Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl

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In "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl", Harriet Jacobs writes, "Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women" (64). Jacobs' work presents the evils of slavery as being worse in a woman's case due to the tenets of gender identity. Jacobs elucidates the disparity between societal dictates of what the proper roles were for Nineteenth century women and the manner that slavery prevented a woman from fulfilling these roles. The book illustrates the double standard of for white women versus black women. Harriet Jacobs serves as an example of the female slave's desire to maintain the prescribed virtues but how her circumstances often prevented her from practicing.

Expectations of the women of the era, as stated in class discussions, resided in four arenas: piety, purity, domesticity and obedience. The conditions that the female slave lived in were opposed to the standards and virtues set by society. It resulted in the female slave being refused what was considered the identity of womanhood. It was another manner in which slavery attempted to eradicate the slaves' value of themselves. Jacobs continually struggled to maintain these female virtues. Her belief in the ideas of piety, purity, domesticity and is highlighted in her admiration of one rare, benevolent mistress,

The young lady was very pious... She taught her slaves to lead pure lives... The eldest daughter of the slave mother was promised in marriage to a free man; and the day before the wedding this good mistress emancipated her, in order that her marriage might have the sanction of law. (43)

Piety was one of the subscribed to virtues. However, in order for one to be pious and obtain religious insight, it would be necessary to read the Bible. This would be an obstacle for the overwhelming majority of slave women as illiteracy was prevalent, Jacobs wrote, ."..it was contrary to the law; and that slaves were whipped and imprisoned for teaching each other to read" (61). As Jacobs knew how to read and write, illiteracy was not an impediment. Yet, slaves were forbidden to meet in their own churches, another catch for the female slave attempting to keep the virtue of piety. Jacobs writes of the difficulties the slaves had in obtaining religious instruction after the Nat Turner insurrection, "The slaves begged the privilege of again meeting at their little church... Their request was denied" (57). A slave would only be allowed to practice the religion of their masters, .".. the slaveholders came to the conclusion that it would be well to give the slaves enough of religious instruction to keep them from murdering their masters" (57). A typical sermon would consist of "Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters..." (57), this type of sermon had less to do with a woman's piety than a slave's obedience. Nevertheless, Jacobs exhibits piety in many fashions, despite these disadvantages. When services begin in the home of a free colored man, Jacobs was invited to attend as she could read, regardless of the risk to herself "Sunday evening came and, trusting to the cover of night, I ventured out" (57). Jacobs practiced piety as the dictates of the period demanded at a great risk to her safety. She taught a man to read the bible and begs of missionaries to recognize the need to instruct slaves in biblical studies. (61). Jacobs did not only speak of piety, but through these examples, but put it into action and could fulfill this one aspect of the female gender identity.

The practice of purity was the virtue most denied to a woman in slavery. Men of society constructed the conventions, established the importance of purity in women. Purity was praised and rewarded in free white women and stolen from black slave women. The system worked against protection of slave women from sexual abuse by their masters. Sexual abuse of slave was not viewed as a criminal offense because she did not count as a woman. Rather, she was property of the owner, who could...
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