The stratification of society based not only on race but gender has held its roots in
slavery especially for female slaves. In Harriet Jacobs’s autobiography, “Incidents in the
Life of a Slave Girl,” she addresses three key points vital to understanding gender
inequality in slavery: The “incidents” discussed failed to convince critics of her
legitimacy. Male runaways such as Frederick Douglass gained credibility more easily
even though access to education was a rarity for the females. Marriages and love affairs
unsupervised by the master resulted in severe punishments through rape and other forms
of sexual objectification. Last but most importantly, motherhood proved to be the
strongest bond for Jacobs. The burdens of childbearing also became the biggest factor in
her escape and constant “underground” status. The only say she had in her children was a
biological claim. They could be taken away from her at any minute for any reason, or
lack thereof. Being a female slave and a mother meant that Jacobs had to sacrifice a life
of her own to see her children as free beings.
Faced with the death of her mother at only six years old, Jacobs began to
understand and come to terms with the reality of her slave situation as a young girl. Her
mother, Delilah, shielded her from the hardships their family was going through on the
plantation. This was a prime example of a slave mother working two jobs- providing for
the family and the plantation, a daunting task that needed both strategy and strength.
Working on a plantation house deemed no easier than the fields. Douglass also
understood the estrangement between mothers and their children. He did not know his
own mother very well due to an illness that shortly ended her life. Her mother could not
depend solely on the fact that she was the “foster sister” of her mistress in hopes to be set
free.1 Her mother’s mistress then took charge of taking care of Jacobs and was treated
well, almost like a child of her own. “…As free from protection and supervision as that of
any free white child.”2 However, the treatment was purely out of luck. She would still
never be considered an entire person to them, worthy of gaining justice. After both her
mother and mistress died, she was left to her maternal grandmother for care on a different
plantation with a different mistress. As a female, her value, or cost, lied in appearances.
She considered the “linsey-woolsey dress given to me by Mrs. Flint. . . a prime and
noticeable badge of slavery.”3 This harsh fabric was used to label and display female
slaves in a demeaning way.
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s,
Later on, Jacobs fell in love with a man who was also a slave, but her
circumstances made it practically impossible to further the relationship. “But when I
reflected that I was a slave and that the laws gave no sanction to the marriage of such, my
heart sank within me.”4 Though she strived to be like her mother who upheld chastity
and innocence, her desire to escape her master’s watchful eye became liberating. “There
is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that
which he gains by kindness and attachment.”5 For Jacobs and many other slave women,
the family became the only mental and physical support system they had. Their bodies
were constantly policed and in control of white men.
Male slaves were seen as highly sexual “barbarians,” therefore extensive measures
were taken to strip them of all human emotion and desire. This was why Douglass did not
mention marriage- it simply did not pertain to him or hold any relevance in his life. This
is another disadvantage for the women since they were pressured and coerced into
marriage. Jacobs was not even considered a person to have freedom in such an institution
unless arranged by the master himself. When he had heard this news, he was enraged.
“You will only be married to the slave I have picked out for you, but otherwise, forget
it.”6 In the slaveholder’s eyes, a female slave was like an animal who should be herded
around and commanded to only use physical relations to produce children and nothing
more. Douglass made the same point- when females were mentioned in his book, they
were all depicted as abused in some way. In chapter one, he gruesomely described his
aunt’s body during the whippings as “entirely naked” and “literally covered in blood”7
Since this book was written many years later, he presented these situations as a time
capsule he would later revisit and reflect upon from far away.
4. Ibid., 62.
5. Ibid., 79-80.
6. Ibid., 63. 7. Frederick Douglass, “Chapter 1,” Narrative of the Life of
Frederick Douglass, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), 41-46.
Even under an arranged union, the husband had no power to protect his wife. If
she gets pregnant, the blame is thrown on her by both her husband and master. “Did the
mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children? …They knew too well the
terrible consequences.”8 Out of desperation, this caused many of the mothers to take the
lives of their own children to save them from growing up in the same condition. Although
Jacobs loved her son, she had wished the same fate on him as well. “Alas, what mockery
it is for a slave mother to try to pray back her dying child to life! Death is better than
slavery.” In order to prevent her from developing a romance with anyone else, he made
advances on her. Not only did this show white male dominance, it was also used as a
tactic to instill fear in female slaves so that they would not dare escape. They constantly
had to pick and choose which battles they were willing to fight and who they were going
to turn their backs on. “I must fight my battle alone. I had a woman’s pride, and a
mother’s love for my children.”9 However, this created resentment, jealousy, and sexual
competition from the mistress: in this situation, from Mrs. Flint. “Nothing could please
her better than to see me humbled and trampled upon.”10 Even as Jacobs plotted her
escape, she understood that she would spend the rest of her life doing just that: trying to
outsmart the system.
Oftentimes their treatment of female slaves by the mistress was harsher than by
the master themselves, an interesting scenario between the powerful and the powerless. A
slave is not allowed to have “any pride of character.”11 Mrs. Flint knew that Jacobs had
no power to defend herself against her husband’s actions. At the same time, his
manipulative manners led her to throw her anger on Jacobs because even she could not
stand up to her own husband. Nevertheless, this was a vicious cycle of victim shaming,
submissiveness, and punishment. Jacob’s image from this moment onwards remained
tainted, regardless of her innocence. The biggest problem with this was that she was
being held to the same standards as white mistresses, which was unjust and unreasonable.
“The children must follow the condition of the mother.”12 This rule was implemented no
matter how white the baby looked. When she gave birth to a girl, that in itself was seen as
shameful and a waste, even though the father biologically determined whether the child is
a girl or boy. The complete neglect and absence of a father figure for the children
contributed to the vicious cycle to shame the female, once again.
8. Ibid., 59.
9. Ibid., 87.
10. Ibid., 108.
11. Ibid., 115.
12. Ibid., 55.
13. Ibid., 66.
She also pointed out the hypocrisy in the Christian doctrine when she said that the
worst punishments she received from Dr. Flint were “after he was a communicant for the
Episcopal Church.”13 Religion was used as another justification to oppress female slaves
and convinced them that they will not only forever be slaves, but also inferior to everyone
else in God’s eyes. A similar point was made by Douglass when he referred to Auld as “a
much worse man after his conversion than before.”14 He would quote the verse that
“gave permission” to beat Henny with lashes. Physical weakness, in this case, was the
main cause for Auld to beat her since she was burned by fire as a child. This was no
coincidence, especially for women. To be literate, especially as a woman, was rebellious
in nature. It meant that they could unfold the discrepancies with the sermons of white
males and discover the passages that were kept a secret regarding equality of the sexes.
Harsh punishments faced women who showed any signs of literacy.
Unlike Jacobs, Frederick Douglass was praised and honored after publishing his
autobiography. The way he exhibited the tortures he endured resonated more easily with
the readers. Although this masculinized his image and gave him strength and resilience, it
also undermined female abolitionists during his time such as Sojourner Truth. The
strongest point Douglass made throughout his book was that the actions of slaveowners
would always go unpunished. There was no court system set in place to protect slaves,
female or not. He stated, to be assumed the cause of an unlawful act was to “be
convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished… with certainty.”15 When inequality
became normalized, the systematic structural violence placed generating profits before
generating human lives. This completely supported Jacob’s runaway experience.16
Politically speaking, one might assume that Maryland’s slaves were better off- Douglass
disproved that notion by sharing stories he had witnessed with his own eyes. The up
close, graphic, and personal incidents gave insight to the brutal realities of slavery,
especially for women like Jacobs who have also had the role of a mother and were
responsible for their children’s lives. Nonetheless, the distribution of these stories to the
public shook the nation, helped the north better understand abuse towards women, and
inspired many to take up arms to defeat this ”peculiar institution.”
14. Ibid., 55.
15. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, (Boston: Bedford/
St. Martin’s, 2003), 77.
16. Ibid., 56