Intersectional Feminism: Sojourner Truth and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.” – Maya Angelou

In 1851, Sojourner Truth stood up at a Women’s Convention in Ohio, and delivered her impromtu speech, Ain’t I A Woman?

Here’s an excerpt from it:

“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?” – Sojourner Truth

Worn out biological arguments that men are one way and women are another are apparently very sticky and hard to get rid of. 200 years ago, a best-seller Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex explained that men had minds “endued with the powers of close and comprehensive reasoning, and of intense and continued application,” whilst women were blessed with the talent to “diffuse… the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness” (Fine xviii). 14 years ago, Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University psychologist, described the female brain as “hard-wired for empathy”, and the male brain as “hard-wired for understanding and building systems” (Fine xix).

What is a woman? Are women biologically destined to be one way, and men another? The problem with arguments like those above is that they assume the mind lives in isolation from the culture around it and is only a product of the shape and structure of the brain. Fine defines the psyche as not a discrete entity packed in the brain, but rather a “structure of psychological processes that are shaped by and thus closely attuned to the culture that surrounds them” (xxvi). We are not just products of our biological coding, but of our experiences of the world around us.

The intersection of race with gender helps demonstrate the limited nature of arguments for fixed representations of gender. Why is it that a white woman in the 1850s was seen to need to be “helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches”, but a Black woman had the kind of treatment Sojourner Truth experienced? Looking at gender from Truth’s perspective casts a spotlight on sexism and all of its bizarre inconsistencies and falsities. With her speech, she reveals just how ideas of gender are constructed by society, and are not inherent in whatever sex a person is borne into.

Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novel gives a raw and honest account of her experiences growing up as a Black girl in Arkansas. The novel gives her a voice, diminishing the authority that oppressive representations of Black women carries when no other voice can be heard. Sensing that she is often positioned as the object of stereotyping by limited postcolonial, white perspectives, Angelou eludes this gaze and claims her own agency and subjectivity.

“What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay…” – Maya Angelou

Her true identity is not one society constructs for her based on her ‘Otherness’ (she is both Black, not White, and female, not male), but one she shapes for herself.


Angelou, Maya, 1969, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’

Fine, Cordelia, 2010, Delusions of Gender, Allen & Unwin, NSW.

Truth, Sojourner, ‘Ain’t I A Woman’


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s