2. The Cult of True Womanhood
3.1 Linda Brent
3.2 Mrs. Flint
3.3 Aunt Marthy
3.4 Mrs. Bruce
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is a narrative which is much more than a typical antebellum slave narrative since it can be characterized as a public document which provides an insight into the spirit, psyche and history of an African American slave woman who fights for an antislavery reform (Sánchez-Eppler 83). Incidents covers many topics such as the brutal and ruthless behavior of the white middle-class towards African American slaves, the peculiar institution and the strong familiar coherence based on female slaves. Another very significant topic, which is covered with high importance throughout the autobiography, is the image of the woman during the nineteenth century in the United States. The ideal of an American true woman during the antebellum period was coined by four cardinal virtues of the Victorian Age: piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness (Welter 152). Further research of Jacobs’ autobiography proves that neither white female middle and upper class women nor African American female slaves are able to meet all the standards of a true woman due to the institution of slavery (Johnson 19). To prove the statement above, I will initially explain what was meant by the ideology of true womanhood during the mid-nineteenth century in America. Then the paper will transfer the principles of true womanhood to the protagonist’s living conditions and to other important female characters such as Mrs. Flint, Aunt Marthy and Mrs. Bruce. Concerning this matter, it is important to mention that the narrator Linda Brent and the author Harriet Jacobs are the same in the autobiography because Jacobs has given persons fictitious names in order to protect their identities. Harriet Jacobs’ name will be used when talking about the author, but her pseudonym Linda Brent will be used with regard to the protagonist.
2. The Cult of True Womanhood
During the antebellum era, the cult of true womanhood was a female ideal of a typical Victorian lady which was mainly a middle and upper-class concept, “although poorer white woman could aspire to this status” (Johnson 18). Therefore, an African American female slave living in bondage had no hope to live up to this status (Johnson 18). The features of being a true antebellum woman were divided into four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness (Welter 152).
The attribute of piety or religion was considered the center of a woman’s virtue (White 59). It was seen as the “source of a woman’s strength” and symbolized a “gift given by God and nature” (Welter 152).
Historically speaking, women had to be born into Christianity and their demeanor should have been innocent and gentle.
Regarding the virtue of purity, a woman not being pure, was not a true woman but rather a member of some lower order (Welter 154).Women who lost their purity before the wedding night, consequently lost their prestige in the American society and went insane (Johnson 19). After “bestowing her greatest treasure upon her husband she became completely dependent upon him without any legal or emotional existence of her own” (Welter 154-155).
In terms of the attribute of domesticity, every woman should be proud of it since her home was considered as a cheerful place where the woman herself gained a much higher prestige. Some of the wifely duties at home were caring for the children, cooking and caring for their husbands (Welter 163-164). Additionally, the concept of motherhood increased a woman’s status and symbolized a “climax of happiness” (Welter 171). Women living in the antebellum South did not fit into this understanding of domesticity since it described the “northern view of separate spheres and production outside the home” (Johnson 21). The domestic sphere of a southern lady was strictly bound within the institution of slavery, a system which was characterized by production and labor (Johnson 21).
Concerning the last attribute, submissiveness, women who were living according to the Victorian model of true womanhood should act passively since men served as protectors of the family. However, female slaves had to be submissive because they were slaves and females (White 17).
The concept of true womanhood was culturally determined by powerful white men who used that cultural construct to judge a woman (Welter 152). If a woman succeeded in becoming a true woman, she felt socially accepted but she remained economically dependent on white men. However, white women had much better preconditions since they were neither dark-skinned nor slaves (Yellin 48). Unfortunately, the African American female’s situation was much more complicated since black female slaves were bedeviled by a double oppression: being a woman and being a slave (White 27).