The feminist movement in the antebellum south was to gain rights for women. Many feminist throughout the early nineteenth century fought to abolish slavery in the United States. This notion is shown in a slave narrative that was a powerful feminist tool in the nineteenth century. Black and white women in the slave narrative are fictionalized and objectified. White women in the narrative are often viewed as pure, angelic, and chaste while black women are viewed as exotic and contained with uncontrollable savage sexuality. Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl helped bring the sexual oppression of captive black women into the public and political arena. Women in slavery often faced unique challenges including increased incidences of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Some women were never allowed to marry, and many others lived with in fear because their children and even husbands could be taken from them at any moment. Jacobs intended audience was Northern white women, who were really into ‘the cult of true womanhood’ and strived to be pure, submissive and domestic. “I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse.”
Harriet Jacobs takes a significant risk writing her trials as a house servant in the south and a fugitive in the north. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl gives an accurate account of the brutality slavery held for women, which was a perspective that was relatively secretive during Jacobs’ time. Jacobs’ narrative focuses on oppression due to race, but it also portrays many women as active and often in open roles. However, women in these roles were minimal and often suffered for their outspoken demeanors. Harriet Jacobs’ narrative is a powerful statement that describes the impossibility of achieving the ideal of the ‘Cult of True Womanhood’ that was put forth by men and maintained by women. Jacobs reveals the danger of such self-disapprobation women kept by accepting the role that men have set as a goal for a woman to strive for. She helps develop a moral code that apprises the specific social and historical position of captive black women. Jacobs’ will power and strength are shown in her narrative can be seen as characteristics of womanly behavior that are being developed by the rising feminist movement. In her struggle against the brutal dynamics of a system that simultaneously set before her ideals of a real woman, but refused to acknowledge her as a human being, Jacobs emerges scarred but victorious.
Her intellectual powers and will to action aid her efforts of dealing with sexual harassment from her master, maintaining family unity, and establishing a moral code in harmony with her beliefs. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs’ conflict is the persistent sexual harassment and obsessive pursuit by Dr. Flint. Instead of bowing to the inescapable sexual regression by Flint, Jacobs devises a plan of action that helps her maintain dignity and family unity. Jacobs took on Mr. Sands, another white man, as a lover because she knew it was inevitable that she would have to bear a white man’s child to try to escape Dr. Flint. Because Flint denied Jacobs a marriage to a free black man and refused to sell her to anyone, Jacobs knew that she would not be allowed to have a traditional home and family. By choosing Mr. Sands as a lover and father to her children, she went against the perfect image of womanhood and showed independence. Making this choice meant that Jacobs willingly gave up her virginity outside of marriage. An action that is entirely against traditional moral codes in her time. Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of women in slavery often began when girls reached the age of puberty. This abuse typically came from masters and members of the master’s family.
The master’s employees (who were white) often also took liberties with adolescent slave girls and slave women. Women in slavery were forbidden from refusing the sexual advances of their masters and were harshly punished if they did so. Women who birthed children to white fathers were commonly punished and accused of having played the seductress. White plantation owners, however, enjoyed the cost-saving benefits of being able to increase their slave populations without purchasing new slaves. Jacobs exhibits the integrity of survivalists. She can think and speak for herself, devise a plan and act on it, all the while keeping in mind the unity of family and protection for her children. While attempting to embrace the ideals of womanhood, Jacobs can recognize and disregard the standards that can’t apply and establishes for herself the concepts of integrity and selfhood. Maintaining a stable family unit was another common challenge that arose for women in slavery. Plantation owners sometimes denied their women slaves the right to marry at all. Others believed that slaves were happier and more accessible to control if they were allowed to be married and live in family units. Slave owners reserved the right to take children from their parents, or separate spouses, often by selling individuals to another plantation.
Those left behind were typically granted no rights to visit loved ones on other plantations and many families found themselves separated by great distances. Jacobs uses a pseudonym in the novel. She portrays herself as Linda Brent. Of all the women that Linda Brent meets, not one fits the mold of a real woman in slave times. Aunt Martha is a free woman who owns her home and supports herself by selling baked goods. These characteristics she displays are coherent with the domesticity that women are accustomed to, but she does not show submissiveness. Aunt Martha counsels Linda to be submissive to her master and accept her fate as a slave, but her words are not welcomed because Martha is now on the outside. She can have a traditional family, unlike Linda. After her escape, Linda is assisted by a slaveholding white woman. The white woman is by all aspects can be viewed as a ‘real woman,’ but due to her actions, she lacks the submissiveness that is typical of women. She defies Linda’s hunters by remaining silent when asked about Linda’s location. Even when Linda is nearly found, the woman never turns her over to her master as a real woman should. A real woman would never get involved in a dispute because it is not her place, but the white woman does. Not only does she include herself in the manner but she takes the side of a slave over a man of her kind.
The woman’s place was her home, and her duty was to maintain and manage the household to her best ability. She was to provide comfort for her husband and her family, not to aid in the dispensing of impartiality. Even Mrs. Flint lacked an aspect of true womanhood, domesticity, and devotion, “like many southern women, was deficient in energy. She had not to strength to superintend her household affairs; but her nerves were so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash.” Mrs. Flint is submissive when Dr. Flint is around but goes behind his back to help the disappearance of her rival, Linda Brent. Throughout the book, Linda challenges any identities or labels placed on her by whites. Linda rebels against the cult of true womanhood, but she can maintain a sense of feminism. Linda creates her image of a real woman by creating a need for respect as an ideal of womanhood. Power is something that no slave is allowed to have, but Linda gathers strength from the moment she accepts she will not be a real woman. Linda’s gains power by the choices that she makes. When Mr. Sands becomes her lover, she empowers herself to gain authority when she is vulnerable. Linda controls Dr. Flint by writing him letters that were posted from the north. Being a women never seemed to work to help Linda resist slavery.
Throughout history, women have often not been treated as humans but as tokens or commodities. “If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave.” Linda denies society’s position for women by both refusing to be owned and refusing to be bought out of her captivity. Linda rejects the idea of true womanhood that has been passed on for centuries and took control of both her and her children’s future. Linda was able to gain her peace by escaping to the north. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the very few narratives that depict the degradation’s endured by female slaves. Jacobs’ was able to send a message to women to come together and end the unfair treatment which all women are subject through the text. By bringing images of slavery and unity of women to the forefront, Jacobs is attempting to stop the tyranny over women perpetrated by men and the tyranny over blacks committed by whites. Integrity is an ideal that many Americans have fought for over the years. In Incidents of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs reshapes these ideals expected of her, makes her own decisions, and takes full responsibilities for her actions to become the ideal image of womanhood.