The Enslaved American Woman: Her Unique Plight

Gloria Sonnen
Bowdoin College: History/Africana Studies 236
November 15th, 1999

"When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own" (Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 77).

The female experiences of American chattel slavery are often overlooked in popular accounts of this "peculiar institution." Although the primary documents written by female slaves are scarce, we have been able to ascertain impressive differences in their experience when compared to that of male slaves. The prominent nature of sexual abuse as imposed by slave masters is one obvious difference. Women suffered societal inferiority for two major reasons: their gender and the color of their skin. These two traits automatically imposed a sense of weakness and ignorance upon their character; paired with the view that blacks were a sub-human species, the female stereotypes of docility and sensuality only aided in the disastrous maltreatment of these people. They possessed little to no physical, legal, or political power in antebellum America. Because of this, enslaved women were forced to use cunning wit and ambition to obtain respect.

One remarkable account of female slave life is captured in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl . In this narrative, she confesses a lifetime of toils and heartbreaks surrounding her plight for freedom. Although the story was primarily used as abolitionist propaganda in the 19th century, it succeeds in portraying the emotional angst of the narrator during her struggle. In order for slavery to be condemned as a horrific practice, the true nature of its injustices had to be well drawn out. Jacobs' tale manages to pull the reader into a female position, where sexual advances, verbal and physical abuse, familial separation, and desires for freedom were at the forefront of each woman's consciousness.

This site is intended to introduce several different aspects of female slavery, and their influences on the unique plight of these people:

Laws Pertaining to Slavery, and the special controls over women.

The Sexual Abuses Suffered by Female Slaves, and the resulting consequences of these master-slave relationships.

The De-structuring of Slave Families, and the resulting implications these break-ups had on mothers.

The sufferings of African American enslaved women have impacted the strength and independence of contemporary females. As a part of this term project, I have included an educational "assignment" pertaining to linkages between modern women and their early American black matriarchal predecessors.

List of Terms
Index of Related Links and Literature

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