Gender specific forms of oppression and resistance in Harriet Jacobs´s "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl"

Academic Paper, 2015

28 Pages, Grade: 1.0




I.1 Ways of reading Incidents

II.1 Patriarchal sexual oppression
II.2 Resistance through self-determination in sexuality
II.3 Limitations of resistance against patriarchal sexual oppression
II.4 Oppression through the deprival of female identity by neglecting slave women to live OUT THE "VIRTUES OF WOMANHOOD"
II.5 Resistance by redefinition of self-determination through motherhood
II.6 Oppression through the destruction of relationships
II.7 Resistance by building strong relationships and communities
II.8 Resistance by calling for political action
II.9 Limitations of resistance against the deprival of identity and the destruction of RELATIONSHIPS

III.1 Editorial oppression and Jacobs's resistance
III.2 Literary oppression and Jacobs's resistance





“You have seen a man made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”[1] The experiences of Frederick Douglass, one of the former slaves who escaped the horrors of slavery, became one of the most widely read slave narratives and the most influential African- American text of the antebellum era.[2] Authors like Douglass wanted not only to expose the inhumanity of the slave system, but they also gave incontestable evidence to the humanity of the African American.[3] The question that arises is, how representative Douglass's narrative is - does he speak of “man” as a representative for people in general, or is he specifically speaking for the male slave?

For the last years scholars have begun to pay more attention to issues of gender in their study of slavery and claim that female slaves faced additional burdens and even more challenges than some of the male slaves.[4]

Based on the first female slave narrative, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl[5], this paper will investigate how gender influences the way in which bondage can be experienced differently: what specific forms of oppression do women face in slavery, or what forms of oppression do they encounter to a larger extent than men? Claiming that this gender specific oppression results in gender specific forms of resistance, I will furthermore focus on the ways of how female slaves made a stand against this oppression. Again, Jacobs's narrative will be the basis for this investigation.

Incidents is the first-person account of Jacobs's pseudonymous narrator “Linda Brent” and presents an accurate, although selective, story of her life. This paper will not discuss the relationship between Jacobs and her narrator Brent, but will consider Brent's account as autobiographical for Jacobs.[6] For over a century, the authenticity of Jacobs's experiences was questioned until Jean Fagan Yellin' s ground breaking work proved her authorship.[7]

The basis for the following investigation will be a brief introduction of the various ways of approaching Incidents.[8]

The second part of the paper will then consider two gender specific forms of oppression: patriarchal sexual oppression, and the deprival of identity by neglecting female slaves to live out the “virtues of womanhood”.[9] With Incidents, Jacobs breaks taboos in order to present Brent's sexual history in slavery and to emphasize the power of self-determination, motherhood and family relationships as powerful weapons of resistance. These further result in a call for political action with which Jacobs addresses her readership. Even so, these forms of resistance have their limitations.[10]

Besides dealing with the oppression and resistance of female slaves, Jacobs also meets resistance as an author and this will be the focus of the third part of the paper by looking at Incidents as a literary work. Struggling to find an editor who is willing to publish her work without making a lot of changes, she finally wins over white abolitionist writer Lydia Maria Child to publish Incidents pseudonymously, nevertheless she still meets oppression of her freedom as an author.[11]

Additionally, the boundaries of the genre “slave narrative” as well as the use of the sentimental novel's form, confine her to a certain plot formula. Jacobs, as an author, resists by manipulating both the audience and the concept of literacy as weapons of resistance. Finally, this will result in an analysis of how successful Jacobs's resistance as an author is.[12]

Part I

I.1 Ways of reading Incidents

Incidents, being the most comprehensive antebellum autobiography by an African woman[13], offers various ways of being read and interpreted. Critics such as Hartman and Berlant mainly look at Incidents as “political theory”[14], whereas Carby has canonized it as a classic critique of the ideologies that supported the enslavement of African Americans and the sexual subjection of women in the nineteenth-century.[15] Garfield, on the other hand, approaches Incidents not as a work of critique, but as a piece of testimony that is performed before a public to decide a question of justice.[16]

Recently, scholars have presented new ways of reading the documents we have, and look at “small” acts of resistance by arguing that a focus on such actions presents an alternative view of the scope and nature of subalterns' struggle against their super ordinates.[17] Here, Camp and Kanzler focus on the importance of space and how female slaves appropriated the spaces slavery assigned to them. Kanzler presents the kitchen in Incidents as a place of both oppression and resistance, as a representative of the in-between spaces “at once created by and subverting slavery”.[18] Camp goes a step further and focuses on the slaves' bodies as “loci of resistance”[19]. This is the foundation of the analysis of patriarchal sexual oppression in II.1, since turning her body into a “loc[us] of resistance” through self-determination of her sexuality, Jacobs challenges the accounts of womanhood. The third part of the paper, focusing on Incidents as a literary work, will take the approach of looking at the text as both a combination of various genres and also a female version of the slave narrative, and will analyse to what extent Jacobs, as an author, succeeds in achieving this.[20]

Part II

II.1 Patriarchal sexual oppression

For enslaved black women, sexual violence is part of the day-to-day function of being in slavery, since the sexual exploitation of their bodies is almost as much a part of the institution as the exploitation of their labour in the fields. Often puberty marks the beginning of a lifetime of sexual and emotional abuse. Many female slaves work in the planter's home which includes close interaction with the owners. Male slaveholders see access to black women's bodies as one of the privileges of mastery and the narratives of female slaves provide ample evidence of this tendency. Incidents details Jacobs's constant struggles to evade the sexual advances of her owner.[21] To prove this claim, two scenes will be analysed: firstly, Jacobs' s master Dr. Flint finding out that she is capable of reading and writing and, secondly, Jacobs's consequent decision to enter into a sexual relationship with Mr. Sands.[22]

II.2 Resistance through self-determination in sexuality

Finding out about her literacy, Dr. Flint first disapproves of it, but soon uses her literacy as a weapon to further enslave her: He has already started “to whisper foul words in [her] ear”[23] but now he also sends obscene notes, trying to “corrupt the pure principles”[24] her grandmother instilled. Jacobs ignores these notes, pretending that she is illiterate, but her master tries to find a new way to get her into his bedroom by intending to take his youngest daughter to sleep in his apartment. Jacobs refuses to nurse the child at night and only her mistress's jealousy eventually prevents her from sexual harassment.[25] Although not explicitly mentioned, Dr. Flint's sexual intentions are clear, and Jacobs highlights this by pointing out how he continuously reminds her that she “[is| his property”[26] and that he is “the father of eleven slaves”[27].[28] When Jacobs hears about his plan “to build a small house for her, in a secluded place”[29], she realizes the inevitability of her sexual assault. Accepting this, Jacobs attempts to exert some control over the experience by choosing who has initial access to her body[30] - it is not complete purity, but at least a preservation of her self-respect and dignity.[31] With this decision, Jacobs turns the closest, most accessible space she knows, her own body, into a place of resistance. It is the place where her subjugation is most clearly manifested. For her “it seems less degrading to give one's self, than to submit to compulsion.”[32] Therefore, this small act of resistance brings her, literally and spiritually, closer to freedom and later, her announcement to Dr. Flint about her first pregnancy leaves her with a sense of “triumph” because it signals a degree of independence from his domination.[33] Although her children are inescapably born into slavery, specifically into Dr. Flint's property, they are not his by blood. Consequently, Jacobs fundamentally disrupts the power dynamic between master and slave woman and introduces the possibility of freeing her children in choosing Mr. Sands as the father of her children.[34]

II.3 Limitations of resistance against patriarchal sexual oppression

Smith argues, Jacobs's relationship with Sands provides her with a certain measure of power, but although Jacobs calls this a matter of “deliberate calculation”[35], her manipulation refers only to the selection of one of two white men to be the father of her children and not to a decision to begin having sexual intercourse at the age of fifteen.[36] Jacobs also knows that, although her children are not Dr. Flint's property by blood, she can not prevent her daughter being subjected to sexual oppression.[37]

When black abolitionist Jeremiah Durham warns Jacobs that her readership would most likely treat her with contempt if she revealed her story, she writes it “burned [her] like coals of fire”.[38] Even so, Jacobs decides to publish her story, conceiving it as a kind of evidence against the slaveholders, but in the process she needs to submit it to the court of public opinion. Notwithstanding that she is openly, unapologetically defiant of the slave codes, she is restricted in the presentation of her case to her readership, unable to present her decision as an act of courage: the virtue of purity, represented by her virginity, is held higher than the oppression she experienced. Therefore, Jacobs is in need to be able to craft her words very carefully when giving testimony to this act of sacrificing her feminine virtue: presenting it as a “painful task of confessing”[39], she addresses her audience as a tribunal of judgment in her case and offers a full confession: “I know I did wrong.”[40] By doing so, she asks for her readership's pardon and hopes to revise the terms in which her plea is decided. “The slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others”[41]. Indeed, her ambition is to transfer the burden of readers' moral condemnation from herself to the system of slavery.[42] Yet Jacobs cannot interpret her actions as revolutionary and freeing, because she is overly well aware of the interpretation of her actions, according to the cult of true womanhood that her readership stands for. Consequently, she must devote page after page to confess that her act was evil and impure.[43] To what extent she would have done this exhaustive confession if the values of her readership had been different, remains open, but it is justified to question it. Hence, the next chapter will discuss in more detail the “virtues of womanhood” and the limited possibilities female slaves have to put these virtues into practise.

II.4 Oppression through the deprival of female identity by neglecting slave women to live out the “virtues of womanhood”

The analysed scene reveals the constant underlying tension in Jacobs's narrative between her desires to fulfil her society's definition of womanhood, and her enslaver's constant attempt to prevent that fulfilment. The American “cult of domesticity”, or the “cult of true womanhood” manifests that a woman is valued for her virginity and femininity and, additionally, must be fully dependent on her father or husband. Certainly, the slave woman depends on her master, but is forced by him to work like a man and often “to breed like an animal”, and thus is denied the ability to cultivate “feminine” attributes. Jacobs is aware that she is not allowed this bodily integrity and thus has difficulty achieving the feelings of self-worth experienced by “true women”.[44] Attempting to win the empathy of her readership, Jacobs reconfigures the experience of womanhood, such that the virtues of chastity and physical beauty are presented as socially constructed privileges available only to a select free white female populace.[45] But at the same time she also makes clear that what prevents her from being a “true woman” is not her colour or race, but is her condition as a slave - she does this by insisting on her grandmother's morality throughout her story.[46] This is a call for equality, presenting black female slaves as being able to live out these virtues in a different, free environment. In the following I will analyse how Jacobs practises resistance against this deprival of female identity by focusing on two forms: resistance through the concept of motherhood and through the power of community.

II.5 Resistance by redefinition of self-determination through motherhood

The depiction of the mother as a shield from bondage is common in slave narratives, but the predetermined violence of slavery disrupts a conventional meaning attached to the word “motherhood”. What is the meaning of “motherhood” for a woman who is deprived of the ability to care for and protect her children, and how is it used as a form of resistance? In the following, the attempt is to conceptualize Jacobs's maternal identity under her conditions of enslavement.[47]

Jacobs, as a mother, does not have any biological claim to her children and due to this destabilization of blood relations, she demands new terms of radical self-determination on herself.[48] In order to present herself as a caring mother, she glosses over her sexual experiences and identifies herself exclusively as a mother. Sanchez-Eppler explains that Jacobs “proposes the role of the ‘good mother’ as a substitute for chastity” and by doing so, replaces sexuality with motherhood, in which she finds a vehicle for the retrieval of lost self- respect.[49] Jacobs sets the cult of true womanhood and its moral expectations against cultural ideals for motherhood. By doing so, she underlines the limitations of the former, as she describes her achievement of the latter and, as an act of resistance, attempts to change her status from sexual object to “sacred mother”, hoping that Dr. Flint will lose his sexual interest for her. In addition, her hope is that her maternity, despite its illegitimacy, will appeal to her readership, the mothers of the North and therefore enable her to form a bond with them.[50] Relying upon the trope of motherhood, Jacobs suggests that a woman's sexuality offers a vital means of resistance against patriarchal oppression: Motherhood, for Jacobs, is neither a simply politically astute literary trope nor a means of describing the abuses of slavery specific to women. She rather presents it as a crucial form of female empowerment, by emphasizing the oppositional action inspired by maternal sentiment as “a force that resists slavery and its supporters”. Jacobs undermines the authority of her master Dr. Flint by converting her body and reproductive abilities from sites of exploitation to vehicles of resistance.[51] In this manner, she also resists the deprival of her female identity by appealing to her audience specifically as mothers to enjoin them to take political action and stop this devastating practice of slavery. Jacobs is aware of the fact that her targeted readers are white and that the focus of her narrative is the plight of black female slaves and mothers, but avoiding the identification of these two groups in a racial way, she instead concentrates on geographic differences. Jacobs succeeds in positioning a “common womanhood between disparate groups”, resisting the gap social norms put between them.[52]

II.6 Oppression through the destruction of relationships

Clearly, Jacobs's most important relationship is with her two children. She holds on to it, because it adds value to her, giving her back the self-respect she lost with the sacrifice of her virginity. But nevertheless, Jacobs is very much aware of what she describes as the fundamental of slavery: its flagrant destruction of familial bonds. Slave children are torn between the authority of their parents and their required obedience towards their master. Jacobs witnesses her brother William being caught between these two opposing obligations.[53] Slave owners recognize the revolutionary potential of strong relationships and seek to destroy any sense of family in slaves.[54] Incidents presents slavery as a poison infecting not only Jacobs's closest relationships, but also other social relationships.


[1] Douglass, Frederick and Harriet A. Jacobs. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. An American Slave and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Modern Library / Random House, 2004: 73. In the following, I will refer to them as ‘Douglass 2004’ and ‘Jacobs 2004’.

[2] See ibid, v.

[3] Andrews, William L. “Slave Narrative”. In William L. Andrews et al. (eds.) The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997: 667.

[4] Ramey, Daina L. “Slave Women.” New Georgia Encyclopedia 10 Jan 2014. Web. 30 March 2015 <>.

[5] Jacobs 2004. In the following, the title will be abbreviated with Incidents.

[6] Li, Stephanie. “Motherhood as Resistance in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Legacy 23.1 (2006): 14-29. Li, for example, treats Linda Brent as a purely literary figure constructed to perform certain political aims, see Li 2006: 15. Also, Jean Fagan Yellin's biography offers a complete account of the differences between Jacobs's life and its literary rendition, see: Yellin. Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. New York: Basic, 2004.

[7] Washington, Margaret. Rev. of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin et al. Journal of Southern History 76.3 2010: 726-728.

[8] See Stubbs, T.M.C. “Space, Time and Female Resistance to Slavery on Antebellum Plantations.” Rev. of Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, by Stephanie M.H. Camp. H-NetReviews (Sep 2006): 1-3.; Kanzler, Katja. “To Tell the Kitchen Version: Architectural Figurations of Race and Gender in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Harriet Wilson's Our Nig.” Gender Forum 15 (2006): 1-9.; Davis, Theo. “Harriet Jacobs's ‘Excrescences’: Aesthetics and Politics in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Theory & Event 13.4 (2010): n.p.; Smith, Caleb. “Harriet Jacobs among the Militants: Transformations in Abolition's Public Sphere, 1859-61.” American Literature 84.4 (2012): 743-768.; Weinstein, Cindy. “The slave narrative and sentimental literature“ In Audrey Fisch (ed.) The African American Slave Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007: 115-134.; Morgan, Winifred. “Gender-Related Difference in the Slave Narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass” American Studies 35.2 (1994): 73­94.

[9] Obviously, female slaves also suffered under the same forms of oppression as male slaves did, such as physical violence, starvation and deprivation of sleep, see Franklin, John Hope and Alfred A. Hoss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994: 126-131.But these forms will not be discussed in detail here.

[10] See Li 2006.; Drake, Kimberley. “Rewriting the American Self: Race, Gender, and Identity in the Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.” MELUS 22.4 (2003): 91-108.

[11] Only Child's name was on the title page as editor, see Andrews, William L./Frances Smith Foster/Trudier Harris (eds.). “Jacobs, Harriet A.” The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001: 223.

[12] See LeRoy-Frazier, Jill. “Literacy, Authorship and Gender in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Obsidian IIILiterature in the African Diaspora 5.1 (2004): 152-161.; Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

[13] See Andres 2001: 223.

[14] Rifkin, Mark. "'A Home Made Sacred by Protecting Laws’: Black Activist Homemaking and Geographies of Citizenship in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." differences 18.2 (2007): 75.

[15] See Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro- American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987: 47

[16] See Garfield, Deborah M. “Earwitness: Female Abolitionism, Sexuality, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” In Garfield and Zafar (eds.) Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 76-79.

[17] See Stubbs Rev. of Camp 2006:1-3. Due to the length of this paper it is not possible to analyse Davis's approach who presents Incidents as a literary text focusing on Jacobs's excrescences, such as the arrangement of flowers, as an alternatives to the demands of self-expression, see Davis 2010: n.p.

[18] Kanzler, 2006: 5. In her studies, Kanzler continues to present the kitchen as a “gendered space” and as a place bearing connotations of class, since this room brought the mistress of the house together with servants and slaves. Unfolding slavery in domestic settings therefore offered a cultural register that resonated with their white female middle-class readership, see Kanzler 2006: 3-8.This paper will not further discuss Kanzler' s approach in detail but focus on Camp's thesis of the body as “locus of resistance”.

[19] Stubbs Rev. of Camp 2006: 1.

[20] Smith argues that Jacobs adapts the genres of both the slave narrative and the sentimental novel, see Smith 1987. For further studies on this approach, see Brooks Daphne A. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006: 101.; Reid-Pharr, Robert. "The Slave Narrative and Early Black American Literature." In Audrey Fisch (ed.) The African American Slave Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007: 137-149.

[21] See Ramey 2003, n.p.; Illingworth, James. “Slavery and the Origins of the Civil War.” International Socialist Review 78 (2011): n.p. 09 Mar. 2015 <>.

[22] See Jacobs 2004: 163.

[23] Ibid., 158.

[24] Ibid.

[25] See Ibid., 164-165. Although not explicitly mentioned, Dr. Flint's sexual intentions are clear and Jacobs highlights this by pointing out how he continuously reminded her that she “was his property” (Jacobs 2004: 159.) and that he was “the father of eleven slaves” (Jacobs 2004: 167.).

[26] Ibid., 159.

[27] Ibid., 167.

[28] See Drake 2003: 103-104.

[29] Jacobs 2004: 190.

[30] See Li 2006: 21.

[31] See Jacobs 2004: 191. “I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone [..] and I became reckless in my despair.”

[32] Ibid., 192.

[33] See Stubbs Rev. of Camp 2006: 2.; Carby 1987: 56.

[34] See Li 2006: 22.

[35] Jacobs 2004: 91.

[36] See Smith 1987: 33.

[37] See Jacobs 2004: 218. “When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had been before. Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women.”

[38] Yellin 2004: 160.

[39] Jacobs 2004: 191.

[40] Ibid., 193.

[41] Ibid.

[42] See Smith 2012: 749.

[43] See Drake 2003: 104. Carby credits Jacobs as the first person to provide a sustained discussion of the conventions of true womanhood, see Carby 1987: 47.

[44] See Drake 2003: 94, 103-105.

[45] As Hartman argues, Jacobs's rewriting of the scene of seduction accomplished “a reversal in which the standards of virtue are deemed inappropriate in measuring the lives of enslaved women”, see Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997: 105. On rape and legal personhood in Incidents, see also: Stone, Andrea. “Interracial Sexual Abuse and Legal Subjectivity in Antebellum Law and Literature.” American Literature 81 (March 2009): 65-92.

[46] See Li 2006: 17.; Drake 2003: 103-104.; Jacobs 2004: 158. “He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled.”

[47] See Li 2006: 14; 27. Foster calls the separation between mother and child “the best-known scene of the slave narratives”, see: Foster, Frances Smith. Witnessing Slavery: the Development of Ante-Bellum Slave Narratives. Westport: Greenwood, 1979: 98.

[48] See Jacobs 2004: 216. “...he would threaten to sell my child. ‘Perhaps that will humble you’, said he.”

[49] See Sanchez-Eppler, Karen. Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993: 100-101.

[50] See Drake 2003: 104.; Jacobs 2004: 193. “Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave [...].”

[51] See Li 2006: 15.

[52] See ibid., 17.

[53] See Jacobs 2004: 136. “When my father reproved him for it, he said, ‘You both called me [...]’. ‘You are my child,’ replied our father, ‘and when I call you, you should come immediately ...’”; also see Li 2006: 15.

[54] See Drake 2003: 98.

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Gender specific forms of oppression and resistance in Harriet Jacobs´s "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl"
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Incidents, Patriarchal Sexual Oppression, Resistance through self-determination, Oppression through the destruction of relationships, Resistance by calling for political action
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Janina Gaiser (Author), 2015, Gender specific forms of oppression and resistance in Harriet Jacobs´s "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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