Harriet Jacobs and the Cult of True Womanhood

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Harriet Jacobs

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Frank Yerby countering the Cult of True Womanhood in his “costume novels.” (An extended version of this piece can be found on the Unlikely Stories website.) Today, I want to take a moment and explore a nineteenth-century text that seeks to counter the view that black women could not live up to the ideals set forth by the Cult of True Womanhood. Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) is one text that reconfigures, as Venetria K. Patton argues, the slave narrative form and “claim[s] the titles of woman and mother for black females” (54). In reconfiguring the slave narrative, Patton argues that Jacobs, like Harriet Beecher Stowe before her, combines the slave narrative and sentimental novel genres together.

The Cult of True Womanhood claimed that women must have four virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Jacobs’s Incidents collapses the sentimental n0vel, a text that typically follows an upstanding heroine as she encounters and overcomes temptations, and the slave narrative. The sentimental novel, also called the domestic novel, draws upon the reader’s emotions, often melodramatically presenting the heroine’s story to the audience. In this aspect, it relates to the slave narrative because the slave narrative also works to move the reader to emotionally respond to the slave’s story of struggle and redemption.

Cindy Weinstein notes that the two genres overlap through the focus on names and on the absence of familial ties. However, while these are similarities, Weinstein makes it clear that the sentimental novel’s focus on “[white] bourgeois heroines” contains a disconnect with the experiences that a slave experiences in her bondage. Even with this difference, the sentimental novel espouses the Cult of True Womanhood, albeit as reserved for white women, and Jacobs’s Incidents deconstructs that myth by providing a space for black women within the Cult of True Womanhood. 

Jacobs carves this space for black, and slave, women through her continual focus on the struggles she goes through to retain her purity. As Dr. Flint continually pressures her to submit to his desires, Linda (Jacobs’ original nom de plume) thinks about the loss of her virginity to her master through rape and the spiritual torment it will cause her if she losses her virginity. Even when she thinks about having consensual sex with Mr. Sands, the thought of being disobedient to what her faith and what her grandmother taught her psychologically affects Linda. At one point, Linda addresses the reader directly, stating,

But, O, you happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home shielded by the laws; and I should have been spared the painful task of confessing what I am now about to relate; but all my prospects had been blighted by slavery. 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 monsters proved too strong for me. (48)

Here, and elsewhere, Jacobs confirms to her readers at the start of the Civil War the humanity of female slaves. Rather than being unbridled sexual beings for the master to take advantage of, Jacobs shows that she thinks about the relationships that she has with others, specifically the sexual ones.

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Reward Notice Issued for Jacobs

If she were free, Jacobs could choose her mate, as she attempts to do when she has a relation with a free black man in town. However, she does not let this relationship proceed because she knows that Dr. Flint will not allow it to continue. She does choose, though, to consummate her relationship with the white Mr. Sands, thus leading to the births of her children. In both cases, Jacobs exerts her agency to choose what relationship to pursue and which one to stop. This does not mean that she is free, far from it; however, it shows that she consciously thinks about her purity and her piety because she worries about what having sex with Mr. Sands will do for her. Of course, this relationship, and the children, come about to protect her from Dr. Flint, but that does not stop her from thinking about the implications of the relationship on her spiritual well being.

There are other examples in the text where Jacobs challenges the Cult of True Womanhood not being open to black women. One needs to only look at her grandmother to see this. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2001.

Patton, Venetria K. Women in Chains: The Legacy of Slavery in Black Women’s Fiction. Albany: SUNY Press, 2000.

Weinstein, Cindy. “The slave narrative and sentimental literature.” The Cambridge Companion to the African Amirican Slave Narrative. Ed. Audrey Fisch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 115-134.

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One thought on “Harriet Jacobs and the Cult of True Womanhood

  1. Pingback: African American Literature and the American Dream Syllabus | Interminable Rambling

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