Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacobs' Defiance of Female Conventions College

In Harriet Jacobs’ historically renowned narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the story of Linda Brent’s struggles as a slave woman help to shed light on the unrealistic standards placed on women during the nineteenth century. As defined by Barbara Welter, the "Cult of True Womanhood" called for domesticity, piety, purity, and submissiveness in all women of the period. Propagated by popular magazines and literature of the time, Welter explains these traditions reassured Americans “in a society where values changed frequently, where fortunes rose and fell with frightening rapidity, where social and economic mobility provided instability as well as hope, one thing remained the same - a true woman was a true woman, wherever she was found” (151-52). Similarly, any woman not living according to such standards was deemed a “semi-woman” (173). Although slaves were considered inferior by default, the Cult of True Womanhood put additional pressure on black women to live up to societal customs. While in her narrative Jacobs does not shy away from structured traditions of femininity, she uses conventions of a ‘true’ woman to emphasize the impossibility for slave women to obtain such standards.

At the end of the narrative,...

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