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Slave Women Suffered More

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Women slaves were the victims of unspeakable crimes and indignities.

Women slaves were the victims of unspeakable crimes and indignities.

Slave Women Suffered More

In the book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl written by Harriet Jacobs under the guise of Linda Brent, the author describes the common struggles that she dealt with as a Southern slave in the 1800s. Although she was never severely beaten or mercilessly worked to death, she faced many hardships typical of slave girls and women during that time period. Her most prominent assertion is that: “Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women” (Jacobs 86). Slave women faced many hardships not shared by slave men. For example, they were often sexually harassed by their masters, held to much higher moral standards than they were allowed to live up to, and were forced to live in constant fear concerning the well-being of their children. In another story, “The Bear”, by William Faulkner, the main character Isaac McCaslin also addresses the topic of slavery. While he does not explicitly state that he holds the same stance as Jacobs, through descriptions of Isaac’s memories and principles, the reader can infer that he also believes that slavery is worse for women. Although Jacobs and Faulkner hold similar views about slavery, they use different anecdotes in varying degrees of directness to inform the reader of their opinions.

Linda Brent's Experience

Linda Brent’s hardships are mostly caused by her master Dr. Flint, who is cruel and manipulative. However, although Dr. Flint seems to be the root of evil in Linda’s life, she makes it clear that her situation was typical whenever a young slave girl worked for a master: “The influences of slavery had had the same effect on me that they had on other young girls” (Jacobs 60). Many slave girls, by the time they turn 15, began to be harassed by their masters. Linda’s situation is no different, and although she tries to avoid Dr. Flint’s vulgar advances, she cannot spurn them completely: “My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import” (Jacobs 30). While Dr. Flint attempts to coerce and corrupt her, Linda does all that she can to keep him at bay. Although she suffers much verbal abuse, she manages to escape physical assault for the most part. Sexual advances from much older masters are depicted as a social norm, even though they are a social taboo: “[The other slaves] knew too well the guilty practices under that roof; and they were aware that to speak of them was an offence that never went unpunished” (Jacobs 31). Many other masters succeed in having their way with their slave women, resulting in babies of mixed race who were typically sold far away so as not to draw negative attention to the adulterous ways of the slaveholders.

In addition to trying to hold on to her purity, Linda is also faced with abuse from her jealous mistress, another usual obstacle faced by slave women alone. When Mrs. Flint suspects her husband of trying to sleep with Linda, she interrogates the slave girl. Feelings of jealousy and anger fill Mrs. Flint, just as they would any other wife of a disloyal husband: “She felt that her marriage vows were desecrated, her dignity insulted; but she had no compassion for the poor victim of her husband’s perfidy” (Jacobs 37). Wives to cheating husbands are left feeling inadequate and embittered, and they typically take their frustration out on the slave girl, either through physical and verbal abuse or by sending her away so that the master can no longer have access to the girl. These intense feelings of envy and resentment trickle into every interaction between the two women as the wife attempts to make the slave woman pay for the wrongs done to her by the master.

Another problem that Linda mourns for befalling slave women is the loss of purity at such a young age, regardless of how hard they struggle to retain it. Linda explains that although she tries to follow her grandmother’s morals and lead a virtuous life, she is unable to because of her circumstances: “I want 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 monster proved too strong for me” (Jacobs 60). This loss of innocence pains Linda greatly, and she realizes that it is a hardship that most slave girls are forced to face. She is jealous of free women, who have the luxury of sticking to their morals:

But, O, ye 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! (Jacobs 60)

Linda envies the right to choose a partner and wishes she could have retained her chastity, but argues that it is just not realistic for a slave girl to hold such expectations of basic rights. She even goes so far as to insist that slave women cannot be held accountable for their lack of virtuousness: “I feel that the slave woman ought not be judged by the same standard as others” (Jacobs 62). This is a fair proposition, considering that the slave women have no say in what their master does to them, as they are considered nothing more than property. Although it may seem like a double standard, slave girls are forced to submit to their masters’ will and relinquish their purity, regardless of their own moral values, which is a tragedy in itself.

The last major misfortune that befalls slave women is perhaps the most difficult to bear. It is that of motherhood to children who are born into slavery and are bound to encounter the same fate of misfortunes that the mother has experienced. Linda, whose will to live is renewed by her baby boy, realizes that he is destined for a life of unspeakable hardships: “I loved to watch his infant slumbers; but always there was a dark cloud over my enjoyment. I could never forget that he was a slave. Sometimes I wished that he might die in infancy” (Jacobs 69). The acknowledgment that death would be preferable to a life of slavery is a thought that many slave women must have held in the back of their minds. The selflessness of being willing to lose their child in order that he or she might not have to suffer is an extreme example of the mental turmoil that slave women suffered, just one of the many prices they must pay as a mother. In addition to living in fear that their children would be slaves for life and attempting to shield them from these miseries, slave mothers must also constantly plot ways in which to free the children. Linda’s plan, which involves hiding and watching her children grow up with her grandmother while Dr. Flint searched fruitlessly for her, is a huge encumbrance for her. She must hide, cramped in a small crawl space, with only a tiny hole through which to see the outside world, for seven years until her children are sent north into the free states. Despite these terrible conditions, Linda remains optimistic: “I had my consolations. Through my peeping-hole I could watch the children, and when they were near enough, I could hear their talk” (Jacobs 130). Her love for her children and desperation to see them free and happy are inspiring, but remind the reader of the horrible tribulations slave women suffer willingly at the expense of their children. Furthermore, Linda reminds the reader that she is not alone in her sacrifices regarding her children: “Many more beautiful and more intelligent than I had experienced a similar fate, or a far worse one” (Jacobs 67). Motherhood, while fulfilling, is the biggest and most challenging burden a slave woman must bear.

Pencil (graphite) drawing of Harriet Jacobs, based on famous photo of her that is owned by Harvard University. Drawing by artist Keith White of West Side Gallery and Studios.

Pencil (graphite) drawing of Harriet Jacobs, based on famous photo of her that is owned by Harvard University. Drawing by artist Keith White of West Side Gallery and Studios.

Isaac McCaslin's Views

Although never stated explicitly, Isaac McCaslin holds similar views to Linda. He believes that slavery, as well as the ownership of property or land, for that matter, is disgusting and counterproductive. He realizes that everyone is related at some point in their ancestry, so it is best to treat everyone as a brother or sister and to share the land:

[The ledgers probably contained] not only the whites but the black ones too, who were as much a part of his ancestry as his white progenitors, and of the land which they had all held and used in common and fed from and on and would continue to use in common without regard to color or titular ownership. (Faulkner 256)

Isaac finds slavery and the dynamic between slaves and slave owners especially repulsive when he discovers that his grandfather slept not only with one of his slaves and produced a daughter, but that he also slept with that daughter and produced another child. This relationship is similar to the ones that Linda is familiar with in that the master is allowed to use his slave women for any purpose, including sex. Isaac is appalled that his grandfather would commit such a hideous act with two innocent slave girls, so much so that he rejects his inheritance on moral grounds, refusing to accept the legacy left to him by his grandfather. His sympathy for slave women is furthered when he finds Fonsiba, one of his family’s former slaves, huddled in the corner of an insufficient cabin: “The tremendous fathomless ink-colored eyes in the narrow, thin, too thin coffee-colored face watch[ed] him without alarm, without recognition, without hope” (268 Faulkner). She is thin and sick and is not being properly cared for by her husband, so she is therefore rendered helpless. Isaac is so moved by the sight that he gives them $1,000 for groceries, which he calculates will last them 28 years. These acts, which include both compassion for slaves and repulsion at the crimes done against them, highlight the hardships that slave women must face and indicate clearly that Isaac feels more sympathetic toward slave women.

The Hardships of Women Slaves

While both Jacobs and Faulkner agree that slavery is not only terrible but is also much worse for women, Jacobs supports her claims directly with anecdotes from her life as a slave woman, while Faulkner allows the reader to infer his views based on Isaac’s attitude toward specific incidents. Through Linda, Jacobs describes the trials and tribulations that she must endure throughout her life, including abuse from her master, the loss of her purity and lowering of her moral standards, and the challenge of attempting to secure the freedom of her children. In addition, she mentions multiple times that she was not alone in her sufferings—many other slave girls and women experienced the same hardships as she did. On the other hand, Isaac’s kind attitude towards slave women and revulsion at the crimes committed against them cause the reader to believe that he also realizes the extra plights of slave women. Even though slavery, in general, was a terrible offense, the hardships brought upon slave women specifically were ruthless and callous.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. "The Bear." Go Down, Moses. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print.


ReverieMarie (author) from Tuscaloosa, Alabama on January 11, 2013:

Thank you! I appreciate your interest. It is a fictional short story/novelette.

Stanley Soman from New York on December 28, 2012:

Very interesting, .. is “The Bear” a true story or just a fictional work?