Sojourner Truth exists in American popular culture as a strong contributor to the movements for abolition and women's rights. In order to maintain this image of strength and make the case that black women are just as capable as white men, Truth intentionally elided her disabled right hand. This article explores representations of Sojourner Truth in relation to her nineteenth century context and, in particular, social stigmas regarding race, gender and disability. The interpretations of pictures, a painting, and two events contained in Truth's Narrative suggest that Truth argued against gender and racial oppression by operating with an ideology of ability that suggested that both women and African-Americans are strong, powerful, and able. As Truth maintained an ideology of ability in order to subvert gender and racial hierarchies, she offers a case study into the benefits of intersectional approaches to historical studies.

Sojourner Truth exists in American popular culture as the bearer of a strong, working arm with a voice that powerfully contributed to the movements for abolition and women's rights. With her arm and her voice, Truth used her body to confront social norms and construct new ways of existing in her nineteenth century context. In textbooks and popular children's stories, Truth has been established as a heroine who, with her famous question, "Ar'n't I a woman?", established her status as a strong black woman.1 But this is not all scholars know of Truth's body. According to her Narrative, Truth's body was not only black and female, but also disabled.2 While representations of Truth called attention to the reality of her black, female body, no representation directed attention to Truth's disability. Indeed, just the opposite occurred as pictures of Truth directed attention away from Truth's disability, often portraying her disabled hand performing tasks such as knitting. One painting even "corrected" her "disfigurement"! In brief, Truth, marginalized on account of her race, gender and disability, is represented as strong and able-bodied.

Although contemporary literary studies has demonstrated the limits of assuming a connection between author and text, this essay suggests that Truth's own self-representation called attention to her black, female body while directing attention away from her disability. Such an argument is supported by Truth's self-compiled Book of Life and pictures of Truth because both suggest a relationship between Truth's self-representation and other's representations of her as far as they demonstrate collusion between Truth and others. This article analyzes pictures of Truth in addition to two events recorded in Truth's Book of Life: her famous 1851 "Ar'n't I a woman" address and Truth's response to a challenge in Indiana in which she proved her femininity by displaying her breast. In each of these contexts, Truth confronted cultural discourses with her body. By constructing her body as a challenge to social norms, Truth entered the discourse of nineteenth century abolitionists and women's rights activists concerning the nature of visible differences among human bodies.3 Truth, however, established gender and racial equality by maintaining an ideology of ability.4 By calling attention to the reality of Truth's disability, this essay suggests that Truth's context allowed her to construct her black, female body as a powerful confrontation to the discourses on race and gender through the rejection of her disability. Although some contemporary biographers such as Nell Irvin Painter identify Truth's disability, none has fully explored the significance of Truth's disability in relation to her self-representation as strong and able-bodied.5 Such an investigation is necessary because many arguments for gender and racial equality initially relied and continue to rely on ideologies of ability. Arguments for gender and racial equality are, in other words, often built on an ideology of ability and, although this article demonstrates this operative ideology in the limited case of Sojourner Truth, further studies need to consider the relationship between civil rights movements and ideologies of ability.6

The case of Sojourner Truth suggests that a single critical theory is often inadequate to deal with historical realities because a single critical theory may operate with categories that another critical theory has revealed to be problematic. This analysis of Truth demonstrates the value of working at the intersection of race, gender, and disability in historical studies. It begins with a brief biographical introduction to Sojourner Truth before exploring Truth's nineteenth century context and, finally, how Truth used images and words in order to construct herself in relation to this context. Although this analysis focuses on an historical case, it also exemplifies the need to continue working at the intersection of race, gender, and disability in our contemporary context where, in particular, some feminist arguments for women's equality continue to rely on rhetorics of ability.7

Sojourner Truth

As a black woman, Sojourner Truth used her body to challenge racist and sexist discourses that dehumanized black women. Born around 1797 in upstate New York, her parents gave her the name of Isabella, a name that she changed in 1843 when she announced to her employer that she would no longer answer to the name Isabella but Sojourner Truth. Nell Irvin Painter, a recent biographer of Truth, suggests that this new name carries many layers of meaning for Truth as it attests to Truth's itinerancy, her spiritual authority, and her anxiety over having to prove the truth in several different legal contexts.8

Truth spent about the first thirty years of her life as a slave, being first split from two of her siblings and later, at the age of nine, split from her parents and another brother. After working for John Neely for a year, she was sold to the Schriver family into what she hoped would be a better environment. This new arrangement only lasted a little over a year until Isabella was sold for a final time to the Dumont family where she probably endured sexual and physical abuse.9 At the Dumont's, Isabella performed field labor for John Dumont and household labor for Sally Dumont.

In the midst of New York's state-wide movement to abolish slavery, Isabella struck an agreement with Dumont that she would be freed about a year and a half prior to the date set for all New York slaves to be free: July 4, 1827. After making this agreement, Isabella injured her hand and, as a result of her injury, her farm and household work became less productive. Due to her decreased productivity, Dumont reneged on his agreement to free her and she remained a slave until she freed herself and her youngest child, Sophia when, according to Painter's account, Truth received instructions from God. Painter states: "Looking back, Sojourner Truth said in the late 1840s that the answers came from someone she identified as God, a God of her own making, very different from that of the Methodists she met in Ulster County [New York] … In 1826, Isabella heard the voice of her God instructing her when to set out on her own as a free woman."10 Although Dumont did pursue her and her baby, he did not take them by force and, by the account in her Narrative, she experienced a sanctifying vision of God at the moment she was about to climb into Dumont's carriage.11 When she came-to after her vision, Dumont was gone.

Painter distinguishes between Isabella the slave, the life of Sojourner Truth, and the symbol of Sojourner Truth. While Painter's distinction between the life and symbol of Sojourner Truth makes an important contribution to studies on Sojourner Truth, the distinction between the life and the symbol is not as clear as Painter suggests. Truth participated both in compiling and distributing her Book of Life and her portraits. It is, therefore, impossible to parse out which aspects of Truth's persona are "real" and which are "symbolic", which aspects of Truth's image are self-representations and which are other's representations of Truth. Indeed, there are strong indications that the extant images and stories of Truth bear, in some way, Truth's stamp but contemporary scholars only have access to this stamp by looking at it through other's representations. Parsing out Truth's "real" persona is further complicated by the reality that Truth strategically positioned herself within existing cultural discourses in a manner that allowed her to successfully navigate nineteenth century society and politics. As she positioned herself in light of cultural discourses, Truth participated to some extent in her own symbolification.12 The next section explores some cultural discourses of the nineteenth century in more detail in order to establish an historical foundation for exploring Truth's images and speeches and their relation to her cultural context.

Disability, Gender, and Race in the Nineteenth Century United States

Sojourner Truth's body, like all bodies, was shaped by its cultural context. Although Truth's nineteenth century context has been explored extensively from the exclusive perspectives of race, femininity, and disability, scholarship is only beginning to consider the relationships between these stigmas. The emergence of critical theories of intersectionality, such as feminist disability theory, suggests that the separation of these discourses into separate discourses of oppression fails to identify how discourses of oppression perpetuate and sustain one another.13 Because the stigmas of debility, femininity, and racial otherness in the latter part of the nineteenth century have been described in other scholarship, this section pays particular attention to the intersections of these stigmas. 14 Exploring the relationship between these three social stigmas in the nineteenth-century context establishes a foundation for considering how Sojourner Truth used her own body to navigate these stigmas.15

Several approaches to disability in history have demonstrated connections between the marginalization of disability and the oppression of women and racial minorities. As Douglas Baynton suggests, "It may well be that all our social hierarchies have drawn on culturally constructed and socially sanctioned notions of disability."16 Baynton's claim advocates an historical approach that refuses to separate discourses of oppression. It is impossible, in other words, to explore Sojourner Truth's subordination from the perspective of race minus a consideration of her gender or disability. Rather than this add-on approach, Baynton's study of disability in history shows how oppressive discourses build on one another and often pit oppressed groups against one another, thereby sustaining cultural normativity. For an example from the late nineteenth century, consider John Williams-Searle's argument that the marginalization of male disabled railroad workers corresponded to the marginalization of women. Williams-Searle states, "Limits on a man's ability to be economically productive, such as unemployment or injury, also imperiled his manhood. Railroaders, miners, and others in dangerous occupations recognized that a disabling injury posed a central threat to manliness as they understood it."17 As Williams-Searle suggests, disabling injuries threatened the very economic productivity and independence that had been key for American identity since the Revolutionary War. Moreover, Williams-Searle's argument suggests that the stigma of disability in the nineteenth century is also connected to the cultural identification of women as weak and, as a result of their weakness, subordinate to men. When women — early suffragettes in particular — responded to the cultural notion that they were weak by claiming their strength, they continued to assume the value of ability and, thereby, attempted to resolve their subordination by continuing the oppression of another.18 But how does such an argument work for a woman who is also disabled?

Baynton and Williams-Searle's arguments suggest that the exclusion of women and African-Americans in nineteenth century society was predicated on an exclusion of those with disabilities. By exploring how black and white women were excluded from society based on their assumed lack of physical and intellectual ability and how black men were excluded from society based on their assumed lack of intellectual ability, the following paragraphs suggest that the exclusion of women and African-Americans from society assumed the exclusion of those with disabilities. Understanding how predominant cultural discourses built problematic stereotypes of women and African-Americans on an ideology of ability creates a foundation to understand the depth of the stigma of disability in Sojourner Truth's context.19

First, as previous paragraphs have suggested, the gender hierarchy, which assumed the superiority of men, relied on an ideology of ability. There has been extensive historical engagement with the nineteenth century "cult of true womanhood" as well as women's fight for suffrage.20 Feminists have made much of Victorian hoop skirts, tightly laced corsets that destroyed women's internal organs, and the fainting, passive Victorian woman.21 The following highlights a few aspects of nineteenth century femininity in order to draw them into the larger nexus of cultural normativity. The industrial revolution made it possible to bifurcate society into two spheres: the private and the public. With this bifurcation came the gender definition of the spheres, which was particularly notable in the upper class. This bifurcation assumed that women worked in the private sphere while the men worked in the public. In the nineteenth century, the medical model of gender distinctions provided scientific support to the separation of the sexes into different spheres.22 This bifurcation of spheres was relevant to Sojourner Truth's self-representation as she constructed herself as a working woman who participated in the public sphere, thereby suggesting the limitations of the public/private bifurcation of society.

Although histories of this period typical in women's studies usually highlight women's attempt to gain access to the public via their fight for suffrage (a fight began in the 1850s and continued until the passing of the 19th amendment in 1920), scholars should no longer tell the history of women as if it is disconnected from the rest of a cultural context.23 In this light, women's studies must not simply recover the stories of women but also see how women's history has sustained oppressive discourses. In particular, the argument that relegated women to the private sphere is built on an ideology of ability. Men are more physically able than women so they should work in the factories and more intellectually able than women so they should be educated and participate in public discourse. Rather than challenge this ideology of ability, women attempted to argue for their rights based, at least in part, on their capabilities. For example, the 1848 Declarations of Sentiments and Resolutions, drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton for the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention, states: "Resolved, That the equality of human rights results necessarily from the fact of the identity of the race in capabilities and responsibilities."24 In sum, women should be accorded the same rights as men because women are just as able-bodied as men.

Second, the racial hierarchy, which assumed the superiority of Caucasians, assumed an ideology of ability. As many feminists have explored and critiqued the culture that oppressed women in the nineteenth century, many African American liberationists have critiqued the culture that enslaved Africans and their descendents.25 Arguments for slavery included the weak mind of the African and their essential brute strength.26 These arguments defended a culture that capitalized on the strength of African men while keeping them away from things that might harm a weak mind. As with the cult of true womanhood, this racial discourse is also sustained by an ideology of ability. A surface level argument for racial equality might, therefore, suggest that African-Americans are just as physically and intellectually capable as Caucasians. Yet, as with arguments for gender equality, such an argument relies on an ideology of ability.

The stigmas of race, gender, and disability change when non-"normative" race, gender, and ability are combined into one body as they are in the case of Sojourner Truth. The existence of black women posed a challenge to the ideal nineteenth century woman. As the reality of black women showed, this picture of nineteenth century womanhood was an ideal only achievable by a few. The "cult of true womanhood" was not a cult for all women. Indeed, its membership was rather exclusive. As Marcia Riggs notes, "In effect, the 'cult of true womanhood' was a classist and racist ideology of womanhood."27 Scholars have shown that, in order to deal with the challenge working black women posed to the cult of true womanhood, black women were either constructed as hyper-sexualized, de-sexualized, or alternately sexed males.28 Such a caricature is particularly relevant for this analysis of Sojourner Truth because, as a black woman, these caricatures describe how Sojourner Truth may have been viewed in the late nineteenth century. These caricatures furthermore suggest that stigmas surrounding black women were not only dependent on race and gender hierarchies but also directly dependent on ideologies of ability. In particular, equating black women with their sexuality equates black women with regard to the ability to produce and reproduce.

The following section turns to a variety of sources in order to development the argument that Truth constructed her body in a manner that both sustained and challenged aspects of her particular context. By arguing that Truth's body was a result of her context, the following section identifies manners in which Truth was aware of this construction and was an agent in intentionally constructing herself to challenge her context as well as manners in which Truth was passively constructed by her context (as everyone is). Because I am concerned with the construction of Truth's body, I am not seeking "objective" historical data but, rather, I recognize that everything we know about Truth is constructed and, therefore, a result of a particular context. With this background, the following sections examine pictures, a painting, and two eventful speeches through which Truth's body is shaped in opposition to cultural expectations.

Images: Representations of Sojourner Truth in Picture and Painting

In the 1860s cartes-de-viste, a new cheap form of photographic memorabilia or communication, swept the United States. Sojourner Truth used the popularity of cartes-de-viste as a fund-raising mechanism and sold them at her public appearances. Truth's pictures for the cartes-de-viste were mostly taken in 1864 and depict Truth, holding knitting needles and dressed in simple Quaker dress, next to a table with flowers. Under the photo, the caption states, "I sell the shadow to support the substance."29 This statement highlights an important aspect of Truth's self-representation in these photographs. Truth conceived the picture of her body as a shadow that provided financial support for her (disembodied?) substance. This section contends that these images of Truth were carefully arranged with attention to how the images would function in Truth's cultural context. Painter notes: "Truth's images may appear to be unmediated, the essence of her real self, but in fact they were carefully arranged."30 By considering how Truth is represented/represented herself in her cartes-de-viste, the following paragraphs theorize how she constructed her body for the public in manners that challenged and sustained predominant social discourses.

Cartes-de-viste were arranged differently for different purposes. Abraham Lincoln used cartes-de-viste in his campaign for presidency, "freak-shows" produced cartes-de-viste to further intrigue and allow gazers to linger without the shame of lingering that manifests when examining a human other face-to-face, and former slaves used cartes-de-viste to highlight their visible scars in order to move viewers toward abolition. Each of these uses called for a different type of representation. Truth's portraits represent her as a genteel woman. While Painter claims that Truth's portraits "also reminded purchasers that she symbolized the woman who had been a slave", Truth's pictures do not invoke her experiences as a slave.31 The settings of Truth's photos, rather, invoke the cult of true womanhood. Painter describes the objects used in the photos as "simplified tokens of leisure and feminine gentility."32 These objects — knitting needles, flowers, and sometimes a book — represent Truth as a genteel woman. As a genteel woman, Truth sustains the cultural discourse on the nature of femininity while also challenging the cultural discourse on the nature of black femininity. In these photographs, Truth draws attention to her cultural femininity, thereby challenging the association between blackness and maleness. The cartes-de-viste, therefore, represent a complex engagement that mirrors the complexity of Truth's own engagement with her culture as a black woman.

These cartes-de-viste interact not only with cultural discourses on race and gender but also engage with cultural stigmas against disability as they attempt to direct attention away from Truth's disabled hand. In most of the early photographs, Truth's hand appears to grasp the knitting string, but in a later image (ca. 1870), Truth grasps her disabled hand with her left, covering the disfigurement. As photographs of someone with a disability but attempting to hide that disability, they can be categorized as "realistic" using Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's taxonomy of visual rhetorics of disability.33 As "realistic" photographs, they call for the viewer to identify with the viewed through shared attributes. "Realistic" photos invoke a response from the viewer that sees how the viewed is "just like me". They also manifest the "social mandate to hide disability" which Garland-Thomson identifies as an aspect of the "realistic" category of disability photography.34 As attempts to hide her disability, Truth's photos can be read as sustaining the nineteenth century stigmatization of disability.

Truth's "hidden" disability becomes even more apparent in a painting where she appears with Abraham Lincoln.35 Although it is probably easier to suggest that there is little of the "real" Sojourner Truth in this painting, as it was probably painted for the 1893 World's Fair and about a decade after Truth's death, the painting continues the theme of hiding disability already present in the pictures of Truth.36 Painter notes the eccentricity of the painting, suggesting the improbability of the encounter occurring as it is depicted. Painter states: "Courter's painting depicts Truth seated and Lincoln standing — a highly unlikely arrangement, given their relative status. Lincoln is showing Truth the Bible given him by the colored people of Baltimore. He looks down, she gazes into the distance."37 While the postures of the figures in the painting may have been impossible in the nineteenth century political climate, what is even more striking about the painting, and goes unidentified by Painter, is Truth's right hand. In the painting, Truth holds her right hand up and out, with an open palm. It appears Truth is either gesturing to the bible on the table or waiting for something to be placed in her hand. But the manner in which her hand is depicted was impossible for Truth given Truth's disabled right hand. The painting does not focus on Truth's right hand so its "corrected" presence leads to a key question: was Truth's hand intentionally "corrected" or was she depicted as she had come to be known in her public persona — without disability?

Either way, the manner in which Truth is represented here sustained the cultural discourse that stigmatized disability and did so in a more striking manner than Truth's photos. Perhaps the change of mediums facilitated different representations of Truth, but I suggest that the medium of paint simply amplified the "corrections" already begun in the photographs. In order to challenge the cultural discourses that sustained race and gender hierarchies, representations of Truth portrayed her as strong and able-bodied. While challenging the marginalization of African-Americans and women, such a representation served to further stigmatize those with disabilities. If images of Truth used rhetoric of ability to construct Truth as a strong woman, did her speeches also draw on this rhetoric or did Truth's speeches convey something her images did not? In order to explore this question, the following section turns from Truth's representation in images to analyze two of Truth's public presentations: her 1851 "Ar'n't I a woman" address and her address at an 1858 gathering of abolitionists. In each instance, Truth uses words and her body to make a case for the equality of black women by "passing" as able-bodied.

Embodied Words: Sojourner Truth as a Challenge to "True Womanhood"

In 1851, Truth addressed the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. This speech has become legendary and lies at the heart of many feminist understandings of Sojourner Truth. There are two extant versions of this speech: one was written shortly after the address in the June 21, 1851 Salem Bugle, the other was written by Francis Gage, one of the presiders at the Convention. The second version is included in Truth's Book of Life. While several readers of Sojourner Truth, including Piepmeier and Painter, suggest that the Bugle version is more accurate to what actually occurred, the inclusion of Gage's version in Truth's Book of Life demonstrates the importance of that later version for the construction of Truth's public persona and perhaps even for Truth herself.38 It is Gage's version that repeats Truth's famous question: "Ar'n't I a woman?" and Gage's version that attributes a southern dialect to the northern Truth. Gage's version dramatizes the event: "Slowly from her seat in the corner rose Sojourner Truth, who, till now, had hardly lifted her head."39 After describing how Truth hushed the crowd with her presence and began her speech, Gage continues, "And, raising herself to her full hight [sic], and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked, 'And ar'n't I a woman? Look at me. Look at my arm,' and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing its tremendous muscular power."40 While Gage's version dramatizes Truth's speech, both versions of the speech depict Truth using her black female body to demonstrate female equality with males and complicate the issue of "women's rights". In both versions, Truth referred to her bodily capabilities in order to establish women's equality with men.41

In this 1851 address, Truth's references to her own body challenged cultural discourses on womanhood even as they sustained cultural discourses on black womanhood. Truth's strength demonstrated that women were strong, not weak nor passive. As Painter states: "At every step, she is the bodily equal of a farming man."42 In Gage's version, Truth even held up her arm to call attention to her muscular strength. Recognizing the social construction of her sexual identity, Truth attempted an alternative performance that directed attention to the constructed nature of normative performances.43 In this alternative performance, Truth refused to accept the normative cultural discourse on the weakness of women and instead chose a performance that challenged those norms. The female strength performed by Truth demonstrated the potential strength of all women's bodies.

In this speech, Truth constructed her black body as female in order to challenge cultural understandings of "woman" among those for and against women's rights. Truth challenged her audience, "I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and ar'n't I a woman?"44 Is strength opposed to femininity? Truth definitively answered no in her attempt to shift the discourse on women's rights. By calling attention to her strength, however, Truth risked perpetuating the cultural understanding of black women as males. Black women were understood as entirely different from white women. Truth's point in this speech is that black women are just as much "woman" as white women. According to Truth, the strength of black women demonstrates that strength and femininity can co-exist in one body.

In Akron, Truth constructed not only her own body, but also the bodies of powerful biblical women to challenge the cultural discourse on women. Piepmeier suggests that Truth's intention in this 1851 speech was to construct herself within the cultural discourse of tall-tale figures. In tall-tales, as Piepmeier points out, bodies that might normally be interpreted as freakish or grotesque become heroic. Truth is not, however, constructing herself as "heroic because grotesque" as a tall-tale figure. 45 This interpretation might be possible if Truth is considered as a particularly tall and strong black female who constructs her "grotesqueness" in relation to her black femaleness. Truth did not, however, draw attention to her "grotesqueness" in order to construct herself as heroic. Perhaps Truth's attention to other aspects of her body, such as her blackness, strength, and femininity, were attempts to construct herself as a tall-tale figure but, if that is the case, Truth constructed herself as "heroic because grotesque" while deflecting attention from her "grotesqueness". Truth, thus, used her body to challenge cultural discourses on black womanhood, while sustaining cultural discourses on disability. As Truth is represented in both versions of the Akron speech, Truth's attention to her strength demonstrates her pride in her black female body while simultaneously negating her disability.

Truth also deployed feminist and racial-pride rhetoric while negating her disability in an 1858 speech on abolition in a town in Indiana. At the end of her speech, a group of men prevented the meeting from adjourning by claiming that Truth was really a man in woman's disguise. According to the men, Truth was an abolitionist who sought sympathy and recruits to her cause based on her story as a former slavewoman while she was, in fact, a man. The request, as recorded in Truth's Book of Life, was led by a doctor who requested that Truth allow her breasts to be examined by some of the ladies present in order to determine Truth's sex. When chaos erupted among Truth's supporters and those who supported the idea of having Truth examined, Truth entered the conversation. According to her Book of Life:

Sojourner told them that her breasts had suckled many a white babe, to the exclusion of her own offspring; that some of those babies had grown to man's estate; that, although they had suckled her colored breasts, they were, in her estimation, far more manly than they (her persecutors) appeared to be; and she quietly asked them, as she disrobed her bosom, if they, too, wished to suck! In vindication of her truthfulness, she told them that she would show her breast to the whole congregation; that it was not to her shame that she uncovered her breast before them, but to their shame.46

In this response Truth actively constructed her public persona as a former slave. While suckling white children may have been a key part of a southern slavewoman's job, it is unlikely the northern Truth actually "suckled many a white babe." The point here is not to question Truth's story or her legitimacy but to note how, as a public figure standing for all black slave women, Truth took a group attribute onto her body. Truth's body, in Truth's construction of it, represented a collection of all black slavewomen and, as such, spoke on behalf of all black slavewomen.

As a compilation of black slavewomen, Truth's body took on the stereotypes of black slavewomen as mammies, sexually loose, and males, reinventing some of these stereotypes while sustaining others. As Painter notes, "Truth had turned the challenge upside down. Her skillful remaking employed the all-too-common exhibition of an undressed black body, with its resonance of the slave auction that undressed women for sale. What had been intended as degradation became a triumph of embodied rhetoric."47 While Painter claims that Truth turned the challenge upside down without speaking as a mammy, Truth's challenge turned on her utilization of the mammy stereotype. In other words, Truth proclaimed her truthfulness but not on the terms of her accusers. Truth, rather, employed the mammy stereotype to call attention to the public nature of black women's breasts. In the nineteenth century, black women's breasts were available for display from the auction block to child rearing and sex. Truth's words, therefore, called attention to the public availability of black women as mammys while Truth's body called attention to the public availability of black women on the auction block. Truth's protest involved exaggerating the social norm.

Truth made her body a protest by offering it for examination. In the process, however, Truth used her body to shame not only her accusers but also anyone participating in the system that constructed black women's bodies as available. In this context, Truth again used her body to challenge cultural discourses on race and gender that stigmatized her body. Yet, at the same time, the construction of her body as female, black, and able maintained an ideology of ability, which assumed abled bodies to be superior to disabled bodies. In the 1851 address, Truth directed attention away from her disability by consciously drawing attention to her strength. In her response to this 1858 query regarding her gender, Truth took a different approach by using her body to demonstrate her femininity. While this latter use of her body did not directly elide her disability — as in the 1851 address — it represents another example of how Truth used her body to challenge racist ideologies of gender by directing attention to her body but away from her disabled hand.


Representations of Truth's body in images and speeches now preserved in writing served an important purpose in the nineteenth century context where ideologies of racism and sexism served to subjugate African-Americans and women. Yet, by establishing racial and gender equality on the foundation of equal ability, nineteenth century feminists and abolitionists assumed an ideology of ability — an ideology that valorized intellectual ability along with physical ability — that lay under racism and sexism. These activists did not attempt to argue for equality by dismantling the ideology of ability, which grounded racism and sexism. Such an approach to equal rights is particularly interesting in light of the case of Sojourner Truth who fought with feminists and race activists for the rights of African-American female bodies that were marginalized for both their gender and their race. Her approach, however, maintained the equality of African-American women based on their ability. Rather than dismantling the ideology of ability which grounded racism and sexism, Truth, like the equal rights activists in whose footsteps she followed, maintained the equality of African-American women on the basis of their ability. This line of argument, however, was particularly problematic for Truth as it required her to deny her own physical disability in order to construct herself as able-bodied. Marginalized according to her gender, race, and ability, Truth found a home for her African-American female body by alienating her disabled body.

Truth's case is important for critical studies in general and Disability Studies in particular for two reasons. First, Truth's case suggests a complex relationship between cultural expectations regarding disability, gender, and race. This complex relationship cannot be understood by exploring Truth's gender and race apart from her disability. Contemporary scholarship often focuses on how Sojourner Truth made room for African-American female bodies in a context where bodies were only recognized as white male (dominant), African-American (subordinate due to race), or female (subordinate due to gender). Yet, such scholarship valorizes Truth's contribution while overlooking what Truth had to alienate in order to make a place for African-American female bodies: her own disabled hand, the existence of which may have undermined her attempt to construct African-American female bodies as able and, therefore, equal.

Second, Truth's case suggests a scholarly trajectory that considers the relationship between first-wave feminist understandings of disability and contemporary feminist understandings of disability. In our contemporary context, where productivity continues to govern personal understandings of self-worth, feminists must come to terms with the movement's perpetuation of an ideology of ability and establish a trajectory that refuses to equate success with productivity. Such a trajectory has been initiated by feminist disability theorists such as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson but must extend further into feminist and Disability Studies.48

By continuing to study Truth solely as an African-American woman instead of an African-American woman with a disability, scholars perpetuate an ideology of ability that continues to appropriate Truth as an able-bodied woman. Contemporary scholars must, therefore, put on multiple critical lenses in order to reveal the depth of social stigmas in a variety of historical contexts and avoid repeating those social stigmas in contemporary scholarship. By refusing to allow representations of Truth to continue to "pass" as able-bodied, contemporary scholars may consider Truth's body as a challenge to the rhetoric of ability. Moreover, calling attention to Truth's use of an ideology of ability to argue for gender and racial equality demonstrates a case where gender and racial equality are established via an ideology of ability. Truth's case demonstrates that scholarship must be constructed on the fault lines of identity — especially where race, gender, and disability (and their stigmas) collide in a singular body.

Appendix: Truth in Photograph and Painting

portrait of Sojourner Truth captioned 'I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.'

Figure 1.

One of Truth's favorite cartes-de-viste (Painter, 189). Unidentified photographer. 1864.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-08978

portrait of Abraham Lincoln standing near Sojourner Truth seated at a desk

Figure 2.

Frank Courter. 1893.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-16225

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  • Cannon, Katie. "Slave Ideology and Biblical Interpretation" in Katie's Cannon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community. Continuum, 1996.
  • Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.
  • Cone, James. A Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990, 1970.
  • ---. God of the Oppressed. New York: Harper, 1975.
  • Copeland, M. Shawn. "Body, Representation, and Black Religious Discourse" in Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse. Edited by Laura Donaldson and Kwok Pui-lan. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Douglas, Kelly Brown. Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1999.
  • Essays and Pamphlets on Anti-Slavery. Westport, Connecticut: Negro Universities Press, 1970, 1833.
  • Garcia, Jesus. Creating America: A History of the United States. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie."Feminist Disability Studies" Signs 30:2 (2005): 1557-1587.
  • ---. "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory" Feminist Formations 14:3 (2002): 1-32.
  • Gilbert, Olive and Sojourner Truth. Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York in 1828. Boston, Printed for the Author, 1850.
  • Hall, Kim. "Feminism, Disability, and Embodiment" Feminist Formations: National Women's Studies Association Journal 14:3 (2002): vii-xiii.
  • Harper, William, James Hammond, William Simms, and Thomas Drew. The Proslavery Argument, As Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968, 1852.
  • Hawkesworth, Mary. Feminist Inquiry: From Political Conviction to Methodological Innovation. New Jeresy: Rutgers, 2006.
  • Hekman, Susan. "Material Bodies" in Body and Flesh: A Philosophical Reader. Edited by Don Welton. Grand Rapids: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998.
  • Jones, Jacqueline. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow. New York: Vintage, 1986.
  • Jones, Serene. Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.
  • Kolmar, Wendy and Frances Bartkowski, editors. Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2005, 2000.
  • Longmore, Paul and Lauri Umansky, editors. The New Disability History: American Perspectives. New York and London: New York University, 2001.
  • Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 2007, 1984.
  • Newman, Barbara. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: University of California, 1987.
  • Mckissak, Patricia. Sojourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman. New York: Scholastic, 1994.
  • Oyewumi, Oyeronke. "Multiculturalism or multibodism: On the impossible intersections of race and gender in American white feminist and Black Nationalist discourses." The Western Journal of Black Studies 23 (1999): 182.
  • Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996.
  • Piepmeier, Alison. Out in Public: Configurations of Women's Bodies in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004.
  • Pinn, Anthony and Dwight Hopkins, editors. Loving the Body: Black Religious Studies and the Erotic. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2004.
  • Riggs, Marcia. "'A Clarion Call to Awake! Arise! Act!': The Response of the Black Women's Club Movement to Institutionalized Moral Evil" in A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering. Edited by Emilie M. Townes. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993.
  • Rockwell, Anne and Gregory Christie. Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth. New York: Knopf Books, 2000.
  • Scott, Joan. "Feminism's History" Journal of Women's History 16:2 (2004): 10-29.
  • Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2008.
  • Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. Oxford: Oxford University, 1985.
  • Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions." In History Speaks: Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. Edited by Douglas M. Rife. Carthage, IL: Teaching and Learning Company, 2002.
  • Tertullian, "On the Dress of Women." In The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume IV. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. New York: Scribners, 1908-1911.
  • Townes, Emilie. "Living in the New Jerusalem: The Rhetoric and Movement of Liberation in the House of Evil" in A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering. Edited by Emilie M. Townes. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993.
  • Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
  • Vogel, Todd. Rewriting White: Race, Class, and Cultural Capital in Nineteenth Century America. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University, 2004.
  • Wayne, Tiffany. Women's Roles in Nineteenth Century America. Greenwood, 2006.


  1. For an argument that Truth is constructed in this manner, see Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996). For an example of a textbook, see Jesus Garcia, Creating America: A History of the United States (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), 440ff. For children's literature, see Anne Rockwell and Gregory Christie, Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth (New York: Knopf Books, 2000) and Patricia Mckissak, Sojourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman (New York: Scholastic, 1994). Throughout this article, I used gendered terms without assuming the sex/gender dichotomy. In this, I follow Judith Butler and queer theorists. This means that references to "woman" cannot be assumed to refer to sex as distinct from gender while references to "female" or "femininity" cannot be assumed to refer to gender as distinct from sex. For more on this, see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).

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  2. Olive Gilbert and Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York in 1828 (Boston, Printed for the Author, 1850), 39.

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  3. Scholarship concerning the nature of visible human difference continues today in the form of feminist, gender, and queer studies, Disability Studies, and race studies among others. For discussions of embodiment in relation to feminist discourse, see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, 25. For critiques of Butler, see Linda Alcoff "Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism", Susan Bordo "Bringing Body to Theory" in Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O.J. (Berkeley: University of California, 1997): 173-191, Susan Bordo, "Postmodern Subjects, Postmodern Bodies" Feminist Theory 18:1 (Spring 1992): 159-176, and (a critique specifically from Disability Studies) Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2008), 82. Finally, for an example of the discussion of embodied human difference from race studies, see the collection of articles in Anthony Pinn and Dwight Hopkins (eds.) Loving the Body: Black Religious Studies and the Erotic (New York: Palgrave MacMillon, 2004).

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  4. The use of "ideology of ability" throughout this essay is related to Tobin Siebers' definition of an ideology of ability as, "at its simplest, the preference for able-bodiedness. At its most radical, it [ideology of ability] defines the baseline by which humanness is determined, setting the measure of body and mind that gives or denies human status to individual persons." Siebers, 8.

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  5. Painter, 186.

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  6. Kim Hall states, "Some white suffragists used a rhetorical strategy that relied upon rather than undermined white supremacy and patriarchy. By contrast, feminist Disability Studies strives to show how liberation requires transforming society to include diverse embodiments." Kim Hall, "Feminism, Disability, and Embodiment" Feminist Formations: National Women's Studies Association Journal 14:3 (2002): vii-xiii.

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  7. This article serves as a response to calls for work on the intersections of feminist and Disability Studies but it also demonstrates the need for more of this intersectional work to be done. During the past decade, three journals from the disciplines of philosophy, religion, and feminist studies put out special issues calling for intersectional work between disability and feminist studies. See "Special Issue: Feminism and Disability" Hypatia 16:4 (2001); "Special Issue: Feminist Disability Studies" Feminist Formations: National Women's Studies Association Journal 14:3 (2002); Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 26:2 (2010).

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  8. Painter, 74-5.

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  9. Painter, 14.

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  10. Painter, 24-5.

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  11. As the edition of her Narrative edited by Olive Gilbert states, "But, ere she reached the vehicle, she says that God revealed himself to her, with all the suddenness of a flash of lightning, showing her, 'in the twinkling of an eye, that he was all over '—that he pervaded the universe—'and that there was no place where God was not.' She became instantly conscious of her great sin in forgetting her almighty Friend and 'ever-present help in time of trouble.'" Olive Gilbert and Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York in 1828 (Boston, Printed for the Author, 1850), 65-6.

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  12. See Piepmeier's discussion of Truth's construction of her body as a tall-tale figure. In this work, Piepmeier focuses on the bodies of five nineteenth-century women, including Sojourner Truth, by using post-structuralist and feminist theories of embodiment. This article both expands on and challenges Piepmeier's work. Specifically, this essay's attention to Truth's disability through the lens of disability theory identifies a key aspect of Truth's body that should not be overlooked in any consideration of her embodiment. See Alison Piepmeier, Out in Public: Configurations of Women's Bodies in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004).

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  13. For an example and definition of feminist disability theory as a field, see Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory" Feminist Formations 14:3 (2002): 1-32; Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, "Feminist Disability Studies" Signs 30:2 (2005): 1557-1587.

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  14. As Patricia Hill Collins states, "The economic exploitation that produced a fledgling social class system among Blacks, the gender-specific use of violence for political domination, and the use of gender-specific controlling images to justify these practices are, by now, fairly well known." Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 59. For an in-depth consideration of gender in the nineteenth century, see Carroll Smith-Rosenberg Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (Oxford: Oxford University, 1985). On race, see Todd Vogel, Rewriting White: Race, Class, and Cultural Capital in Nineteenth Century America (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University, 2004). From the field of Disability Studies, see Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky, eds. The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York and London: New York University, 2001).

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  15. For more on the relationship between social inequalities in history, see Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia, 1999). For the argument from the perspective of disability theory, see Baynton, "Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History" in The New Disability History, 52.

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  16. Baynton, "Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History", 50-2.

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  17. John Williams-Searle, "Cold Charity: Manhood, Brotherhood, and the Transformation of Disability 1870-1900" in The New Disability History, 159. Williams-Searle suggests that, during the early part of this period (1870), "minor" disabilities among railroaders were viewed as a mark of professionalism while, at the latter part of this period (1900), all disabilities among railroaders were increasingly considered a mark of one who is not professional — railroaders with disabilities were understood to have caused those injuries by not doing their job correctly. While it may have been the case that "minor" injuries were viewed as a mark of professionalism around 1870 among railroaders, as we will see, Sojourner Truth's elision of her disability suggests that she did not expect her disability to be considered a mark of honor nor a mark against her slave-owners as did other former slaves who used their deformities to critique the institution of slave-holding (see "A Slave Scarred From Whippings" Baton Rouge, 1863).

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  18. This argument is the focus of my paper entitled "(Dis)Ability in Early Feminism: How feminist arguments for gender equality undermine feminist critiques of social exclusion" presented at the annual meeting of the National Women's Studies Association, November 2011.

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  19. For more scholarship on disability in the nineteenth century, see the other articles in The New Disability History as well as Blanck and Song who identify a hierarchy of disabilities based on compensation to union veterans and R.A.R. Edwards who identifies the rhetoric of able-bodiedness at the root of different approaches to deaf education.. See Peter Blanck and Chen Song. "'Never forget what they did here': civil war pensions for Gettysburg union army veterans and disability in nineteenth-century America." William and Mary Law Review 44.3 (Feb 2003): 1109-69 and R.A.R. Edwards, "'Speech has an extraordinary humanizing power': Horace Mann and the Problem of Nineteenth-Century American Deaf Education, in The New Disability History.

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  20. While Smith-Rosenberg's Disorderly Conduct is a good source for considering nineteenth century women in the United States, Tiffany Wayne's Women's Roles in Nineteenth Century America (Greenwood, 2006) is more recent.

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  21. For critiques developing within the nineteenth century, see the first section (1792-1920) of Wendy Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski, Feminist Theory: A Reader (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005, 2000).

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  22. See Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct, 23.

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  23. Joan Scott is an important pioneer in regard to locating women within their broader historical context but her proposals have yet to be fully accepted in women's studies as demonstrated by the prevalence of courses on "women in fill-in-the-blank" (history, religion, literature) and publications which continue to deal with women who have been abstracted from their historical contexts. On the state of feminist history and women's history, see Judith Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2006), 6-29 and Joan Scott, "Feminism's History" Journal of Women's History 16:2 (2004): 10-29.

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  24. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions" in History Speaks: Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, ed. Douglas M. Rife (Carthage, IL: Teaching and Learning Company, 2002), 18, number 30. Note that Stanton here argues for white women's rights while excluding women of other races.

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  25. Consider the emergence of black liberation theology in the writings of James Cone. See James Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: Harper, 1975) and James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990, 1970).

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  26. See William Harper, James Hammond, William Simms, and Thomas Drew, The Proslavery Argument, As Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968, 1852), M. Shawn Copeland, "Body, Representation, and Black Religious Discourse" in Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse, ed. Laura Donaldson and Kwok Pui-lan (New York: Routledge, 2002), 184. Also see Kelly Brown Douglas, Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1999), 32.

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  27. Marcia Riggs, "'A Clarion Call to Awake! Arise! Act!': The Response of the Black Women's Club Movement to Institutionalized Moral Evil" in A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering, ed. Emilie M. Townes (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993), 67.

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  28. bell hooks discusses the hyper-sexualization and de-sexualization of black women in "Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace", in which she discusses nineteenth century racist perceptions of black women as "whores" and "mammies" and argues that these stereotypes continue to affect black women today. See bell hooks, "Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace" in Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, Conboy, Medina, and Stanbury, eds. (New York: Columbia University, 1997): 114. hooks' analysis is buttressed by Katie Cannon's argument in "Sexing Black Women: Liberation from the Prisonhouse of Anatomical Authority" which seeks to root the current issues surrounding black female sexuality in the black church in chattel slavery and racial segregation. According to Cannon, in slavery, black women were forced into the dual role of producer-reproducer. Cannon demonstrates how this role continued after Civil War "liberation" and how the current situation of black women is a result of the stereotypes forced upon them during the historical period of formal slavery. Katie Cannon, "Sexing Black Women: Liberation from the Prisonhouse of Anatomical Authority" in Loving the Body: Black Religious Studies and the Erotic, ed. Anthony Pinn (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2004). The combined arguments of Cannon and hooks demonstrate the problematic construction of black female sexuality in the nineteenth century. M. Shawn Copeland connects the hyper-sexualized black woman with the de-sexualized black woman. Copeland states, "On the one hand, the black woman was thought to be 'sly,' 'sensual,' and 'shameless'; but these characteristics were valued in relation to a libidinous economics: after all, such a woman made a good brood sow." See Copeland, 184. In this quote, the polarization constructed by Cannon and hooks (although hooks does note that sometimes the two stereotypes are combined as we saw above) break down as Copeland demonstrates the dependency of the stereotypes on one another.

    In addition to the stereotypes that constructed black women as hyper-sexualized and de-sexualized, black women were sometimes constructed as alternately sexed males. Black women, because their sexuality was exploited and they performed hard labor in the fields, could not be considered "real women". See Oyeronke Oyerwumi, "Multiculturalism or multibodism: On the impossible intersections of race and gender in American white feminist and black nationalist discourses." The Western Journal of Black Studies 23 (1999): 182. The construction of black women as males was rooted in the understanding of black woman as producer. White women were not constructed as producers so the reality of black women as producers challenged the status of black women as "real women" (rather than allowing the reality of black women as producers to challenge the construction of white femininity — a challenge Sojourner Truth addresses as we will see below). Since black women, through their public existence as working women, posed a critique to the cult of true womanhood they could not be considered women. For more on the connection between the past stereotypes of black women and the continuation of those stereotypes in new forms in contemporary culture, see Patricia Hill Collins, "The past is ever present" in Black Sexual Politics, 53-85; Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow (Vintage, 1986), 15; and Emilie Townes, "Living in the New Jerusalem: The Rhetoric and Movement of Liberation in the House of Evil" in A Troubling in My Soul, 78.

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  29. Sojourner Truth. Cartes-de-viste. Viewed as part of the personal collection of Dr. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, March 2009. See figure 1.

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  30. Painter, 187.

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  31. Painter, 186.

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  32. Painter, 187.

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  33. See Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, "Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography in The New Disability History, 339.

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  34. Garland-Thomson, 364.

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  35. See figure 2.

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  36. Frank Courter painted the picture. See Painter, 260.

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  37. Painter, 260, 340.

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  38. See Piepmeier,101-102 and Painter, 125-131.

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  39. Narrative and Book of Life, 133. Painter states, "Gertrude Dumont protested that Truth's speech was nothing life the mock-southern dialect that careless reporters used." Painter, 7.

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  40. Narrative and Book of Life, 134.

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  41. Painter 125 and Piepmeier, 101.

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  42. Painter, 127.

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  43. See, again, Butler's Gender Trouble as well as Sieber's critiques of Butler in Disability Theory.

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  44. Narrative and Book of Life, 134.

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  45. Piepmeier, 93. By "grotesque" here, I mean something that would have been culturally considered "abnormal".

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  46. Narrative and Book of Life, 139. Pipemeier reads this story as Truth's refusal to separate body from voice. Peipmeier states: "Truth links her physical body with her voice, visually displaying her body when an audience does not recognize the congruity between her body and her voice. She demands this congruity and thus, as is often the case in her narratives, decommissions the male/female dichotomy by challenging its "naturalness." Piepmeier, 125.

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  47. Painter, 140.

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  48. See Garland-Thomson, "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory" and "Feminist Disability Studies".

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