Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs


Since ancient times, virtuousness and morality were the main qualities of a woman in spite of her age and race. Society supposed that a woman should follow strict moral rules which determined and guided her behavior and actions. Religion clearly stipulated good and wrong behavior patterns, goodness and sins, virtue and misdeeds. Thus, slaves and slave women were always seen as non-humans who not understand and follow religious values and be virtuous. Thesis Harriet Jacobs portrays that a slave black women cane be virtuous because of her inner strength and strict religious beliefs she follows all her life.

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Christianity played a crucial role in lives of all women and determined their values and morals. Christianity and church was a strong force which dictated social norms and social order. Gender differences are evident in the following description of Christian values:

If a man goes to the communion table, and pays money into the treasury of the church, no matter if it be the price of blood, he is called religious. If a pastor has offspring by a woman not his wife, the church dismiss him, if she is a white woman; but if she is colored, it does not hinder his continuing to be their good shepherd1.

Viciousness of slave women was expressed in their ability to endure sufferings and emotional pain, oppression and discrimination because of race and gender differences. Through the character of Aunt Martha, Jacobs portrays that if the Christian soul lives by faith, this faith is nurtured by the experience of Christian love. In light of modern views of history, the traditions thus identified do not constitute a sufficient and comprehensive tool for the establishment of doctrine. Despite differences between black and white women, slave women were virtuous trying to preserve natural beauty and faith in their souls. The causes of women’s oppression were based on religious dogmas and traditions which played the crucial role in their communities.

Linda and Aunt Martha are virtuous women who value family relations and their children in spite of life grievances and troubles. Linda suffers greatly because of oppression and cruelty thus she does not change. The point is that stereotypes of gender (masculinity and femininity) have consequences for the difference between men’s and women’s experience in, for example, work and exercising power. She depicts that women are the most unprotected category which experience violence within the institution of marriage and slavery. “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women”2. Through the character of Linda, Harriet Jacobs depicts that women sexual abuse and physical violence are the main forms of humiliation and oppression. Sexual abuse of a slave woman is the expression of male’s power and dominance of the owner. Jacobs describes that socially slave women are used to be oppressed. They have no rights to protect their dignity and freedom used to cultural norms followed by generations.

But I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse”3.

Jacobs portrays that virtuousness means much more for a slave woman influenced by inhuman treatment and exploitation. For a slave woman, virtuousness means goodness and righteousness, probity and morality. Both Linda and Aunt Martha meet these principles and do not violate the main religious norms based on ideas of rectitude and decency.

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The main principles of virtuousness are associated with childbearing, child rearing, emotional caretaking, and responsibility. In the Incidents, Jacobs proves that Linda is a good mother who does everything possible to save her children and keep their family. This gender labeling is strong and even when women work, they typically do so in areas regarded as “women’s work”. Also, “Women are considered of no value, unless they continually increase their owner’s stock. They are put on a par with animals”4. Labor markets are thus segregated horizontally by gender, with women and men differentiated in occupational roles. Jacobs portrays the situation when Linda meats her daughter:

“You take no notice of the other girl,” said my friend. I turned, and there stood my Ellen! I pressed her to my heart, then held her away from me to take a look at her. She had changed a good deal in the two years since I parted from her”5.

This episode portrays that slave women have the same qualities and white women and can feel more deeply that white females. Lack of respect towards women results in norms and values which reflect gender roles but it does not mean that slave women were deprived virtuousness and moral values.


In sum, slavery was a crucial and difficult period for black women deprived human rights and ability to be happy, thus they preserved ideas of morality and goodness which helped them to survive. During the period of slavery social roles determined family relations resulted in low status of black women and dominance of whites. In spite of sexual and physical abuse, black women followed principles of rectitude and decency.


Jacobs, H. Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl. 2003. Web.


  1. Jacobs, H. Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl. 2003. Web.
  2. Jacobs, H. Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl. 2003. Web.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Jacobs, H. Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl. 2003. Web.
  5. Ibid.
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