From the beginning of the institution of slavery, the experiences of black women have been very different from those of men in the same conditions. Slave women in antebellum America suffered certain struggles that were particularly their own and endured their hardships in unique ways. The experience of free black women in the North was also unique because of the strength of the gender conventions that prevailed in the dominant white culture. As a result of their distinct points of view, black women activists and abolitionists contributed distinctive ideas that were influential in the 19th century, and ultimately formed the foundation for black feminist thought in the 20th century. The contributions of these women to politics, their community, and literature cannot be disregarded. Despite often being downplayed in historical writings and studies, the African American female experience before emancipation is exceptionally significant in understanding the way in which gender discrimination acted alongside racism to doubly oppress black women, and in appreciating their ability to rise up against this and create a black feminist consciousness.
Historians and sociologists, speaking from a somewhat sexist perspective, have argued that the most de-humanizing aspect of slavery was the emasculation of black men. This puts the subjugation of women on the backburner and implies that “the worst that can happen to a man is that he be made to assume the social status of woman”. 1 This also diminishes the scholarly attention given to the oppression of enslaved black women.
The sexual exploitation suffered by slave women was even more demoralizing and dehumanizing than the racial exploitation they suffered as workers. In her autobiography, Harriet Jacobs describes being constantly threatened by her master, who would obsessively torment her by voicing his intentions to rape her. Her autobiography is significant because it shows the unique kind of abuses that female slaves had to endure. As a young girl, her master’s harassment was very distressing. “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”.2 These sufferings exclusive to women had to do with the devaluation of the black female body. Slave owners had a legal right to the bodies of their slaves, and so it could be argued that the rape of slave women was “an institutionalized method of terrorism which had as its goal the demoralization and dehumanization of black women”.3
Racial discrimination was a prevalent part of 19th century life that black women had to contend with. Slavery shaped dominant ideas about black women to a great extent, and stereotypical ideas about black women persisted into the 20th century. These stereotypes ignore the variety of experiences women had across classes and regions, something that is also often ignored in historical studies. There were two prevailing stereotypical images of black women: the Jezebel myth of the naturally promiscuous woman, and the “mammy”, an asexual character to oppose the Jezebel. These myths made it difficult for black women to fit into the Victorian ideals of “true womanhood” because of the overbearing social perceptions of them.4
The importance of understanding the unique experience of black females in the era of slavery cannot be understated. It is no surprise, therefore, that black feminist ideology may be traced back to 19th century black women abolitionists.
1. bell hooks. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1981), 20.
2. Harriet Jacobs. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Clayton, DE: Prestwick House, 2006 ), 92.
3. hooks, Ain’t I A Woman, 27.
4. Wilma King. The Essence of Liberty: Free Black Women During the Slave Era (Columbia, MO: University of Missuori Press, 2006), 34-39.