The feminist movement sought to gain rights for women. Many feminist during the early nineteenth century fought for the abolition of slavery around the world. The slave narrative became a powerful feminist tool in the nineteenth century. Black and white women are fictionalized and objectified in the slave narrative. White women are idealized as pure, angelic, and chaste while black woman are idealized as exotic and contained an uncontrollable, savage sexuality. Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, brought the sexual oppression of captive black women into the public and political arena.
Harriet Jacobs takes a great 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 a true account of the brutality slavery held for women. A perspective that was relatively secretive during Jacobs time. Jacobs narrative focuses on subjugation due to race but it also portrays many women an strong and often open roles. Women in these roles were minimal and often suffered for their outspoken roles.
Harriet Jacobs narrative is a powerful statement unveiling the impossibility and undesirability of achieving the ideal put forth by men and maintained by women. Jacobs directs her 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 disapprobation women maintained by accepting the idealized role that men have set a goal for which to strive. She suggests that slave women be judged by different standards than those applied to other women. Jacobs develops a moral code that apprises the specific social and historical position of captive black women. Jacobs will power and strength shown in her narrative are characteristics of womanly behavior being developed by the emerging feminist movement.
In struggling against the brutal dynamics of a system that simultaneously set before her ideals of a true woman, but refused to acknowledge her as a human being, Jacobs emerges scarred but victorious. Her rational powers and will to action facilitate her efforts to find strategies for dealing with sexual harassment from her master, for maintaining family unity, and in establishing a moral code in harmony with her beliefs and situation. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs primary ordeal is the persistent sexual harassment and obsessive pursuit by Dr. Flint. Instead of bowing to what appears to be the inescapable sexual regression by Flint, Jacobs devises a plan of action that helps her maintain dignity, self-hood, and family unity. Jacobs took on another white man, Sawyer, as a lover because she knew it was inevitable that she would bear a white mans child. Since Flint denied Jacobs a marriage to a free black man and refused to sell her to anyone, Jacobs knew that she would never be allowed a traditional home and family. By choosing Sawyer as a lover and father to her children, Jacobs went against the ideal image of womanhood and showed independence. Making this choice meant that Jacobs willingly gave up her virginity outside of marriage. An action that is completely against traditional moral codes in her time. Jacobs exhibits the integrity of a survivalists. She thinks and speaks for herself, devises a plan and acts on it, all the while keeping in mind family unity and protection for her children. While attempting to embrace the ideals of womanhood, Jacobs is able to recognize and disregard the standards that cannot be applies and establishes for herself concepts of integrity and self-hood.
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 mole of a true woman in slave times. Aunt Martha, Lindas Grandmother, is a free woman who owns her own 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 can not be effective because she is now on the outside. She can have the traditional family unlike Linda.
After her escape, Linda is assisted by a slave holding white woman. The white woman is by all aspects a true woman, but due to her actions she lacks the submissiveness of women. She defies Lindas hunters by maintaining her silence as to Lindas location. Even though Linda is nearly found, the woman never turns her over to her master like a true woman should. A true woman would never get involved in a dispute because it is not her place, but the white woman does. Not only does she involve herself in the manner but she takes the side of a slave over a man of her own kind. The womans domain was her home and her duty was to maintain and manage the household to the best of her ability. She was to provide comfort for her husband and her family, not aid in the dispensing of impartiality.
Even Mrs. Flint lacked an aspect of true womanhood. Mrs. Flint lacked in domesticity and devotion, 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 (214). Mrs. Flint is submissive when Dr. Flint was present but goes behind his back to get the disappearance of her rival, Linda Brent.
Throughout the narrative, Linda contests any identities or labels placed upon her by whites. Linda rebels against the model of womanhood, but she maintains a sense of feminism due to her trials and tribulations as a slave. Linda creates her own image of a true women by creating a need for respect as an ideal of womanhood. Power is a commodity that no slave is allowed, but Linda gathers power form the moment she accepts she will not be a true woman. Lindas power is gained by the choices she makes. When she takes on Mr. Sands as a lover, she empowers herself to exercise authority when she is vulnerable. Linda also controls Dr. Flint by writing him letters that were posted from the north. Mr. Flint travels back and forth to the north but comes back without his property.
The role of women has left a significant image of femininity throughout the years. Women have often not been treated as humans but as tokens or commodities. This can be proven in the slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Linda is denying societys firm position for women by refusing to be owned, refusing to submit , and refusing to be bought out of her captivity. Linda rejects the notion of true womanhood that has been passes on for centuries and takes control of her future and her childrens future. Linda gains her peace by escaping to the north.
Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the few narratives depicting the degradations endured by female slaves at the hand of brutal masters. Jacobs narrative is sending a message to women to come together and end the unfair treatment all women are subjected to. By bringing images of slavery and the message of unity of women to the forefront, Jacobs is attempting to end the tyranny over women perpetrated by men and the tyranny over blacks perpetrated by whites. Integrity and agency are ideals that Americans have fought for over the years. Jacobs reshapes these ideas and makes decisions and takes full reposibilities for her actions to become the ideal and representative image of womanhood.
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company