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Harriet Jacob's Redefines "True Womanhood"

Throughout Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, she challenges and seeks to redefine the cult of True Womanhood. As a young girl, she was cared for, nurtured and treated relatively well, but, once sold to the Flint family, she was victimized and subjected to daily abuses. Caught between the ideology of True Womanhood based on purity, piety and submissiveness, and her own sense of self and dignity inculcated during her early years, she chose to publicize her abuses to an abolitionist audience to bring awareness to the contradictions inherent in the dominant ideology of womanhood. Internal conflict is apparent throughout her accounts as she battles to maintain the qualities she’s been taught are those of an ideal woman and her reality, she forges a new definition, based on her experiences and her quest for survival.

In the opening pages of Incidents, Jacobs related that her early years were happy; she had a mistress who was kind and never required “toilsome or disagreeable duties.”[1] She had taught young Harriett to read and she was “proud to labor for her as much as my young years would permit.”[2] But, all this changed at the age of twelve, when her mistress became ill and passed away. Upon her death, all her slaves were distributed among her relatives; Harriett went to the home of Dr. & Mrs. Flint.[3]

In this house, Harriett witnessed horrible punishments meted out to slaves by Dr. Flint and a submissive and passive Mrs. Flint, stood by and watched. In her description of southern white women, Jacobs challenges the tenets of the cult of womanhood. How could God-fearing, moral and upstanding women stand-by, and in some cases, actively participate in the abuses of their husbands upon slaves? In one episode, Mrs. Flint was wracked by jealously upon finding out that Harriet was sleeping in her husband’s room. But instead of confronting the abuser, she confronted the abused and questioned Harriet for her supposed transgressions. Jacobs responded with compassion and understanding, “she felt that her marriage vows were desecrated, her dignity insulted; but she had no compassion for the poor victim of her husband’s perfidy. She 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.”[4] Jacobs called to attention the hypocrisy inherent in this value system. Women, by virtue of the cult of True Womanhood, are supposed to silently endure all the mistreatment and abuses that they witness. Harriett Jacobs challenged this cultural expectation by bringing her story to print and confronted the institution of slavery; not only as a degrading system of human abuse and terror for blacks, but for Southern white women as well who were unable, because of the institution of slavery, to live the values of the cult of domesticity.

Throughout the book, Jacobs is calculating, defiant, and at times, naïve. Her decision to engage in an illicit relationship with Mr. Sands in order to escape the abuse of Dr. Flint, shows that she “asserts liberty and autonomy as alternative values for slave women, priorities that supersede chastity and submissiveness.”[5] However, she operates with a level of naiveté. She acknowledged that Mr. Sands “was a man of more generosity and feeling than my master, and I thought my freedom would be easily obtained from him.” Dr. Flint proved that he was not willing to part with Harriett as easily as she had assumed.

Her defiance safe-guarded her from utter depression and helped her to retain autonomy and a sense of self-worth. After the birth of her first child, Dr. Flint commanded Harriett to tell him if the father of her baby was white or black. Attached to this question came a threat of violence as he “sprang upon [her] like a wolf, and grabbed [her] arm as if he would have broken it” then asked, “do you love him?” To which she replied, “I am thankful that I do not despise him.”[6] Even though threatened with violence, she persists in her noncooperation.

This ideology placed the burden of behavior solely on women. As in the example about, Mrs. Flint does not blame her husband for his transgressions, but rather goes after his victim. Barbara Welter, seeking to explain this psychology, quotes Thomas Branafran’s The Excellency of the Female Character Vindicated, who admitted that men would “sin and sin again, but woman, stronger and purer, must not give in and let man ‘take liberties incompatible with her delicacy’ for if she does, ‘you will be left in silent sadness to bewail your credulity, imbecility, duplicity, and premature prostitution.’”[7] Quite the damning commentary about the nature of True Womanhood. All the onus for pure behavior was the responsibility of the woman. This is something that Jacobs firmly rejects throughout her account of slavery. She resists whenever resistance was possible. She refuses the submissiveness prescribed by the ideology of womanhood and she acknowledges that these values are not possible for women in bondage.

Harriett Jacobs acknowledges that even the churches were implicit in their support of these abuses. She related that Episcopalian clergymen held separated services for black members and focused on scripture readings which reinforced their bondage, like “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”[8] Later, a new clergyman arrived. This one, upheld Christian values and attempted to make conditions better for the slaves, but his white parishioners became dissatisfied.[9] Piety and religiosity, two of the most highly prioritized values of True Womanhood were exploited in this vicious institution of slavery.

As Franny Nudelman exposes, black women who had become anti-abolitionists had relied on descriptions of mistreated experienced by slave women in order to mobilize a white audience to action. They relied on the cult of True Womanhood to defend their position. Stories of abuses told by black women were hardly unusual for the time. What was unusual about Jacobs’ narrative is not that she publicizes her sexual abuse, but that “she uses techniques typically employed by white abolitionists to tell her own story.”[10] She uses the degradations she experienced to shame white audiences to take action against this institution of slavery. She used first person narration and through her defiance is able to draw connections between the dominant domestic ideology that values sexual purity and anti-slavery discourse which relied on publicizing sexual victimization.[11] Through her vulnerability she is able to reclaim her strength and bring to light the subjugation and contradictions experienced by enslaved women.

Jacobs was willing to subject herself to humiliation to bring to light the sexual exploitation of slave women. Challenging the cult of True Womanhood through her conscious decision to talk freely of sexual mistreatment during a time when women were expected to silently endure abuses and deprivations contributed to her reclaiming her identity and womanhood.

The courage shown by Harriet Jacobs in the telling of this story is significant not only because it helped to draw attention to the repulsive institution of slavery, but because in its retelling, Harriet found her voice and reclaimed her sense of self and dignity. She was liberated in the telling. She drew attention to the hypocrisy inherent in an ideology that at one time seeks to highly value purity, piety and submissiveness in women, but at the same time subjects them to unheard of abuses and degradations. No longer able to live under the yoke of the cult of True Womanhood, she forged a new identity for herself; a free black woman.

DuBois, Ellen Carol and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.

Nudelman, Franny. “Harriet Jacobs and the Sentimental Politics of Female Suffering.” ELH, Vol. 59, no. 4 (Winter, 1992): 939-964.

Barbara Welter. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” 1966.

Jacobs, Harriett. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001.

[1] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2001), 10.

[2] Jacobs, Incidents, 10.

[3] Jacobs, Incidents, 11.

[4] Jacobs, Incidents, 31.

[5] Franny Nudelman, “Harriet Jacobs and the Sentimental Politics of Female Suffering,” ELH, 595, no. 4 (1992): 940.

[6] Jacobs, Incidents, 52.

[7] Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” 1966.

[8] Jacobs, Incidents, 59.

[9] Jacobs, Incidents, 62.

[10] Nudelamn, Sentimental Politics of Female Suffering, 941.

[11] Ibid., 942.

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