“Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” (1861) by Harriet Jacobs is a multilayered slave narrative, it concerns many major subjects like the violent, regardless behaviour of white middle class women towards slaves in the U.S. South during the antebellum years as well as the peculiar institution and social cohesion within the family. But in this essay I will concentrate on gender and race conventions and the protagonist’s struggle of gaining true womanhood. First I will examine what true womanhood is and how it developed. Ongoing I will also analyse these conventions in relation to Linda Brent, the protagonist of Harriet Jacobs’ autobiographical narrative, and other characters having an influence on Linda. As a last point I will examine the author’s intention to stress the ideal woman.
The cult of true womanhood was a cultural convention only for white upper-class women of the mid-nineteenth century America. It was their ultimate ambition to maintain their womanhood and live according to its attributes. Poorer white women also tried to reach these standards but often failed. Black woman, especially slaves in the South, usually had no chance to acquire it at all. But these virtues mentally applied for every woman although not every woman could achieve the standard publicly in society. It was like a very strict guideline for young girls to become a respectable woman in the social order. (Garfield 48 – 51).
There was a closed set of attributes describing true womanhood: piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness. Piety described the women’s relation to religion. The women should have been born as Christians but not belong to any Afro-American religion. They should have believed in God and work with him to improve the world. He was the source of strength and dignity for women. Their behavior should have been innocent and gentle. An advantage of the church was that it also supported the other attributes of true womanhood better than many other movements (Welter 152). Purity was the factor that was most important but also most difficult to achieve for blacks, it meant that the woman had to be sexually pure and chaste; otherwise she had to face terrible consequences. Women who lost their purity (except for the wedding night, when she bestowed her body on her husband) usually turned mad or they allegedly even died (Welter 154 – 155). Black slaves were on the horns of a dilemma because they were often raped by their masters and are therefore not pure any longer but on the contrary they had no chance to defy themselves. Like Washington writes in her article, Jacobs herself said that the women were not permitted to have control over their womanhood although they might have a strong moral sense because they were only property (“Modern Voices”). Domesticity instead was a virtue to be proud of for every woman. Wifely duties were to set up one’s own house and to take care for the children. It was self-evident that men had to work hard outside the household. Many black female slaves worked in the household but were still not domestic according to the virtues of true womanhood because it was not their own but the master’s household. The last attribute, submissiveness, stated that women should have been passive and obedient and men served as the protectors of the family (Johnson 18 – 28). The only place where women were allowed to move was in the house, they were the master’s hostels. A true woman was also never allowed to be part of a dispute. All fugitive slaves and their anti-racist helpers were absolutely disobedient and not submissive at all, because one of the biggest malpractices concerning submissiveness was to hide a slave in his house or help him in any other way (Logan “Feminism and Slavery”).