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March is National Women’s History Month – Sojourner Truth & the Rape Crisis Movement…

The history of the Rape Crisis Movement in the United States is – among other things – an excellent reminder that in order to fight one kind of oppression, one has to stand in solidarity with those fighting other kinds of oppression.  The denigration of one group of people is often inextricably linked with other kinds of tyranny.  In the case of the Rape Crisis Movement, the oppression of women in general and the oppression of African-American women in particular are closely bound together, and the first stirrings of what would become the Rape Crisis Movement came from within that group.

The following paragraphs come from Gillian Greensite’s History of the Rape Crisis Movement.

During slavery, the rape of enslaved women by white men was common and legal. After slavery ended, sexual and physical violence, including murder, were used to terrorize and keep the Black population from gaining political or civil rights. The period of Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877, directly following the Civil War, when freed slaves were granted the right to vote and own property, was particularly violent. White mobs raped Black women and burned churches and homes. The Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1866 in Tennessee, was more organized. The Klan raped Black women, lynched Black men, and terrorized Black communities. Propaganda was spread that all Black men were potential rapists, and all white women potential victims. The results and legacy of such hatred were vicious. Thousands of Black men were lynched between Emancipation and World War II, with the false charge of rape a common accusation. Rape laws made rape a capital offense only for a Black man found guilty of raping a white woman. The rape of a Black woman was not even considered a crime, even when it became officially illegal.

Perhaps the first women in the United States to break the silence around rape were those African-American women who testified before Congress following the Memphis Riot of May 1866, during which a number of Black women were gang-raped by a white mob. Their brave testimony has been well recorded.

Sojourner Truth was the first woman to connect issues of Black oppression with women’s oppression in her legendary declaration, “Ain’t I a Woman” in her speech at the Women’s Rights Conference in Silver Lake, Indiana, challenging the lack of concern with Black issues by the white women present at the conference.

The earliest efforts to systematically confront and organize against rape began in the 1870s when African-American women, most notably Ida B. Wells, took leadership roles in organizing anti-lynching campaigns. The courage of these women in the face of hatred and violence is profoundly inspiring. Their efforts led to the formation of the Black Women’s Club movement in the late 1890s and laid the groundwork for the later establishment of a number of national organizations, such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Although women continued individual acts of resistance throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the next wave of anti-rape activities began in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the heels of the civil rights and student movements.

During the month of March, I will add more blog entries, talking about the history of the Rape Crisis and Domestic Violence movement in the United States.  In a month that is dedicated to National Women’s History, it seems only appropriate to touch on the events and people that gave birth to the Rape Crisis Centers, the Domestic Violence Shelters, and the other support services that exist today, and otherwise might never have come to pass.  Many women and children, and the adults the children became, owe their lives to the women who came before us.

In closing for this blog entry, I will leave you with the words of Sojourner Truth, for whom we at Tri-Valley Haven named our own homeless shelter ten years ago.  She was born a slave around 1797 in New York and escaped to freedom in 1826.  Her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech was given in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.   I repeat them here:

Ain’t I A Woman?*Sojourner-Truth-9511284-1-402

Wall, chilern,
whar dar is so much racket
dar must be somethin’ out o’ kilter.
I tink dat ‘twixt de nigger of de Souf
and de womin at de Norf,
all talkin’ ’bout rights,
de white men will be in a fix pretty soon.
But what’s all dis here talkin’ ’bout?

Dat man ober dar say
dat womin needs to be helped into carriages,
and lifted ober ditches,
and to hab de best place everywhar.
Nobody eber halps me into carriages,
or ober mudpuddles,
or gibs me any best place!
And ar’n’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 ar’n’t I a woman?

I could work as much
and eat as much as a man —
when I could get it —
and bear de lash as well!
And ar’n’t’ I a woman?

I have borne thirteen chilern,
and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery,
and when I cried out with my mother’s grief,
none but Jesus heard me!
And ar’n’t I a woman?

Den dey talks ’bout dis ting in de head;
what dis dey call it?
‘Intellect,’
(whispered someone near).
Dat’s it, honey.
What’s dat got to do wid womin’s rights
or nigger’s rights?
If my cup won’t hold but a pint,
and yourn holds a quart,
wouldn’t ye be mean
not to let me have my little half-measure full?

Den dat little man in black dar,
he say women can’t have as much rights as men,
’cause Christ wan’t a woman!
Whar did your Christ come from?
Whar did your Christ come from?
From God and a woman!
Man had nothin’ to do wid Him.

If de fust woman God ever made
was strong enough to turn de world upside down
all alone,
dese women togedder ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!
And now dey is asking to do it,
de men better let ’em.

Bleeged to ye for hearin’ on me,
and now ole Sojourner
han’t got nothin’ more to say.’

* An interesting thing to note is that Sojourner’s words have been reported in dialect and NOT in dialect.  She was, in fact, born and raised in New York and it is unlikely she spoke with this heavy Southern accent.  In fact, the first account of her speaking does not have portray the dialect, and later ones do.  Yet again, we see intersections of oppression and stereotype.  For more information on this aspect of the speech, this Wiki article has some good information.

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