I often wear a pendant that includes her image and her words: "If women want any rights more than they's got, why don't they just take them, and not be talking about it." Her name was Sojourner Truth. A staunch defender of the rights of women and an abolitionist, Sojourner inspires my determination to continue to fight for equality for women, citizens of color and children left behind. A brilliant but illiterate woman, she was a great orator and powerful presence who possessed great courage and determination. She was born into and lived the better part of three decades in slavery, but dedicated her life to combating slavery and her gender from second-class citizenship. She never gave up talking or fighting for justice and equality.
Sojourner challenged the racial and gender caste system of slavery by suing for the return of a son sold away from her, one of the first black women to ever sue in a court of law and prevail over a white man in American history. She got thrown off but kept getting back on Washington, D.C., streetcars until they let her ride, desegregating the system in the process.
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, it is important to remember that in so many private and public ways, women have always been at the forefront of or the backbone of every important social movement. Sojourner was a friend and colleague of many of the abolitionist leaders of her day including Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison, and she met Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln.
Thousands and thousands of women across the globe have given so much in the quest for a better world. Women have always stepped forward to accept the challenge a moral moment presents, serving as the catalysts and implementers of change. Our collective history is full of women who have mustered the courage to persist for justice..
Sojourner stood up with fiery eloquence to opponents and threatening crowds who tried to stop her from speaking. When a hostile white man told her that the hall where she was scheduled to speak would be burnt down if she spoke, she replied, "Then I will speak to the ashes."
When taunted while speaking in favor of women's rights by some white men who asked if she was really a woman, she bared her breasts and famously retorted, "Ain't I a woman?," detailing the back-breaking double burden of slavery's work and childbearing she had endured.
When heckled by a white man in her audience who said he didn't care anymore about her antislavery talk than for an old flea bite, she snapped back, "Then the Lord willing, I'll keep you scratching."
And when decrying her exclusion from America's life and Constitution she asked, "God, what ails this Constitution? I feels for my rights and don't feel any there." She said God replied, "Sojourner, there some little weasels in it." Since Sojourner Truth's day, black and white and brown and other excluded and marginalized women have been trying to ferret out the weasels in the Constitution and our national life and to build a just America for themselves and their children.
If Sojourner were alive today, I feel certain she would be standing before crowds of people roaring about the injustice and inequality still challenging so many poor children and children of color in America. I feel certain she would be standing with the Children's Defense Fund and with the Black Community Crusade for Children believing as I and many believe that our children face the worst crisis since slavery and deserve equality in education and opportunity in their country.
In this global economy, no nation can remain strong without a well-educated, high-quality workforce. Yet a toxic cocktail of poverty, illiteracy, racial disparities, violence, massive incarceration and family breakdown is sentencing millions of children to dead end and hopeless lives and threatens to undermine the past half century of racial and social progress.
To meet the challenges our country faces today, it's imperative that we muster the courage and determination of Sojourner Truth. Now is the time for young women and mothers and grandmothers of all races and faiths and all others to demand that as we get our fiscal house in order -- America must invest in our children. We need to show we are decent and sensible and moral enough to care for our children and prepare them for successful adulthood. We must be like a swarm of fleas, biting the big dog of injustice, keeping him scratching until all our children have hope and a future worth striving for.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information on the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC) visit www.childrensdefense.org/bccc.