Critical Essays The Feminist Perspective


As Linda laments the birth of her daughter, Ellen, she says "Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women."

Why was slavery "far more terrible for women"? Because, as Jacobs' story so poignantly illustrates, in addition to the horrors and brutalities endured by enslaved men, women bore the added anguish of being wrenched from their children. To compound their pain and degradation, enslaved women were often used as "breeders," forced to bear children to add to their master's "stock," but denied the right to care for them. In fact, it was not unusual for the plantation master to satisfy his lust with his female slaves and force them to bear his offspring. As Linda points out, children from such unions were often sold to protect the honor and dignity of the slaveholder's wife, who would otherwise be forced to face the undeniable evidence of her husband's lust.

In describing the economics of slavery, historians point out that although male slaves were generally valued for their labor and physical strength, females were valued for their offspring.

When Jacobs wrote her narrative, she addressed the women of the North, hoping to make them aware that, unless they spoke out in protest, they were just as guilty as Southern slaveholders of supporting and perpetuating the system of slavery.

Although Jacobs' Incidents bears numerous similarities to Frederick Douglass' Narrative, in many ways, it is radically different because it addresses the issues of female bondage and sexual abuse from a woman's perspective. For example, although Douglass' story focuses on the quest for literacy and free speech, Jacobs' story focuses on the rights of women to protect their families and raise their children. And although Douglass' narrative revolves around the fight for freedom of one independent individual, Jacobs' describes the struggle for freedom of a woman supported by her family and community. In short, Jacobs presents a decidedly feminist view of slavery.

If readers compare the opening chapters of Jacobs' Incidents and Douglass' Narrative, they realize that Douglass expresses no emotional attachments to his mother and has no investment in his community. He watches his aunt being beaten and does nothing to try to help her, fearing his master's wrath will be turned on him. Even so, Douglass' narrative became renowned, and Douglass went on become a famous orator and civil rights leader, while Jacobs' narrative was lost, and she slipped into virtual oblivion. Ultimately then, although both works trace the path from bondage to freedom, Jacobs' cause is personal (she wants to save her children), and Douglass' is, at least in part, political (he wants to be noted as a leader and activist).

This view is also apparent in the title of Jacobs' narrative. Unlike Douglass, who identifies himself as "an American Slave," Jacobs identifies herself as a slave girl, focusing on her female gender. Because she refers to herself as "a slave girl," she implies — and later states explicitly — that she is speaking not only for herself, but also for her sisters still in bondage. Also, Douglass focuses on his life, but Jacobs focuses on incidents in her life.

As her narrative illustrates, "Linda" has numerous opportunities to escape, but chooses to give up her freedom and her own life to save her children.

Jacobs was determined to convince the world of the devastating and dehumanizing impact of slavery on women, so she decided to document her horrific experiences as an enslaved African woman. Because she wanted to protect those individuals who might be hurt by her exposé, she assumed the pseudonym Linda Brent and, with the assistance of her editor, L. Maria Child, wrote what was to become one of the most powerful narratives of the slavery experience from a female perspective.