This is our truth, tell us yours
Sojourner Truth is one of my heroes, as a woman, a Christian, and a human being. Not only did she fight, and win, the battle for custody of her children against a white supremacist state but she fought her entire life for freedom. She was also a passionate lay preacher which may explain why her speech “Aint I a woman*” still resonates today. As various privileged white feminists talk about some supposed universality in order to push their radfem transmisogynist and racist agenda I think we need to remember the words of Sojourner.
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?
The appeal to biological essentialism of people like Sarah Ditum is no different from the white men Sojourner was speaking about. Men who defined women as too weak and lacking in intellect to have the vote, men who claimed women needed their protection even whilst they raped the black women on their estates. Sojourner knew the truth, their definition of woman did not include her, or anyone who looked like her. To them woman meant white, all others were barely above the animals and often treated worse.
When terfs claim biological essentialism somehow explains their vile theories they are following in the footsteps of those who only allowed womanhood to be conferred on the acceptable women. They too would look at Sojourner and deny her rights, her very womanhood due to her failure to share those norms they have deemed universal. Sojourner knew that the markers of womanhood as determined by the society of her time did not apply to her. She did not get the treatment accorded a woman, she worked, she was whipped, she was treated as a man, a black man was treated, but as she asks, “Aint I a woman?”
I have written before of the willingness of the Mistress Epps feminists to fight over the bodies of Women of Colour in order to win their battle with sex workers, trans women, all lesser women who do not fit at the Masters table. It should therefore come as no surprise that they are willing to use racist and exclusionary arguments in order to attack trans women. They must not be allowed to get away with it. This is not a dinner party debate, the lives of trans women and women of colour (and especially trans women of colour) are deemed to be worth less. They are barely accorded the status human by so many. As with sex worker violence against them is seen as a joke, a trope to be used in films and video games. We are seen as disposable and worth less than the good white cis women who wait patiently for the head pats of patriarchy.
There is no universal experience of womanhood. As Sojourner so eloquently said, when she laboured, when she was beaten, when she was treated as a possession, a beast of the field, she was still a woman. Only those who would deny the multitude of experiences of lesser women would say she did not have the right to call herself a woman.
* I am aware there is some controversy over the exact text of her speech, here I use the most famous version.