English 341

Feminism and Slavery:

Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Brooke Logan

Harriet Jacobs escaped from slavery and at great personal risk wrote of her trials as a house servant in the South and later fugitive in the North. Her slave narrative entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl gave a true account of the evils slavery held for women, a perspective that has been kept relatively secret from the public. In writing her story, Jacobs, though focused on the subjugation due to race, gave voice subtly to a different kind of captivity, that which men impose on women regardless of color in the patriarchal society of the ninetenth century. This form of bondage is not only exacted from women by their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, but also is accepted and perpetuated by women themselves, who forge the cage that holds them captive. Jacobs directed her stirring account of the afflictions a woman is subjected to in the chain of slavery to women of the North to gain sympathy for their sisters that were enslaved in the South. In showing this, Jacobs reveals the danger of such self condemnation women maintain by accepting the idealized role that men have set as a goal for which to strive. Harriet Jacobs' slave epic is a powerful statement unveiling the impossibility and undesirability of achieving the ideal put forth by men and maintained by women. Her narrative is a strong feminist text.

The idealized Woman that men and women alike propagated consists of four qualities. "The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors and society, could be divided into four cardinal virtues- piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity."[1] Of all of the women that Jacobs' autobiographical character Linda Brent meets, not one fits the mold of a true woman. The characters that influence and aid in Linda's escape the most are not true women, though they all try to be. By showing that not one woman practices all four virtues, Jacobs is trying to reveal the impossibility of meeting this ideal. In discussing some of the women who helped her escape slavery, it is the features that deny these women True Womanhood that Jacobs celebrates the most. Linda's grandmother Aunt Martha is pious in the extreme. Such strict religious devotion gains and retains Linda's love, respect, and fear. A free woman, Aunt Martha owns her own home and supports herself by selling home baked goods to her neighbors, a token of her domesticity. It is assumed by the reader that Aunt Martha is pure. Her strong religious beliefs would not allow her to indulge in a love affair. The quality that Linda's grandmother lacks to be a true woman is submissiveness, though she counsels Linda to be submissive to her master and accept her lot as a slave. Jacobs relates an incident where her grandmother chased a white man out of her house with a loaded gun because he propositioned Aunt Martha's daughter. This is a severe deficiency from the ideal and excludes Aunt Martha from the realm of absolute True Womanhood. By society's standards, this is an unpardonable sin, but by Jacobs' it is the quality Linda appreciates the most. Through this lack on Aunt Martha's part, Linda's grandmother gains Linda's respect.

Linda, after her escape from her master, is aided by a slave holding white woman, who remains anonymous by her own request. In every respect, this woman is a true woman, except for her help in hiding Linda from her pursuers. The white woman is pious, domestic, and, the reader surmises, pure. But, like Linda's grandmother, she is not submissive in this instance. She defies Linda's hunters, though noiselessly, by maintaining her silence as to the whereabouts of Linda. Twice, Linda is almost found, but the white woman does not turn her over to Dr. Flint, her master, as a true woman should. A true woman would never get involved in a dispute, as it is not her place. Nor would she take a woman's side, and especially not a slave's, over a man. As Barbara Welter explains, "Woman, in the cult of True Womanhood presented by the women's magazines, gift annuals and religious literature of the nineteenth century, was the hostage in the home."[2] The woman's domain was the house, her duty was to manage her household to the best of her ability, to provide comfort for her husband and family, not to aid in the dispensing of justice.

The woman who finally obtains Linda's freedom, the second Mrs. Brent, is the last positive influence on Linda. Mrs. Brent is domestic, as are Aunt Martha and the white woman. She is also pious and pure. But, again, she is not submissive. She sends Linda away from Boston when it is learned that Linda's mistress has come to reclaim her. Finally, Mrs. Brent purchases Linda from the Flints and manumits her.

Dr. Flint's wife Mrs. Flint represents an interesting case concerning the strive for the ideal and inevitable failure. The reader's first introduction to Mrs. Flint is hardly flattering to her character.

Mrs. Flint, like many southern women, was totally deficient in energy.

She had not 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. She was a member of

the church; but partaking of the Lord's supper did not seem to put her in a

Christian frame of mind.


According to this description, Mrs. Flint is lacking in domesticity and piety. But, her purity is never attacked by Jacobs. Mrs. Flint, though submissive when her husband is present, goes behind his back to get what she wants, the disappearance of her rival, Linda.

A new dimension of Mrs. Flint's character is added when she learns that Dr. Flint has been trying to seduce Linda. Mrs. Flint's lack of submissiveness when her husband is not around is presented. Thinking to get help from Mrs. Flint to evade her husband's propositions, Linda tells Mrs. Flint all that has been happening. Mrs. Flint "pitied herself as a martyr; but she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed" (33).

Mrs. Flint moves Linda into her room to keep her away from her husband. In doing so, Jon Hauss suggests that Mrs. Flint is attempting to take over the man's role in dealing with Linda, by imitating her husband's actions towards the slave[3]. Like Dr. Flint, Mrs. Flint moves Linda to her bedroom. Jacobs also describes waking in the night because Mrs. Flint "whispered in [her] ear, as though it was her husband who was speaking to [her]" (34). In this way, Mrs. Flint opposes the ideal of Woman not to better the conditions females are placed under, but to become the oppresser instead of the oppressed.

Throughout the novel, Linda resists any identity imposed on her from whites and males that labels her inferior[4]. Jacobs' character Linda rebels against the ideal of Woman, but her feminist actions are a result of the impossibility for a slave woman to reach this ideal. Linda realizes this at an early age and creates her own ideal of a true woman, substituting a demand for respect for submission to a male master.

Linda has no option to excersize domesticity, as she has no chance to own her own house. As a slave, she is forced to live in Dr. Flint's house, to act as he and his wife require. This does not include setting up her own house. According to the law, Linda exists only to help run her owners' home, not to run her own.

Linda is stuck between a Scylla and Charybdis. If she is submissive to Dr. Flint, she will not remain pure, and the only way she can retain her purity is by refusing to submit to her master. The ideal of true womanhood is closed to her. Linda accepts that this path is not hers to choose. She begins to question the relevance to women, especially Afro-American, of the value and necessity to achive this ideal standard of behavior.

Upon her fifteenth year, when Dr. Flint begins trying to seduce her, Linda realizes that she will never be able to achieve the ideal that men impose on women. This is the time that Linda begins to truly fight the chains of authority. Linda takes Mr. Sands as her lover to claim full ownership of her body and assert the power she wields over her decisions. There is a practical reason as well, to conduct an affair with Mr. Sands. Linda hopes that Dr. Flint will be so enraged that he will sell her, enabling her lover to purchase her. Linda believes that it will be much easier for her to obtain her freedom from Mr. Sands than from Dr. Flint. Linda, however misjudges Dr. Flint; he refuses to sell her and she is forced to run away to procure the freedom of herself and her children.

The choice to take Mr. Sands as her lover is not one that Jacobs is proud of. Had there been any other option, Linda would have taken it. But under the constraints society placed on her as a slave and as a woman, Linda has no choice. She excersizes the limited power available to her by conducting an affair with Mr. Sands.

Power is a commodity that no slave is allowed, but Linda gathers power from the moment she accepts that she will not be a true woman that patriarchy encourages and enforces on women. Linda takes Mr. Sands as a lover, which empowers Linda. Linda has a white male on her side, helping her to leave Dr. Flint's service. This relationship also allows Linda to excersize authority when she is most vulnerable. As Linda is hiding in the garret, she spies her former lover Mr. Sands and convinces him to free her children, whom he now owns.

Linda lives for seven years in a little garret in her grandmother's house. Suffering from extreme hot and cold in the summer and winter respectively, no one could ever characterize her cubby hole as a better home than Dr. Flint's, if comfort was the only criteria. But, as Valerie Smith suggests, by choosing her own manner of constraint (the garret), Linda is conducting an indirect assault against Dr. Flint's domination of her.[5] The garret renders Linda spiritually independant of her master.

While in the garret, Linda watches through a peephole at all who pass by. This includes her hunters and her master. Linda is rendered to a place behind the scenes. She knows what is happening on the outside, she knows what her master is doing to find her, and she knows how to wield the power that her escape has given her to obtain the emancipation of her children. Linda is now a director and not a participant.

Another instance of power on the part of Linda is the letters that she writes to Dr. Flint while hiding in the garret. Linda has letters posted from the north to convince her master that she is there. Dr. Flint makes several trips to the north in pursuit of his property, but to no avail. Linda dangles Dr. Flint on the end of a puppet string by controling his actions during the seven year hunt.

Carolyn Dinshaw asserts that the role of women throughout time has been not as human people, but as tokens, gifts, and commodities.[6] Linda refuses to be owned, refuses to submit to her master, and refuses to be bought out of her captivity by her northern employer Mrs. Bruce (the second), though Mrs. Bruce denies Linda's wishes and does purchase her freedom without Linda's knowledge.

By refusing to be treated as an object, a piece of owned property to be treated as the possessor wishes, completely subject to his whims, Linda is denying society's rigid position for women. Linda rejects the ideal of true womanhood that has been handed down to women and accepted by them for centuries. Linda takes control of her future for the sake of her children and her own piece of mind by escaping to the north.

Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the few narratives describing the humiliations endured by female slaves at the hands of an authoritative master. Further than crying out for freedom, Jacobs is also sending a message out to women, calling them to arms to end the unequal treatment that all women accept. Jacobs is trying to show the impossible ideal that men have set for women, and that women have allowed to be set for them. By doing so, Jacobs is attempting to end the tyranny over women perpetrated by men and the tyranny over blacks perpetrated by whites. The feminist strain throughout this inspiring novel is loud and clear to those who will listen.

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro- American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro- American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Hauss, Jon. "Perilous Passages in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" in The Discourse of Slavery: Aphra Behn to Toni Morrison. Plasa, Carl and Ring, Betty J., eds. New York: Routledge, 1994.

McKay, Nellie Y. "The Girls Who Became Women: Childhood Memories in the Autobiographies of Harriet Jacobs, Mary Church Terrell, and Anne Moody" in Tradition and the Talents of Women. Howe, Florence, ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Starling, Marion Wilson. The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1988.

Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860" chap. in Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976.