto the agenda of the 1850-51 Ohio Constitutional Convention, the Akron convention was one of many such events in the era that featured Truth as one of the speakers—and another was the 1850 Worcester convention, where Truth’s speech on enslaved women led to a resolution expressing solidarity with “the trampled women of the plantation.”
So how might it change our narratives or collective memories of Truth to remember these convention contexts for much of her early oratory and activism? To my mind, one central shift wouldn’t be specifically about Truth at all, but rather a reminder that too many of our historical narratives emphasize individual actors at the expense of precisely such communal contexts (far more often those individuals are privileged white men like those in my hyperlinked piece, of course, but the principal remains the same). Certainly that pattern holds when it comes to the two activist movements to which Truth’s convention speeches connect—both the women’s rights movement and the abolitionist movement are often remembered through the lens of individual activists, often in direct relationship to their potent voices and memorable speeches. Yet at even the most basic level, those speeches needed occasions and settings in order to exist, and for 19th century social movements those settings were very often collective gatherings like these conventions. Other than Seneca Falls, few if any of those conventions occupy a place in our collective memories, which likewise makes that 1848 event seem more singular and unique, rather than both an illustration of a vital trend and a launching point for even more national and influential such gatherings.
There’s another, equally salient way to think about these questions of emphasis, however. If I had to boil down my professional goals, in this space and everywhere else, to a single central purpose, I would say “expanding our collective memories,” helping us better remember the histories and stories that truly define our national identity and community. I generally believe in an additive approach to that goal, meaning that it’s not about replacing one memory or emphasis, but rather making sure that less-remembered ones become part of the narrative as well. Yet time and again, my experiences with audiences—especially those in both classrooms and talks/lectures—make clear the power of individual figures and their identities and stories as (at the very least) ways in to expanding our collective memories. To that end, every chapter in my new book We the People features such impressive individuals, figures who certainly embody broader histories yet who offer us the chance to remember and be inspired by such striking stories. I know of few individual Americans more impressive and inspirational than Sojourner Truth, and while I believe it’s important to consider the communal contexts for her activist illustrated by conventions like Worcester’s, that in no way means we shouldn’t remember and celebrate her individual life and legacy.
Next 1850 attendee tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Figures or histories from the women’s rights movement you’d highlight?