This paper will examine two speeches by women of the 19th century, namely Sojourner Truth’s Speech of 1851, ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ and Susan B. Anthony’s speech of 1873 ‘On women’s right to vote’. Both speeches were notable for their time as coming from women in the public sphere. The speeches will be examined in turn before a more general conclusion about the overall effect of both will end the paper.
Sojourner Truth was a former slave woman of middle-age by the time her speech was delivered to a Women’s Convention at Akron, Ohio, in 1851. The date is significant as it was pre-Civil War, when slavery still existed in the states of the South of the USA. While many at the convention did not want her to speak, as it may have confused the issue of women’s rights with the cause African-American liberation. Nevertheless, her powerful speech was largely positively received by those present. It was highly unusual for an African American of any gender at the time to speak to white audiences, making this speech iconic and important. The audience itself was more sympathetic to progressive causes than would have been usual at the time. It is also significant, for the historical context of the speech, that later versions of the speech tried to emphasise more Southern, African American ways of speaking, even though Truth was from New York State, and had spoken only Dutch until she was nine years of age. Original versions of the speech do not have the statement, “Ain’t I a Woman?” repeated, as they are in later versions. This repetition also alters the rhetorical tone of the speech, with the repetition falling into the rhetorical technique of pattern of three, with the question repeated three times for greater impact.
The convention at which Truth’s speech was delivered was organised by Hannah Tracy and Frances Dana Barker Gage, both of whom were notable campaigners for women’s rights. At the time, in mid-19th century America, woman had no right to vote and few rights to own property. An African American woman was in an even less salubrious situation when it came to the law and her rights. Even though Sojourner Truth had been the first African American woman to win a court case against a white man, the idea of a woman from her background addressing a white audience, however progressive they may have been, would have been somewhat strange and affecting. It would certainly have been a memorable occasion for those present, and was pregnant with wider significance. This is where the kairos of the speech can be found; an African American using a particular moment to force a wider audience than the one present to reconsider their own views, in an iconoclastic way. Educational opportunities were limited for women of European descent at the time, for African American women they were almost unknown. Truth therefore draws primarily on her experience of life and her passion for her cause, almost utilising the lack of rhetorical sophistication as an extra weapon in her arsenal. It grants an authenticity and ‘truth’ to her words which few of her audience would have been able to match.
Truth focuses on stating the equal accomplishments that she shares with men. She has ploughed and planted, and emphasises that her work has been equally as hard on her. She also asserts that she can cope with it. There is also a recurring theme of not wanting to take anything away from men; that the granting of rights to women will not affect anyone’s current status. The metaphor of the full cup is employed to great effect, helping her both to shape her ideas more clearly, and to enable her audience to understand her argument in the most basic, simple terms. “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?” (ll. 12-13) The idea of sharing is also explored, and her audience are reminded time and again of Biblical precedent for the equal treatment of women. The statement that she cannot read but can hear helps to underscore the ‘homespun wisdom’ of what she is saying, as she uses ethos to appeal to her audience. This is a clever trick to make the issue seem as simple and clear cut as possible; if she, as a poor black woman, can understand it then anyone should be able to, seems to be the main thrust of this technique. The speech’s structure moves from assertions about equal strength and capabilities, before appealing to the audience’s piety with the Biblical references, such as, “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.” (ll. 14-16)This is an example of logos.
Sojourner Truth’s speech is an iconic part of American history, showing society that seemingly inferior humans were actually just as capable of shaping and crafting ideas as their oppressors. The shock value of the context in which she made the speech should also not be underestimated. The fact that a white man later published different versions of the speech, making her appear less eloquent than she was, as well as Southern, is perhaps a sign that a wider audience found it hard to accept that such a woman was capable of speaking so rationally and well.
Susan B. Anthony’s speech was delivered in a different environment to that given by Sojourner Truth. Anthony’s speech was actually given to court, where she was on trial for having cast a vote in the 1872 Presidential election. It was, of course, illegal at the time for women to vote in elections. Her audience was therefore a packed courthouse, many of whom would have been hostile to her notions of women’s liberation. Justice Ward Hunt, the judge presiding over her case, actually instructed the jury to return a guilty verdict on Anthony. This shows the antipathy that was felt to granting the franchise to women at the time, and the scale of the task faced by Anthony in her cause. The speech is not really intended to persuade an audience in the court house then, but is intended to appeal to the country of the United States generally. Anthony was hoping to create as much publicity for her cause as she could.
Athony therefore uses legal appeal as one technique, one aspect of her logos, in the speech. She also uses ethos when she states, “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.” This is the careful way of speaking of the lawyer, the analyst who draws an audience in with logic and ethics, before using more emotion to end. Her statement at the end that, “Hence, every discrimination against women in the constitutions and laws of the several states is today null and void, precisely as is every one against Negroes,” works to draw fresh parallels between the movement for women’s rights and the emancipation of African Americans after the Civil War. This is an example of pathos, as well as showing elements of ethos, with its logical statements that discrimination against either African Americans or women is now completely unacceptable in a confident and modern Republic. The United States was approaching its first centenary in the 1870s, and there was a growing consciousness about what it meant to be an American. Anthony’s speech was capturing a moment of change, when the country was trying to find itself properly, and to recover from the bloody schism of the Civil War, which had finished last then a decade earlier. Anthony could recognise that this was a crucial time to make a mark in the women’s rights struggle; that this would be a moment when people were willing to consider her ideas in new lights, and to take forward the notion of the United States as a progressive beacon of enlightened opinion in the world, rather than another reactionary world power. Her appeal to all Americans to recognise the rights of women is presented as a logical progression for a country such as the USA. She also appeals to the constitution, something which occupies a particularly revered place in American culture, and would therefore attract the attention of both those in the audience who would respond well to emotional appeals, as well as those to whom logic is more important. This is shown in the line, “For any state to make sex a qualification that must ever result in the disfranchisement of one entire half of the people, is to pass a bill of attainder, or, an ex post facto law, and is therefore a violation of the supreme law of the land.” (ll. 14-15)
Anthony’s placing of the reference to the constitution at the beginning of the speech is appropriate for a court of law, and places her ideas on a sound legal basis. The speech ends with the lines, “Hence, every discrimination against women in the constitutions and laws of the several states is today null and void, precisely as is every one against Negroes.” (l. 30) This is utilised to end the speech on a logical, emotive and striking note. It is presented as the logical conclusion of an argument which she has built point by point, with each leading to her final conclusion in a manner reminiscent of a skilled courtroom lawyer. The structure therefore works very well, and is a punchy and hard-hitting speech, perfectly suited to a courtroom’s audience. The emotive ending also works to give court reporters and other journalists a headline. Anthony lived in an era in American history where the press was beginning to play an important part in society. She has shown awareness of this in her use of ready-made headlines such as, “Being persons, then, women are citizens.” This is really the kairos of the speech, where the moment is seized rhetorically by Anthony.
Overall, it can be seen that both speeches take full account of culture, history and timing to make an effective argument for the emancipation of women. By consciously relating the struggle to the struggle for African American emancipation, they open their cause to a much wider potential audience. Both speeches also show an astute awareness of audience, and an awareness of the rising importance of news media. They are far from rabble rousing calls for action; rather they represent a cerebral, educated and effective attack on the status quo, both inspiring their audience, and using a forensic, almost legal, skill to pick apart the arguments of their opponents.
Truth, Sojourner, speech, ‘Ain’t I a Woman’, 1851 retrieved from: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sojtruth-woman.asp, 04/13/2013
Anthony, Susan B., speech, ‘On Women’s Right to Vote’, 1873, retrieved from: http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/anthony.htm, 04/13/2013