Gender Identity in the Slave Narratives by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Gender Stereotypes: Womanhood and Manhood in the 19th Century

3. Black Femininity in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
3.1 Sexuality
3.2 Motherhood
3.3 Interdependence

4. Black Masculinity in Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
4.1 The Search for Freedom: Coping with Feminization and Dehumanization
4.2 Independence and Autonomy
4.3 Isolation

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

In spite of the fact that liberty and equality are mentioned as basic human rights in the Declaration of Independence, the institution of slavery characterized 19th Century America. In the Southern states, slaves were owned by their masters and treated as objects which could be bought or sold. “They could not vote, be legally married, live where they wanted to, run for political office, learn to read and write (in most Southern states), or serve on juries” (Felgar 1). Their restricted rights made it difficult for them to fight for freedom and equality. It was not until 1866, when the Civil Rights Act granted them full citizenship (Felgar xxi). Slave narratives contributed to the advancement of abolishing slavery, raising awareness of the cruelty and injustice carried out by the slave system. In these autobiographies, former slaves describe their experiences during slavery and their way to freedom, emphasizing the inhumanity of slavery. As Gates states, “[e]ach slave author, in writing about his or her personal life experiences, simultaneously wrote on behalf of the millions of silent slaves still held captive throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and the American South” (xiii). However, one has to take into consideration that their stories are individual, and not entirely representative for all slave men and women.

Two slave narratives serve as a basis for this paper. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published under the pseudonym Linda Brent in 1861, tells the story of the life of Harriet Jacobs, a former slave who finally managed to escape despite of the difficulties posed by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850[1]. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, published in 1845 focuses on how he becomes a man by escaping slavery on account of the Underground Railroad, established in 1815, which helped slaves to escape to the North (Felgar 3). The historical relevance of the two narratives as key documents should not be underestimated, namely their vast influence and their support of abolition. Telling the truth about their experiences as slaves on the one hand, and creating a fictional self on the other hand brings the necessity of distinguishing between reality and fiction. As Stone puts it: “As autobiographies, the Narrative and other similar works occupy the territory between history and art, biography and fiction, memory and imagination” (Stone 63). In terms of literary analysis, this paper is based on their works as fiction.

Douglass's and Jacob's slave narratives deal with the reconstruction of identity. The recreation of Frederick Douglass's own identity is seen as an “argument for an end to slavery's denial of individuality and creativity” (Stone 66). This process of reconstructing identity is closely connected with the depiction of gender. Thus, the main focus of this term paper is placed on the formation of gender identity in the two slave narratives. The concept of gender can be defined as “the relationship between biological sex and behavior” (Udry 561). The leading question of this paper is: How does the image of black femininity and black masculinity portrayed in the two slave narratives correspond with the concept of womanhood and manhood prevailing at the time? In the course of this paper I will attempt to show that the two slave narratives serve as an example of individual self-fashioning, attempting to portray themselves as truly masculine or feminine and conforming to gender roles, at the same time reinventing these prevailing concepts. Society expects people to behave according to norms and values typical for a certain time. Thus, the first chapter gives an overview of gender stereotypes in the 19th century, which will subsequently be linked to the slave narratives. Creating a female identity as a slave suggests to include the category of sexuality, as female slaves often suffered from oppression and sexual abuse. However, this only offers a limited view and there are other significant dimensions connected to female identity. Therefore, Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl will also be analyzed in terms of motherhood and interdependence. The creation of male identity in Douglass's Narrative will then be analyzed comparatively by looking at his desire for freedom and how he copes with feminization and dehumanization of male slaves, his fight for independence, and his isolation in reference to his family and other slaves. Relevant criticism on gender identity in the two slave narratives includes Drake's essay “Rewriting the American Self: Race, Gender and Identity in the Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs”.

2. Gender Stereotypes: Womanhood and Manhood in the 19th Century

Defining womanhood and manhood in the 19th century, one has to consider the connection between race, gender, and sexuality. As Judith Butler points out, gender cannot be analyzed as a completely separate category:

It is not simply a matter of honoring the subject as a plurality of identifications, for these identifications are invariably imbricated in one another, the vehicle for one another: a gender identification can be made in order to repudiate or participate in a race identification; what counts as 'ethnicity' frames and eroticizes sexuality, or can itself be a sexual marking. This implies that it is not a matter of relating race and sexuality and gender, as if they were fully separable axes of power. (qtd. in Ishida 133-134)

Therefore, gender identity is a complex construction, which is contradictory to setting one valid definition of what it means to be a man or a woman. Regardless of the link to the category of race, standards and norms concerning gender identity were set by American culture and influenced expectations of Americans in the 19th century. However, it was impossible for slaves to achieve these female and male models of identity (Drake 45). Although aiming to reach the same standards, the circumstances differed immensely since the conditions in the South and in the North were completely different. The Missouri Compromise imposed a ban on slavery in the Northern states in 1820 (Felgar xix). Moreover, the two concepts of male and female identity did not include race as a category although both race and gender are linked to each other, as mentioned before. Taking a look at the historical context, it becomes clear that black and white men at that time did not share equal rights and opportunities since citizenship was granted for white men only, excluding both black people and women (Santamarina 232). These circumstances have to be taken into consideration when looking at womanhood and manhood in 19th century America.

In American society in the 19th century, women were expected to fulfill certain norms and values. Female models of identity include “patriarchal values of female submission and dependence” (Drake 45). Thus, women at the time were not able to act independently. This female model of identity can be referred to as the cult of true womanhood, which says that “a woman is valued for her virginity and femininity and must fully be dependent on her father or husband” (Drake 45). Female dependence on males is one important aspect of the definition of true womanhood. Another aspect is “bodily integrity” (Drake 58), which means that women were not allowed to have sexual intercourse with anyone but their husbands, let alone have an illegitimate child. According to Johnson,

Mid-nineteenth century women's magazines, such as T he Ladies' Repository, Godey's Lady's Book, The Lady's Garland, and The Lady's Companion, characterize the 'true woman' as gentle, innocent, pure, pious, domestic, submissive, and somewhat helpless. The stories and sermons of this period stress the duties of obedient, submissive wives and mothers. (18)

This definition of femininity determined the values women aimed to fulfill in order to be regarded as a true women by society. While white women in the North could theoretically achieve these aims, the situation in the South was more complicated. “A slave woman living in the antebellum South, however, had no hope of acquiring or maintaining the virtues demanded of the 'true woman'” (Johnson 18). Thus, slavery prevented black women from being or becoming a true women. Therefore, slave women were not considered to be feminine: “The slave woman, while certainly dependent on her master, was forced to work just as if she were a man and to breed as if she were an animal, and she was thus denied the ability to cultivate 'feminine' attributes” (Drake 45). As a result, it was hardly possible for slave women to correspond to female norms set by American culture in the 19th century.

The prevailing image of manhood in the 19th century can be referred to as “the construct of the self-made man” (Drake 45) or the “masculine model of self creation” (Drake 47). Accordingly, manhood is closely linked to being autonomous and self-sufficient. Furthermore, “male identity is predicated on a break with the 'mother', with family and community” (Drake 52). As a male slave, this concept was difficult to achieve since “[t]hey are forced by mainstream culture into a 'feminine' position of objectification, of submission to the white 'father'” (Drake 46). While slaves had to cope with feminization and dehumanization due to their oppression to their master, their resistance can be seen as an attempt to prove their masculinity. Drake argues that their attempts to gain freedom and independence “are more in line with male-centered models of development” (46). Both popular concepts of womanhood and manhood permanently appear in American Literature and will be examined in the following.

3. Black Femininity in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

3.1 Sexuality

The perception of black female slaves is quite contradictory: On the one hand, slave women are de-gendered since they were often working in the fields; on the other hand, they are regarded as oversexed because they were vulnerable (Santamarina 232). Clearly, their vulnerability is shown in their exposure and subordination to their master. As the narrator Linda Brent describes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own” (262). She underlines disadvantages slave women have to handle, referring to sexual harassment and abuse. In the narrative, the narrator describes the horrible treatment by her master Dr. Flint:

He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him – where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. (Incidents 223)

Her grandmother and her master are portrayed as antagonists; while she teaches her granddaughter pure principles, raising her to become a pure woman who matches cultural norms, he is made responsible for preventing her from being an ideal woman. Therefore, Linda Brent claims to be spoiled by slavery and criticizes the system, saying in this quote that it is unnatural. By describing him as a vile monster, she implies that he is an inhumane creature, underlining the inhumanity of slavery. As a contrast to purity, master Dr. Flint evokes unclean images in Linda Brent's mind. Due to the lack of explanation in reference to these images, this ellipse forces the readers to use their own imagination and create their own ideas, not knowing the exact dimensions of what Linda Brent went through. The function of slave woman's narrative generally is to “assert black women's humanity and also to expose the ways they were subjugated on the basis of both race and gender” (Moody 119). Emphasizing the extremity of slavery, Linda Brent also shows how she struggles to cope with her situation as a slave, being both female and human. Her master forces her to listen to him, using inappropriate language as means to make her suffer: “For my master, [...] had just left me, with stinging, scorching words; words that scathed ear and brain like fire.” (Incidents 215). Interestingly, her ability to read and write is used against her since Dr. Flint keeps sending her notes: “her literacy is used by her master, Dr. Flint, to confront her with the full brutality of her enslavement during her fifteenth year” (Drake 57). At this point, the narrative focuses on the degradation of slave women, underlining the alarming dimensions: “The degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe” (Incidents 223). Furthermore, she describes how rapidly girls grow up and become women in order to show the struggles they have to cope with:

She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child. If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration to the white women only hastens degradation of the female slave. (Incidents 223)

This contrast shows that white women are being admired for their beauty while slave women are being degraded, emphasizing the inequalities between black and white women. Therefore, it is shown once again that slave women could not reach the female ideal at that time. Although her being subordinated to her male master agrees with the norms of femininity, this subordination also brings vulnerability. Thus,

anti-slavery languages that publicized or 'outed' slave women's vulnerability – especially slave women's sexual vulnerability – also exposed these women in ways that were antithetical to nineteenth-century formulations of womanhood. (Santamarina 232-233)

By molesting her, her master hinders her from being a pure woman and corresponding to female ideals. Drake argues that the narrative is marked by “the constant underlying tension […] between her desires to fulfill her society's definition of womanhood, and her enslaver's constant attempt to prevent that fulfillment” (Drake 57).

In response to this, she tries to offer resistance as an attempt to uphold certain norms of femininity. For instance, she always tries to have company because her master harasses her when she is alone. She establishes a preventative strategy: “By managing to keep within sight of people, as much as possible during the day time, I had hitherto succeeded in eluding my master, though a razor was often held to my throat to force me to change this line of policy” (Incidents 226). This image vividly describes the danger of her resistance, leading to more threats coming from her master. Despite, she does not stop to offer resistance, but she directly expresses her thoughts: “I told him I would rather be sold than to lead such a life as I did” (Incidents 229). Her honesty influences her relationship to her master, treating her even worse. Whereas the ideal woman remains silent, the narrator does not behave accordingly: “You have tried to kill me, and I wish you had; but you have no right to do as you like with me” (Incidents 232). Her statement of choosing death over her current treatment shows that she is explicit about her life as a slave, describing it as degrading and worthless. As a consequence, her rebellious acts seem to question her womanhood. Her attempt to fight against her subordination does not match feminine attributes of the 19th century. Santamarina argues that “while resisting women may appear heroic to modern readers historically and rhetorically, a woman who resisted, verbally or physically, could also potentially compromise her womanhood and jeopardize her readers' sympathy” (Santamarina 237).

Another attempt to revolt against the submission to her master is her sexual relationship with Mr. Sands, the father of her two children. She refuses to follow moral codes, as set by 'the cult of true womanhood', and tries to regain control by choosing a lover. She explains her behavior as necessary to offer resistance: “I knew nothing would enrage Dr. Flint so much as to know that I favored another; and it was something to triumph over my tyrant even in that small way” (Incidents 245). Choosing someone else over her master, she tries to hurt him at all costs. “Refusing to become Flint's sexual property, she takes control of her body in order to give herself a degree of freedom and security” (Drake 57). She implicitly criticizes cultural conventions of femininity “by disclosing her own attempts to use her sexuality as a form of resistance to her oppressor” (Drake 57). Her resistance has the highest priority, even if leads to breaking moral conventions. She must confess “that this act was evil and impure” (Drake 58) since it does not correspond to the cult of true womanhood, according to which sexual activity was not allowed unless married. When she finally reveals her sexual relationship with her lover, it becomes clear that she is not proud of what she has done: “The remembrance fills me with sorrow and shame” (Incidents 243). Expressing her sorrow openly, she aims to present herself as a victim of the cruel slave system. “While seeming to respect and to aspire to the conventions of female behavior, then, Jacobs takes the 'masculine' prerogative in choosing her lover as a way to prevent sexual oppression” (Drake 58). This extreme form of resistance mirrors her despair, voluntarily breaking not only one, but two cultural norms: submission and purity.

The ability to uphold norms of proper femininity despite her sexual activity seems impossible. On the surface, it seems as if remaining a pure woman is not as important to her as offering resistance. However, she cannot chose to be sexually pure, as a true woman were supposed to be.

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 in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me. I felt as if I was forsaken by God and man; as if all my efforts must be frustrated; and I became reckless in my despair. (Incidents 244)

This statement suggests that she desires to be virtuous, trying to cope with her situation as a slave. Considering her circumstances it is not in her power to obtain sexual purity as a slave. “She presents herself as a moral person in the midst of an immoral system” (Johnson 22). Once again, she blames the system of slavery to be preventing her from being a virtuous woman, comparing it to a demon. Realizing that it remains impossible for slaves to match cultural and social expectations, she expresses her doubts about the standards of measurement: “I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standards as others” (Incidents 245). Consequently, she alters the requirements to be virtuous according to her situation as a slave, concluding that she is, after all, a virtuous woman, despite her sexual activity as an unmarried woman: “[H]e would not love me if he did not believe me to be a virtuous woman” (Incidents 232). Although she expresses doubts, especially after confessing her relation to Mr. Sands, her decision had been made in advance: “I had resolved that I would be virtuous, though I was a slave” (Incidents 246). This contrast between being virtuous and being a slave shows the incompatibility of slavery and female ideals. Thus, she establishes her own norms after realizing that the conventional norms could not be fulfilled by a female slave.


[1] Obligation to report runaway slaves (Felgar xv)

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Gender Identity in the Slave Narratives by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass
University of Kassel  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik Literaturwissenschaft)
American Renaissance
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
578 KB
gender, Harriet Jacobs, slave narrative, Federico Douglass, black femininity, black masculinity
Quote paper
Julia Knoth (Author), 2015, Gender Identity in the Slave Narratives by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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