Harriet A. Jacobs was a slave who spent most of her life serving as a slave. She was born to Delilah Horniblow who was a slave to Margaret Horniblow in Edenton California. The narrative “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, an autobiography written by Harriet herself, talked mostly about her life as a slave girl, the sexual advances and abuses done to her and her struggle to live a life away from her children, who also became victims of slavery. Jacobs’ narrative stands out among the male dominated slave narratives because of its unique point of view.
She wrote it under the pseudonym Linda Brent, but many also believed that it was written by Lydia Marie Child, a white abolitionist editor. All the characters’ names were also changed into pseudonyms. The narrative focused on the sexual exploitation among female slaves (Blackford, 2001). Her father and mother were both slaves. Her grandmother, however, was emancipated and able to own her own home and earn a living as a baker. Jacobs was six when her mother died. Shortly after she was sent to her mother’s mistress who taught her how to read, write and sew.
She was lucky to have been given to the kind lady, although she was forced to be given to Dr. Flint, a prominent physician, the moment the lady died when Jacobs was twelve years old. Soon after, Jacobs was harassed and sexually abused by the doctor, who treated Jacobs as if she was his own. At sixteen, rather than continuing to submit to the doctor, Jacobs became a mistress of Sawyer, another slave of the Flints and became pregnant. She bore 2 children with the white slave. When she turned twenty-one she ran away with her belief that the father of her children will take care of them in her absence (Giovanni, 2007).
When Jacobs chose Sawyer as the father to her children, she actually went against what was considered ideal to womanhood. By doing this she showed independence, making a choice of giving her virginity outside of marriage. This is an action that was completely against the traditional moral code during her time. Jacobs exhibited the integrity and role of a survivalist, by speaking for herself, devising a plan and acting upon it, and keeping her focus on protecting her children to build a family with them (Blackford, 2001).
In Jacobs’ narrative she stated that she hid for 7 long years in the attic crawlspace in her grandmother’s home so that she could take a peek and see her children grow. Her children were “bought” by their father shortly after Jacobs ran away from the custody of her previous master, Dr. Flint. The children then were consequently allowed to live with their great grandmother (Jacobs’ grandmother) in her house. She went living her life that way while her children were unaware of their mother’s presence (Andrews, 1993). In 1842, Jacobs succeeded in fleeing to the north and finally reunited with her children there.
She then tried to reestablish a home for her family. However, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 again threatened her safety. The law stated that anyone caught helping a fugitive slave will be subject to punishment, so Jacobs again went into hiding. After two years, her new employer, Mrs. Nathaniel Parker Willis, bought Jacobs freedom for 300 dollars. It was then after that she started writing about her life for people to read and understand how slavery has caused trouble, sorrow and pain to her life (Blackford, 2001). African-American Women Slavery
In most cases, the nature of slavery is that all slaves will be available for sex—ordinary social conventions and even legal protections that would restrict a slave owner in his actions would otherwise be not effective. For instance, an extra-marital sex between a slave and a married man cannot be considered adultery in societies that tolerated slavery. Thus, female slaves are always at a high risk of sexual slavery and sexual abuse. Within the domain of slavery, the existence of culturally-derived notions of man and gender do not apply.
The prearranged violence in slavery sets aside the conventional meanings linked to the words “motherhood”, “womanhood” and “sexuality” (Oshinsky, 1996). What is motherhood to a woman deprived of her right to love, protect and care for her child? How are slaves supposed to look at maternal identity if they are under the boundaries of enslavement? Furthermore, how are these slaves to look at their sexuality and their freedom with this sexuality, if they have been deprived of the right to value themselves as women? During the early nineteenth century, many women fought for the eradication of slavery all over the world.
Many feminist movements sought for freedom to gain rights for women. The narrative of Harriet Jacobs became a very powerful tool during the nineteenth century that made way for the possibilities of freeing all women (and even men) from slavery. It created a big impact on the realization that slavery should never have been tolerated, or even recognized. During that time, white women were considered angelic and pure while black ones were idealized as savage and exotic. The narrative made it possible for these issues about sexual oppression of black people to be brought into the political and public arena.
Since the narrative took account on the brutality of the slavery held for women, especially for black women who were treated like animals, it unveiled the facts about suppression due to race, color and breed. Jacobs revealed the danger of maintaining and accepting the “role” that men have set for women for which they have to strive to survive. It also unveiled the fact that her country has a system which simultaneously sets before people ideals about being a true woman, yet fails to acknowledge women’s rights as human beings.
The sexual advances and abuses done to her were a downright disrespect to her, as a woman. It should be noted that in the narrative, none amongst all the women that Jacobs met fits the “ideal” and “true” definition of women during her time. Jacobs’ grandmother, Aunt Martha became a free woman after being a slave for any years, yet remains to be essentially a slave, by showing submissiveness in the story. She in fact tells Jacobs to be submissive to her master and just accept her fate of being a slave (Oshinsky, 1996). After Jacobs’ escape, she was aided by a white slave holder.
This slaveholder has in her own right the aspects of a “true woman” but because of her actions, she lacked the submissiveness that all women should have as it is what men have defined women to be. She violated the law of never getting involved in a dispute, yet she did. She took the side of a slave over the men if her kind. During Jacobs’ time, a woman’s domain was her duty to manage and maintain her household as best as she could, provide comfort to her husband and her family but never to help a slave and allow herself to be a means to a slave’s end. Even Mrs. Flint, Dr. Flint’s Wife, lacked the real essence of being a woman.
She lacked devotion and domesticity. Although she is submissive to her husband, it was mentioned in the narrative that she could “sit and see a woman be whipped”. She is submissive but goes behind her husband’s back to take her revenge against her rival, Jacobs. In the course of the story, Jacobs disputed the identities placed upon black women slaves by the whites. She rebelled against the model of womanhood portrayed, but not religiously followed, by the people who actually look at themselves as models of women, and who has gained the rights that black women have been deprived of.
Jacobs created her own definition of true womanhood and depicted her own image of a true woman. She emphasized the need for respect as the real ideal of womanhood. The Role of Women Women have played a significant role in the humanity throughout the years. But in turn, they have been treated as tokens or commodities instead of being treated as humans. This has been proven in Jacob’s narrative. Jacobs’ main goal was to create a firm position against being owned, forceful submission to masters, and refusal to be bought out of a woman’s captivity.
She disputes the traditional notion of a woman not being able to control her life and future and her children’s future to build a family, and live and free and happy life. Slavery has been a horrible thing that dehumanized certain races of people. Although female slavery was different from that of males, it was not less severe. It is because this slavery included being deprived from child care responsibilities, and freedom to live their lives according to how they please. The narrative demonstrated how female slaves struggled to cope with the sexual abuses done to them.
Slaves were introduced to an environment where insult, violence and even death are inflicted to them by their masters. The narrative depicted the degradations experienced by female slaves on the hands of brutal masters. It became a sending message to all women to come together and unite to put an end to the unfair treatment that many women have been subjected to. Jacobs brought about the images of the brutality of slavery at the forefront and attempted to end the oppression over all women committed by men and oppression over all blacks committed by whites.
During Jacob’s time, women were defined in four general terms. These four are (1) purity, (2) Piety, (3) Domesticity and (4) Obedience (Northrup, 2005). However, the conditions with which the slaves in Jacob’s times lived were completely contrary to the virtues and standards set forth by the society. Female slaves were refused to what was considered as the essence of womanhood. It was another way of slaves being deprived to find value for themselves. Purity is a virtue completely denied to slave women.
The men of their society built the convention and instituted the importance of purity in women. Purity then was tantamount to the respect that men give to women. Pure women were praised and rewarded for it (most of whom were white women) while black women, who were slaves and far from pure, were harassed, maltreated, and disrespected. Since sexual abuse done to slaves were not considered as criminal offenses, it continued and were tolerated for over a long period of time. This is because slaves and black women were not considered women, but mere slaves.
Slaves were viewed as properties, which go to show that masters were allowed to do anything they saw fit for their slaves. Piety, being one important aspect by which men base their respect for women, has also been deprived from women slaves. However, for one to be pious she should read the bible. This has become impossible for black women slaves since illiteracy was dominant on the majority of them. Jacobs did know how to read and write since she was taught by her kind mistress before she was given to the dreadful doctor master, but most of her kind did not.
In fact, there were only a number of these black slaves who actually knew how to read and write. Domesticity was deprived from all women slaves. This was shown when Jacobs had to hide in the attic for seven years just to see how her children were doing. Slaves were not allowed to build a family, and all generations under them will be slaves as well, unless they have their freedom bought with a significant amount of money. A happy family life was one of the things Jacobs badly wanted to have and which she got the moment she gained her freedom, yet not the same way white women enjoy theirs.
Obedience was one aspect of the ideal female during the Nineteenth century that most female slaves were able to achieve. However, this is not the obedience that wives give to their husband, family or God. It was a different obedience from that of a free woman. This is the obedience to her master—a full, unquestioning obedience despite unwillingness and refusal. This obedience was gained by their masters through brutal force and the slaves’ mindset that they are nothing but mere properties.
This is one of the aspects that Jacobs rebelled against. In many times of her life, she was forced to do things she didn’t want to do. Once she gained her freedom, she wanted all female slaves like her to be given the importance that free women are given. The nineteenth century era of America was a crucial period in the history of black slavery and black activists continuing to fight for the rights of women, men and children who were captives of slavery. They demonstrated their advocacy towards advancing the right of the black people.
In almost 300 years of America’s days (1654-1865), slavery was considered legal. Most of the slaves were black who were held by the white Americans. Majority of this slaveholding was in the south part of the United States. Although there were a number of free blacks who also help slaves, the dominant part of this slaveholding population were whites. Since ninety-five percent of the black population lived in the south, many of them were held captives of slavery (Etcheson, 2008). Bondage could not have existed if the idea of punishment was not implemented.
While slaveholders actually gave rewards to slaves so that they perform adequately, only a number of these slaveholders actually do this kind of slavery. Most enjoy rendering punishments for the joy of authority. Details in sexual abuses done to black women grew immensely as time passed by. Black females under slavery were not able to find protection from violence. From 1920-1950, there were several cases of black women who were sexually assaulted, abused and even murdered. Since they were slaves they found it difficult for these culprits to be prosecuted.
The rape laws were inadequate, providing loopholes for defendants. The black slaves had to wait for women’s movements to have their issues addressed and for juries to actually approach their cases in a more critical and informed point of view (Northrup, 2005). As people attempt to analyze the situation of the black people, particularly black women in America, one will abruptly crash into the tale of distortions and misconceptions which has meant a disgraceful mugging on every black woman, man and child who live in the United States.
Patriarchy and its Effects to the Role of Women According to the Merriam Webster’s dictionary, patriarchy is “the social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line; control by men of a disproportionately large share of power; a society or institution organized according to the principles or practices of patriarchy”. Patriarchy explains the reasons behind the treatment of women and the roles that women play in the society.
We have patriarchal society, where most of the homes are dominated by the power of men. The opposite is matriarchy, wherein the woman dominates a group. Obviously, the United States has a patriarchal culture. In most families though, as it has been the tradition, the man or the father leads the family. During the “slave times” of America in the nineteenth century, men made, governed and implemented the law. They had power over women, thus making women vulnerable to sexual attacks, and thus making them as objects and subjects of sex.
Patriarchy thus explains how the society functions and how it is controlled. The women during the nineteenth century continuously fought for their rights and struggled to survive domination and power of the men who threatened them. Although women can surely be capable of playing the men’s role, they will not be anytime soon. For thousands of years this has been the traditional culture of most races. Christians also believe that God made men to conquer and protect women, and not the other way around. Much of this patriarchy roots from the bible.
A large portion of the world population is mostly Christians. Christians live by the words of the bible, which says that women should be submissive to men. Also, men has played the “leading” role for so long that women taking part on a man’s role has been considered impossible. With that in mind and with those beliefs that has been instilled to cultures, women almost do not stand a chance in gaining power to show their potentials to the world (Etcheson, 2008) Patriarchy is found in most family traditions. Women take the name of their husbands and children carry the father’s name.
Nowadays, more and more women prefer to keep their maiden names so as to keep their identity. This is because when a man and woman get married, they take the reference Mr. and Mrs. So and so. This way, the man takes the dominant role again. Majority of families has the father to support the financial needs of a family. The father is figuratively the one who leads and protects the family, which the mother cannot do. The woman or the mother takes care of the children and fulfills the physical need of the husband.
It is a fact that it is a woman’s nature to long for security, while it is a man’s nature to conquer and protect a woman, thus making him the leader of the relationship. There is certainly no harm to this kind of set-up, but women should not necessarily be expected to live and exactly this way. Certainly, more and more women of today are fulfilling the roles that men leaders play. Back in the nineteenth century, no woman was allowed to do this. No woman should assume the role that men play in families, communities and the whole society. No woman should be leaders, no woman could take charge of a businesses.
A woman’s boundary remained on doing household chores and taking care of her family. Most white women were free, which means that they could assume the role of a wife and mother, but most black women were slaves. They were not entitled to the right of building a family and taking care of their children. Men never had to fight to assume the roles that they want in the society. This applies to most white men, because most black men during the nineteenth century were captives of slavery, and even if they were men, they were not able to assume their roles as men being leaders.
They did not, just like the black women, have the right to build a family and have a wife (Northrup, 2005). Women may never truly assume men’s role in the society, as many people would see it as wrong, but they should stand firm with the role that they are supposed to take. They can be leaders and make a difference in their own ways. It will take only a few steps to be, maybe not equal to men, but at least dignified and productive with the roles that women currently play in the society.