Want Rights? Just Take Them

This article is published in honor of International Women’s Day.

“If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it.” —Sojourner Truth, former slave, abolitionist, Methodist minister, and early U.S. women’s rights leader

International Women’s Day began 99 years ago. With so much progress accomplished since 1911, yet so much more remaining to be done, it seems to me that it’s time for women to change our approach to something closer Sojourner Truth’s.

Her advice to women as she stated it in the above quote to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the influential anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when they met in 1853, comes from a position of knowing her own power. Despite being been born into slavery and experiencing oppression, poverty, and discrimination far greater than most women reading this blog in 2010, Truth was way ahead of many of us in her perspective about how to advance equal rights.

Without question, in many places around the globe, women remain as oppressed as Sojourner Truth–born Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, New York, and once sold for $100 and a herd of sheep–was before she “walked off” from her master.

But even in the most gender-repressive societies such as Yemen, there are Sojourner Truth-like women and girls such as ten-year-old Nujood Ali, who was married off to a man three times her age but had the idea of a different, more just life, the intention to get it, and the courage to divorce her husband despite male dominant customs.

In the U.S. as in many highly industrialized nations, women have become not just free to choose their mates and manage their own fertility, but we are the majority in the workplace and almost 60 percent of college graduates, we make over 80 percent of consumer purchasing decisions, and own over 50 percent of start-up businesses—just for starters.

Yet we hover around 15 percent of corporate board memberships and top executive positions, we earn 78 cents to a man’s dollar, and though we’re 52 percent of voters, we’re only 17 percent of Congress and around 25 percent of state legislatures. Why the disparity?

I have been researching the question for over a year now, and I keep coming up with the same answer as Sojourner Truth. We need to just take what we want.

All indicators are that our learned behavior has not yet allowed us to break free, or to see ourselves as fully powerful. So women don’t put ourselves forward for those top slots in numbers and with intention sufficient to break through to parity once and for all.  We don’t assume equality at all levels as our perfect right, as boys and men are socialized to do from birth.

At See Jane Do’s Passion Into Action conference recently, a woman shared this story as an insight to how we might break the bounds that keep us from reaching equal rights and responsibilities: It seems that trainers of baby elephants tether them to a posts soon after birth. After a couple of weeks, the newborn stops trying to break free, for she has come to believe she lacks the ability to do so. Once grown, the elephant has plenty of strength to pull up the post or break the chains. But because she doesn’t realize she has the power to free herself, she remains tied to the post, held back by her own previously inculcated experience.

Women can only be disempowered from reaching full equality if we stay tethered to old constraints of custom and behavior that remain in our thinking. We need to understand our own strength, embrace it, and have the intention and courage to use it, for our own good and the good of the world.

IWD, which started in Copenhagen as a Socialist movement for better working conditions and voting rights for women at the turn of the 20th century has unquestionably helped to change the world for the better. Now it’s up to 21st Century women to finish the job—no excuses if we don’t.

In her most famous speech, delivered to a women’s rights convention in 1851, Sojourner Truth proffered Sojourner Truthanother piece of advice that we would do well to heed: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!”

Let us pledge to turn the world aright, with equal rights, by IWD’s 100th anniversary next year. All we need to do, after all, is “just take them.”

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  • julie-watkins

    I’ve read some discussions of “why women’s movement failed” by people who (when you looked closer) had an investment in the status quo. Oh, oh! The sexual revolution was bad! Women have it worse now that feminists have ruined things because now busiess owners now think it’s OK not to pay men a living wage that can support a wife and children.

    Isn’t that kind of like blaming rape victims for going to parties and not the rape culture that lets the minority of bad men get away with date rape? The fear keeps women less competative. And if you can blame feminists for lower wages rather than the obscene income gap and goverment for the benefit of big business profits (because lobbyists write the legislation).

    I keep reading/seeing more and more examples of the sad fact that in the USA you only have the rights you can pay for.

  • nrobins2

    Dear Gloria:

    Thank you for posting the above article.
    I identify with Ms. Sojourner Truth’s statement and have felt, for quite a long time, that we must take what is ours first, see what we can get away with and maybe ask questions/permission later.  A concept that is not far off from a quote I stumbled upon and believe: “Seek forgiveness, not permission.”
    I witness my male-dominated law firm execute this concept daily.  It is not that men are any better or different or more righteous than women to execute this idea, but they are conditioned to believe they can, while women are conditioned to be polite and not assert themselves at the expense of being dubbed “moody,” “demanding,” “disagreeable,” “argumentative,” i.e. “a b*tch.”


    In follow up to your article, I think it would be appropriate to interview those top female CEO’s and boardmembers for ideas and strategies, influences and inspiration, for how those women came to join the exclusive boy’s club of running things.
    Head of Xerox, Chief Justice Sotomayor, CEO of Sara Lee, etc.
    I live in Chicago, and CRAIN’S magazine is constantly highlighting successful women leaders.
    But we can’t hear enough about them, and the more their stories are heard, the more lives they will touch and inspire and encourage today’s and younger generations to follow suit, if not improve upon the foundation that has already been laid by these female pioneers.


    Your article highlights a concept important to the women’s movement that I hope is not lost on its readers for lack of direction.  To avoid a decrease in audience enthusiasm to live out your message, personal testimonies, accounts and tools from our female pioneers would prove helpful in assisting others to envision achieving the same high-level offices for themselves.
    Thank you for your article.

  • anonymous99

    “I have been researching the question for over a year now, and I keep coming up with the same answer as Sojourner Truth. We need to just take what we want.”


    Thank you Gloria for stating the obvious, if women WANT something in the USA all they have to do is go after it.  Unfortunately, and maybe this is news to you, many American women DO NOT WANT what feminism worked so hard to provide. 


    “Yet we hover around 15 percent of corporate board memberships and top executive positions, we earn 78 cents to a man’s dollar, and though we’re 52 percent of voters, we’re only 17 percent of Congress and around 25 percent of state legislatures. Why the disparity?”


    Why?  Because women don’t want it!  Surely you know that a huge percentage of high acheiving young women, like those who attend Stanford for example, leave the workforce to become “stay-at-home-moms”, leaving the heavy lifting to their husbands.  It turns out that staying at home is a lot better gig than fighting your way through the rat race.  Best of all, once you create your own dependency for any extended period of time, you get your very own manslave through our insidious institution of marriage.


    My wife has almost 10 years of higher education and left the workforce against my wishes to lay out next to the pool all summer long.  So this manslave is speaking from experience here.  I don’t need any social science or studies to figure this whole thing out.


    As always thanks to rhrealitycheck.org and the writers who share their views here for allowing opposing posts.