The Role of Mothers in "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

Term Paper, 2017

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Ideals of Women and Mothers in 19th Century America

3. Mothers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
3.1. The Pitiful Mother: Eliza Harris
3.2. The Exalted Mothers: Mrs. Bird and Mrs. Halliday
3.3. The Uncaring Mothers: Marie St. Clare and Cassy

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

In 1852 one of the most famous slave-narratives and a best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was published. The book is steeped in history because it aroused 19th century American society to set against the institution of slavery. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin slavery disrupts whole families and can only be saved by the heroic mothers within the novel. The book is often regarded as an example of early feminism because it demonstrates the moral power of women within the novel. For that reason, this term paper deals with virtues of True Womanhood and the role of mothers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is concerned with the question how Harriet Beecher Stowe uses the selected mothers to argue against slavery.

For the theoretical part of this paper Barbara Welter’s article “The Cult of True Womanhood:1820-1860” and You Have Stept Out of Your Place: A History of Women and Religion in America by Susan Hill Lindley, among others, have been consulted. Both works are highly acclaimed by critics and have influenced the research of 19th century gender studies. Furthermore, several works of previous research on mothers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, such as Elizabeth Ammons’ “Heroines in Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Negotiating Motherhood in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Mary McCartin Wearn will form the basis for the analysis of the selected characters. The Simon and Schuster Paperbacks edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been used for the analysis and all subsequent references will be to this publication.

Firstly, there will be a paragraph that deals with virtues of True Womanhood and how it shaped 19th century American society. It will also give some background information about the social status of slave women. Chapter three will provide an analysis of selected characters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The chapter has been divided into three subchapters, starting with an in-depth analysis of the pitiful mother, Eliza Harris. Thereafter the exalted mothers Mrs. Bird and Rachel Halliday will be presented and finally, there will be a subchapter about the uncaring mothers, Cassy and Marie St. Clare. Within these subchapters, virtues of true womanhood will be pointed out and how Stowe uses different depictions of mothers to criticize the system of slavery. The last paragraph of this paper will be a conclusion, which sums up the results achieved and gives an outlook for future research on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

2. Ideals of Women and Mothers in 19th Century America

To fully understand the ideals of 19th century womanhood it is impossible to get around Barbara Welter’s “Cult of True Womanhood”. It can be easily summarized into “four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (Welter 152). According to Welter, even the smallest upset of these virtues was regarded as an attack against God and the nation (ibid. 152). One of the reasons why these four virtues flourished among the upper and middle classes of the 19th century was the separation of home and workplace (Lindley 55). The growth of new industries and factories had made it necessary for men to leave their homes for work (Wearn 1). An immoral world of work which was highly competitive and unstable (Lavender 4).

Consequently, it was assumed that women should stay at home wherefore domesticity became an important virtue for a 19th century American woman (Welter 162). The home turned into a safe haven which was managed by the housewives who took care of the moral and intellectual education of their children (Lindley 55; Wearn 1). She was also responsible for domestic duties such as needlework and crafts and was supposed to make the home a happy place (Lavender 3). During the 19th century the term ‘angel in the house’ became widely-known and was the perfect description of a woman who stayed at home and devote herself completely to her husband and family. Because marriage usually came along with being a mother, motherhood “added another dimension to her [a mother’s] usefulness and her prestige” (Welter 171). Child rearing was considered a solely maternal responsibility which bounded the mother even closely to the home (Welter 171). Some critics might even argue that men made use of the glorification of motherhood in the 19th century to foist off parental responsibilities on women, to rest assured that their wives would not interfere in the world of work (Lindley 58). However, the fact that motherhood fused together with womanhood would reveal a social complication (Wearn 2), which will be discussed at a later stage of this chapter.

Submissiveness is probably the one value out of the four which was ascribed to women most of all (Welter 158). It was expected that men should be religious and pure too, but men were “never supposed to be submissive” (Lavender 3). The wife was expected to be submissive to her husband and accept her inferior role (Lindley 53). Obviously, an independent and questioning woman would threaten the virtue of submissiveness (Welter 158). If she was willing to resign from work and education outside the home and fully dedicate herself to her husband, then she was considered a “true woman” (Welter 160).

The virtue of purity was fundamental for young girls in the 19th century, especially sexual purity (Welter 154; Lavender 2). Young Women were appealed to pay heed to their most precious virtue, even if men would attempt to persuade them (Welter 155). Catherine Lavender claims that in 19th century literature “the marriage night was advertised as the greatest night in a woman’s life, the night when she bestowed upon her husband her greatest treasure, her virginity” (ibid. 2). But even after marriage the virtue of purity remained and without a doubt, this required chastity and fidelity from a woman to her husband (Lavender 2). If a woman failed to maintain her purity, for example by having sex before marriage, she was demeaned as an inferior being (Welter 154). According to Lavender the exaggeration of the virtue of purity becomes obvious by the example, that women were urged to separate books on the shelf which were written by male authors from books of female authors (ibid. 2). Unless, of course, they were husband and wife (Lavender 2).

Furthermore, religion was an important quality in a woman during the 19th century(Lavender 2). Just like the virtue of purity, a lack of piety would have condemned a woman as a person of a lower rank (Welter 154). As stated by Lavender, it was believed that women had a much stronger inclination for religion than men (ibid. 2). The virtue of “piety was the core of woman’s virtue, the source of her strength” (Welter 152). According to Lavender, religion was supposed to be a proper pursuit for women and it should prevent them from having a troubled mind (ibid. 2). Moreover, the virtue of piety was also a task that could be practiced at home (Lavender 2).

Despite the great impact of Welter’s concept of true womanhood one will find several points of criticism among other researchers. For one thing, although these four virtues were supposed to be valid for all women, they could only be embodied by white upper and middle class women (Patton 29-30). Moreover, it can be argued that even within these classes, there might have been some women to whom it was not desirable to achieve these four virtues (Lindley 56). For example, many suffragists who complained about the inequality between men and women, which reached its height with the Seneca Falls Declaration in 1848 (Shapiro 7). It paraphrases the Declaration of Independence and claims that women’s rights must be human rights as well (Shapiro 7). Additionally, Susan Hill Lindley points out that some of these virtues of true womanhood were not feasible to achieve by indigent women, such as immigrants and female slaves (ibid. 56).

Coming back to the problem as mentioned above, that womanhood conflated with motherhood, it turned out to be impossible for female slaves to be considered as women (Patton 38). The separation of whole families at slave markets went along with the fact that female “[s]laves were denied the gendered privileges of motherhood” (Patton 37). They were considered as female, but never as woman (Patton 38). The denial of motherhood and other virtues such as domesticity and purity made true womanhood an unattainable goal for female slaves (Lindley 56). For that reason, many women writers, including free black authors, tried to emphasize the maternal feelings of female slave characters to prove that the feelings of mothers are universal (Patton 38). Feelings of pity and empathy should be evoked by the readers and it had to be pointed out that black women can be “mothers, and therefore women” (Patton 38). Soon, there was an undeniable connection between the suffragists who fought for women’s rights in general and women who participated in anti-slavery conventions who promoted rights for African-American women (Shapiro 6). Both felt that they have been treated unfairly and were restricted in human rights (Shapiro 7).

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin takes up the idea that women, to be precise, mothers could form an improved society (Sundquist 160). It is enforced by Christian moralities and sympathies of northern women for slave mothers, by which Stowe called attention for the injustice of slavery ( Sundquist 161). All of the female characters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin struggle or argue against the system of slavery (Shapiro 21). As a result, Stowe’s novel played an extraordinary role for both the abolitionists and women’s rights activists (Shapiro 20). This topic is approached in the following chapter and it will have a closer look on selected characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and their purpose for the anti-slavery appeal.

3. Mothers inUncle Tom’s Cabin

Although one will find little proof that Harriet Beecher Stowe took an active part in the women’s rights movement, it cannot be denied that some topics of this controversy are reflected in her famous slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Shapiro 17). Ann Shapiro claims that in a letter Stowe wrote in 1853, she affirms that the novel “was intended as a woman’s protest against slavery” (qtd. in Shapiro 20). As stated by Shapiro, the female characters of the novel promote the line of reasoning against slavery throughout the story (ibid. 31). Other researchers such as Mary McCartin Wearn agree, saying that the mother figures are given powerful authority and agency in order to condemn slavery (ibid. 16- 17). Jennifer Jenkins rightfully sums up that “Stowe uses mothers as the agents of power in her story. They are the people who have convictions, take chances, and make decision” (ibid. 74). Especially white Christian mothers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin use their influence on their husbands, encouraging them to act a moral life and lay the atrocities of slavery bare to them (Shapiro 20). The novel illustrates how slavery disrupts families and their homes, both of slave families and white middle class families (Shapiro 20). It emphasizes the isolation of husbands and wives and how children are separated from their mothers for the profits of slavery (Shapiro 20).

The following paragraphs will be an analysis of just a few female characters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unfortunately, a paper of this scope cannot analyze all of the maternal characters within the novel. However, it will be exposed in how far the selected mothers, namely Eliza Harris, Mrs. Bird, Mrs. Halliday, Marie St. Clare and Cassy will take action for the sake of abolitionism.

3.1. The Pitiful Mother: Eliza Harris

Eliza Harris is the first female slave protagonist who is introduced to the reader in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It seems that she has been treated well by her master, since she is described in a dress “of the neatest possible fit” and with “a delicately formed hand” (Stowe 9). Furthermore, the reader gets to know that “Eliza had been brought up by her mistress, from girlhood, as a petted and indulged favorite” (Stowe 17). She is also married to George Harris, a marriage which was permitted by her mistress who also educated her of “the duties of the family, of parent and child, and husband and wife” (Stowe 19,43). One might say that Eliza has internalized the four virtues of true womanhood because she grew up living a rather privileged life for a slave (Shapiro 25).

However, soon she falls prey to the system of slavery because her son should be sold away. It becomes obvious that the child is the property of Eliza’s master and therefore she is denied of her motherhood (Patton 12). To borrow Eric Sundquist’s phrase, who states that Uncle Tom’s Cabin opens quite self-consciously with men and women pitted against each other, and what we see in particular is white men destroying the family, the basic unit of community in Stowe’s view. (ibid. 161)

To keep her family together, Eliza decides to escape from her master and her mistress. She even writes a farewell note to her mistress, saying that she is “going to try to save [her] boy” (Stowe 47). Stowe describes Eliza’s flight as a selfless act of motherly love that every mother, no matter if black or white, can feel with (Wearn 21). This is also evoked by another female character who vindicates Eliza’s escape, because “tan’t nature for her to stay” (Stowe 50), meaning that no mother would allow that to happen to her child. According to Mary McCartin Wearn, Stowe makes use of George Harris’ flight, whose escape has a more selfish intention since he leaves his family to be a free man, to underline Eliza’s duty as a mother to save her family (ibid. 20). Although she is sad that she has to leave her home, it is emphasized that “stronger than all was maternal love” (Stowe 63) that encouraged her to escape. This situation in the very beginning of the story is a first attempt of Stowe to deny the common opinion that black women were numb to any maternal feelings and show the atrocities of slavery (Ammons 167). Moreover, it should arouse compassion by white mothers for black female slaves to illustrate that they both share the same emotions of motherly love (Ammons 167). To demonstrate additional common features and to make Eliza more relatable to the readers, she is described as “so white as not to be known of colored lineage” (Stowe 65). Stowe wisely chose Eliza’s white qualities, like her skin color and her feelings as a mother, so that the 19th century audience could identify themselves with her (Wearn 20). While Eliza moves quickly through the woods and flees, Stowe appeals to the women and mothers who read her novel and asks: “If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, […] how fast could you walk?” (ibid. 63). Venetria Patton claims that this plea to mothers would also address all other women who esteemed the virtues of true womanhood (ibid. 44). Furthermore, Stowe puts an emphasis on Eliza’s distress which becomes apparent when she desperately explains her situation to Mrs. Bird that: “they were going to take him away from [her], - to sell him, - sell him down south, ma’am, to go all alone, - a baby that had never been away from his mother in his life!” (Stowe 104). Additionally, there is another appeal to all women indirectly expressed by Eliza’s question: “have you ever lost a child?” (Stowe 104). By forcing the readers to put themselves in Eliza’s position and share her agony, it should reveal the injustice of slavery and how it harms innocent people (Patton 44). Clearly, the evil is represented by the “patriarchal institution” (Stowe 14) of slavery that disrupts whole families and trade human beings just like chattel (Ammons 167). The mother, in this case Eliza, appears as an active adversary of this cruel system (Ammons 165).


Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Role of Mothers in "Uncle Tom's Cabin"
University of Bonn
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Uncle Tom's Cabin, slavery, Mother, history, literature, female, Harriet Beecher Stowe, feminism, heroines, motherhood
Quote paper
Lisa Schreinemacher (Author), 2017, The Role of Mothers in "Uncle Tom's Cabin", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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