The stratification of society based not only on race but gender has held its roots inslavery especially for female slaves. In Harriet Jacobs’s autobiography, “Incidents in theLife of a Slave Girl,” she addresses three key points vital to understanding genderinequality in slavery: The “incidents” discussed failed to convince critics of herlegitimacy.
Male runaways such as Frederick Douglass gained credibility more easilyeven though access to education was a rarity for the females. Marriages and love affairsunsupervised by the master resulted in severe punishments through rape and other formsof sexual objectification. Last but most importantly, motherhood proved to be thestrongest bond for Jacobs. The burdens of childbearing also became the biggest factor inher escape and constant “underground” status. The only say she had in her children was abiological claim. They could be taken away from her at any minute for any reason, orlack thereof.
Being a female slave and a mother meant that Jacobs had to sacrifice a lifeof her own to see her children as free beings. Faced with the death of her mother at only six years old, Jacobs began tounderstand and come to terms with the reality of her slave situation as a young girl. Hermother, Delilah, shielded her from the hardships their family was going through on theplantation. This was a prime example of a slave mother working two jobs- providing forthe 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 hisown mother very well due to an illness that shortly ended her life.
Her mother could notdepend 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 treatedwell, 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 stillnever be considered an entire person to them, worthy of gaining justice. After both hermother and mistress died, she was left to her maternal grandmother for care on a differentplantation 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,2010), 31. Ibid., 32. Ibid., 36.
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 Ireflected 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 chastityand innocence, her desire to escape her master’s watchful eye became liberating. “Thereis 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 bodieswere constantly policed and in control of white men. Male slaves were seen as highly sexual “barbarians,” therefore extensive measureswere taken to strip them of all human emotion and desire. This was why Douglass did notmention marriage- it simply did not pertain to him or hold any relevance in his life. Thisis another disadvantage for the women since they were pressured and coerced intomarriage. Jacobs was not even considered a person to have freedom in such an institutionunless 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 herdedaround and commanded to only use physical relations to produce children and nothingmore. Douglass made the same point- when females were mentioned in his book, theywere 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 ofFrederick Douglass, (Boston: Bedford/St.
Martin’s, 2003), 41-46. Even under an arranged union, the husband had no power to protect his wife. Ifshe gets pregnant, the blame is thrown on her by both her husband and master.
“Did themothers 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 thelives of their own children to save them from growing up in the same condition.
AlthoughJacobs loved her son, she had wished the same fate on him as well. “Alas, what mockeryit is for a slave mother to try to pray back her dying child to life! Death is better thanslavery.” In order to prevent her from developing a romance with anyone else, he madeadvances on her.
Not only did this show white male dominance, it was also used as atactic to instill fear in female slaves so that they would not dare escape. They constantlyhad to pick and choose which battles they were willing to fight and who they were goingto 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 sexualcompetition 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 herescape, 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 bythe 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 hadno power to defend herself against her husband’s actions. At the same time, hismanipulative manners led her to throw her anger on Jacobs because even she could notstand up to her own husband. Nevertheless, this was a vicious cycle of victim shaming,submissiveness, and punishment.
Jacob’s image from this moment onwards remainedtainted, regardless of her innocence. The biggest problem with this was that she wasbeing 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 nomatter how white the baby looked.
When she gave birth to a girl, that in itself was seen asshameful and a waste, even though the father biologically determined whether the child isa 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 theworst 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 slavesand convinced them that they will not only forever be slaves, but also inferior to everyoneelse 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 themain cause for Auld to beat her since she was burned by fire as a child. This was nocoincidence, especially for women. To be literate, especially as a woman, was rebelliousin nature. It meant that they could unfold the discrepancies with the sermons of whitemales 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 hisautobiography.
The way he exhibited the tortures he endured resonated more easily withthe readers. Although this masculinized his image and gave him strength and resilience, italso undermined female abolitionists during his time such as Sojourner Truth. Thestrongest point Douglass made throughout his book was that the actions of slaveownerswould 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.16Politically speaking, one might assume that Maryland’s slaves were better off- Douglassdisproved that notion by sharing stories he had witnessed with his own eyes.
The upclose, 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 wereresponsible for their children’s lives. Nonetheless, the distribution of these stories to thepublic shook the nation, helped the north better understand abuse towards women, andinspired 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