- by Rev. Mary Kay Totty, listen to the sermon here -
Wow! From slavery to the first black woman to successfully win a law suit in New York to Pentecostal Methodism, to a utopian commune with questionable sexual ethics and mysterious deaths, to the lecture circuit for women’s rights & abolition, to a best-selling memoir, to visiting with presidents – that Sojourner Truth was some more woman.
I recommend for your edification and reading pleasure the biography by Nell Irvin Painter, “Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol,” my primary source for this sermon. For a long time, Sojourner Truth has simply been a legend to me. Growing up across the Deep South in the 1970’s, Sojourner Truth was never a part of high school history lessons. I first encountered Truth in seminary, when one of her sermons was required reading for a preaching class. It is only in preparing for this Lenten series that I have become better acquainted with Truth. Hers was an amazing life. Hers was an amazing faith.
Born around 1797, emancipating herself in 1826, becoming part of the lecture circuit for abolition and women’s rights in the 1850’s, residing in Washington DC through the Civil War, Truth lived through times of significant social turbulence and change. Not long after claiming freedom for herself, Truth, who was born Isabella, became involved with Methodists – fervent Methodists who took quite seriously the call of social holiness. Truth had a captivating stage presence and a commanding voice. She was in great demand as an itinerant preacher – proclaiming gospel messages at camp meetings and revivals.
Sojourner Truth was first and foremost a Christian evangelist. Her work for equal rights for women and for the abolition of slavery all stem from a deep faith and an understanding of the gospel. Though she herself did not read, she had people read the Bible to her – over and over and over. She knew scripture well and spoke with earthy wisdom and common sense. She was known among local circles in New York City and North Hampton, Massachusetts as a powerful speaker, but it was in Akron, Ohio where she came to national attention at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. Her remarks were printed in their entirety which gained a wide distribution. In addition, her memoir “Sojourner Truth a Narrative” sold very well. In her Akron speech, Truth proclaimed that in terms of physical strength she was equal to any man – she could farm and keep pace with any field hand. Truth said, “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.” A little late in her remarks, she said, “And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part?” I love this. Truth was saying that the argument that men are better than women because Jesus was a man is totally bogus because men had nothing to do with Jesus being born. Now that is one of the more convincing arguments I’ve heard for the virgin birth accounts.
Truth was so courageous. She did not allow the accepted standards of the day to define her. She stepped outside the prescribed pathways for an uneducated female ex-slave. She was unwavering in her faith and was willing to push people on the inanity of their misguided beliefs.
In Truth’s memoir, she recounts one incident at a camp meeting when hoodlums came to ridicule and terrify the worshippers. They threatened to burn the camp meeting tents. Painter recounts it this way:
A mob of rowdy young men burst into the services, terrifying the worshippers and threatening to burn down the tents. Truth’s first impulse was to hide behind a trunk, thinking, “I am the only colored person here, and on me, probably their wicked mischief will fall first, and perhaps fatally.” But as the ruffians were shaking the tent, she had a little talk with herself in biblical terms:
Shall I run away and hide from the Devil? Me, a servant of the living God? Have I not faith enough to go out and quell that mob, when I know it is written – “One shall chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight”? I know there are not a thousand here; and I know I am a servant of the living God. I’ll go to the rescue, and the Lord shall go with and protect me.
… Thus emboldened, she urged other [worshippers] to help her face down the attackers. They declined, and she left the tent alone, walked to a high place, and began singing … Truth pacified the unbelievers; she preached and sang to them for the better part of an hour… Truth grew weary… She would sing one more song if they would leave in peace afterwards. *
What inspirational courage. What faith.
We look back through history at Sojourner Truth and think how far we have come. Slavery has been abolished. Women in the United States do have the right to vote. We’ve come a long way, baby.
Or have we?
In Saudia Arabia women cannot drive cars. In Afghanistan girls are attacked for wanting an education. In the United States women are still fighting for the rights of reproductive choice. In Texas, women who have changed their name will have to produce not only a driver’s license but authentic court documentation including wedding licenses and divorce decrees in order to vote at the polling place.
Gender stereotypes endure and grow all the more complicated to unravel. The infamous “pink aisle” at the toy store. Little boys wear blue and do not cry. Little girls wear pink and need someone to look after them. These are the messages that permeate our culture.
A couple of months ago, a colleague in ministry, posted on Facebook a status update about a football game – he engaged in “trash talk” about a Dallas football team which he hoped would lose and in doing so called them “Cowgirls.” He clearly intended the comment to be a slam against the football team. This really bothered me, so I sent him a private message inviting him to think through what it says about women for the term “girls” to be used to insult guys. I acknowledged that my colleague is a kind and compassionate person and that I know him to be a man who is proud of his daughters and wants the best for them. He replied graciously but did not get it. He thought I was simply carrying political correctness too far.
I disagree – for as long as the term “girl” is used as an insult against boys, our society will have a problem with sexism and discrimination. It carries with it the notion that it is a bad thing to be a girl; that being a girl is somehow less desirable than being a boy. Oh my friends, when will we ever learn? We still have a long way to go. How much have we forgotten in recent years? I remember reading “Backlash” by Susan Faludi – does anyone else? Susan Faludi is a feminist and “Backlash” recounted the cultural and societal backlash against the women’s movement for equal rights. I remember being so angry and so energized that I helped to start a local chapter of the National Organization for Women in Jefferson County, West Virginia. I remember our tiny little group marching at some local event and carrying NOW signs and being interviewed by the local paper and speaking up for women’s reproductive choice rights. And my 3 little congregations being so mad that they ran to Bishop Yeakel demanding that he make me resign from NOW. To his credit, the bishop sent word back through the district superintendent that I had the right to belong to any organization that I so chose. In 2013, in Texas, Wendy Davis had to filibuster the state legislature in an effort to stop the erosion of women’s rights. We watched the political theatre in amused horror while millions of Texas women are losing access to affordable health care and birth control.
These are just examples of the struggles that we with gender privilege have – it does not even begin to touch on the struggles of gender variant persons. As a cisgender person, I have privilege in our society that sometimes I’m not even aware of. Urban Dictionary defines cisgender as having a gender identity or gender role that society considers appropriate for the sex one was assigned at birth.
As a society we are tied to a binary understanding of gender. The latest thing in baby showers is to have a “gender reveal” party – the expectant parents get sonogram results and keep them secret until they throw a party to reveal the baby’s gender. The first question we ask when hearing of a birth is –“Is it a boy or a girl?” Before we are even born, society is working to define us and our “appropriate” role in the world. Little girls will like pink, play with dolls, and be princesses. Little boys will wear camouflage, play with trucks or guns, and never cry. We take away choices and possibilities. Even when parents at home try to raise children outside of binary gender constructs, the rest of the world will undermine their efforts.
Justice issues for women’s rights in the 1850’s revolved around having a public role and getting the vote. Today justice issues for gender equality are much more complex. We need more folks with the passion, courage, and convictions of Sojourner Truth this day to work for women’s rights, gender variant rights, transgender rights.
What can we do? As individuals? As a congregation? For these justice issues?
One thing we do here at Dumbarton UMC is that we have an inclusive language policy for language about humankind and language about God – I sure do miss Dumbarton and our commitment to inclusive language when I worship elsewhere.
But there is more to be done. How might we be more intentionally welcoming of gender variant persons and families? What more do we need to unlearn about binary gender constructs? What is it that we do not even know that we need to learn?
I do not have answers. I simply know that there remain significant justice issues for women, for gender variant and transgender persons. From such basic things as forms which offer only male or female as gender options to access; to non-discriminatory health care; to how to travel when one’s outward gender presentation does not match the gender listed on one’s identification.
What difference can you make? How can we work together? How do we continue on the path of relating to each other, not based on prescribed gender mores but on an individual basis – one by one – each valued for their own unique being – each beloved by God just as we are.
In her speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, Sojourner Truth said, “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.”* Sojourner Truth was nearly six feet tall with a strong slim build and a deep resonant voice maybe she understood even better than we realize the constraints of assigned gender roles…
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*Nell Irvin Painter. Sojourner Truth: a Life, a Symbol. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996. Pp. 107-108.
Rev. Mary Kay Totty serves as pastor of Dumbarton UMC in Washington DC. She has a passion for preaching and worship, a commitment to social justice and a core value of the importance of community. She is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Religious Studies. She earned her Master of Divinity Degree at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University.