Sojourner Truth & Elisabeth Dmitrieff
Updated: May 21
Rebellious Daughters of History #1
by Judy Cox
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was born a slave in New York and named Isabella Baumfree. She was bought and sold four times and subjected to harsh physical labour and violent punishments. In her teens, she was united with another slave with whom she had five children.
Between 1826-27 Truth ran away with her infant Sophia to a nearby abolitionist family. The family bought her freedom for $20 and helped Truth successfully sue for the return of her five-year-old-son Peter, who was illegally sold into slavery in Alabama. She was the first black woman to sue a white man.
Truth moved to New York City in 1828 where she worked for a local minister. In 1843, she declared that the Spirit had called on her to preach the truth, and renamed herself Sojourner Truth. She met abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, and it was Garrison’s anti-slavery organisation that encouraged her to give speeches about the evils of slavery.
In 1850, having never learned to read or write, Truth dictated what would become her autobiography— The Narrative of Sojourner Truth—to Olive Gilbert, who assisted in its publication. She survived on sales of the book.
In 1851, Truth began a lecture tour that included a women’s rights conference in Akron, Ohio, where she delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. In it, she challenged the racism of the women’s movement and asserted the rights of black women.
During the 1850’s, Truth settled in Michigan. She continued speaking nationally and helped slaves escape to freedom. When the Civil War started, she organised supplies for black troops, and after it ended, she helped freed slaves to find jobs and build new lives.
While in Washington, DC, she lobbied against segregation, and in the mid-1860s, when a streetcar conductor tried to violently block her from riding, she ensured his arrest and won her subsequent case. In the late 1860s, she collected thousands of signatures on a petition calling for the provision of land to former slaves, though Congress never took action. Nearly blind and deaf towards the end of her life, Truth spent her final years in Michigan.
Elisabeth Dmitrieff (1850-?) was a Russian-born feminist and revolutionary leader of the 1871 Paris Commune. She was the daughter of a Tsarist official but rebelled against her background and joined the socialist circles of St Petersburg.
In 1868, she travelled to Switzerland and co-founded the Russian section of the First International. Delegated to London, she met Karl Marx and spent months with the Marx family. In March 1871, Elisabeth was aged only 21 when Marx proposed she cover the incredible events of the Paris Commune.
She became one it’s greatest women leaders. Working with the anarchist Nathalie Lemel, Elisabeth helped to found the Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Wounded, and the co-founded of the Women’s Union. She campaigned for women’s education, raised women’s concerns and organising cooperative workshops.
Elisabeth contributed to the Socialist newspaper La Cause Du People (The Cause of the People). After having fought on the barricades during the Bloody Week, she fled to Russia.
Once back in her native country, she married a man who was later convicted of fraud, and in 1878 followed him into exile in Siberia, where she disappeared from view.
This article first appeared in Socialist Review. Reproduced with the author's permission.