in the Life
of a Slave Girl
is a piece of feminist literature
. While on one level it chronicles the experiences of Harriet Jacobs
as a slave, and the various humiliation
s she had to endure in that unhappy state, it also deals with the particular tortures
visited on women
at her station
. Often in the book, she will point to a particular punishment
that a male slave will endure at the hands of slave holders
, and comment that, although she finds the punishment brutal in the extreme, it cannot compare to the abuse that a young woman must face while still on the cusp of girlhood
Jacobs states plainly that Linda's condition as a slave is the root of her unhappiness, but the scant few times she says this is eclipsed by the multitude of attacks, suggestions and harassments visited upon her by her owner Dr. Flint. Dr. Flint does not punish her with whippings, but with words. He does not require her to perform strenuous tasks, but he does relentlessly assail her with lewd comments. He does not necessarily treat her as a slave at all, but rather, as a women he disrespects. By focusing the bulk of her work on a single male slave holder, Dr. Flint, she redirects the reader's attention from the struggle between owners and slaves to the struggle between men and women. Linda's true dilemma isn't her lack of freedom as a slave, but her lack of freedom as a woman. The tortures of her life are due to her sex as well as her color.
Jacobs shows men in similar straits as Linda acting on their convictions and gaining their freedom. Both of Linda's brothers become free in the northern states by escaping their southern masters. Linda does not have that option open to her as she has ties to her children and is unwilling to leave them to suffer while she gains freedom for herself. Jacobs suggests, and clearly shows, that men, even enslaved men, have more personal freedom than women.
She certainly considers the suffering of women to be greater than that of men. This is shown on page 122 when, unhappy as she is with her condition in the garret, she is thankful for her "wretched hiding-place" after she sees the condition of her fellow slaves. Jacobs cites two cases, the first of a slave muttering nervously to herself after being sold to a Georgia slave trader. The other instance is a woman who, rather than suffer the degradation and torture of a whipping house, decides to jump into the river and end her life.
This glimpse that Jacobs gives of these women's tribulations is in stark contrast to the punishments of male slaves who are imprisoned, whipped without the threat of rape, or merely given back-breaking labor rather than have their purity and dignity ripped away from them.
The positive images that she uses are singularly feminine: The strength of her mother and grandmother, the slaves that give her information while she is in hiding are all female, and the caring, nurturing nature of Mrs. Bruce. These reinforce the idea that the only place that this woman can turn for help is to other strong women, because male figures like Dr. Flint, her tormentor; Mr. Thorne, who would see her returned to the south in the interest of "patriotism," and Mr. Dodge, who is interested in her return only for the money it would bring to him, are pursuing their self-involved "masculine" interests, and are a source of false refuge and respectability.
For that is, after all, the crux of Life of a Slave Girl: freedom and respect. Linda finds her respectability not as a mistress on the outskirts of town, but as a free woman in the north. She achieves her goal by eschewing the definitions of 'slave' and 'woman' and redefining her role. In the end she can live her grandmother's credo in action as well as thought: "He that is willing to be a slave, let him be a slave."