The notion of slavery, as unpleasant as it is, must nonetheless be examined to understand the hardships that were caused in the lives of enslaved African-Americans. Without a doubt, conditions that the slaves lived under could be easily described as intolerable and inhumane. As painful as the slave's treatment by the masters was, it proved to be more unbearable for the women who were enslaved. Why did the women suffer a grimmer fate as slaves?
The answer lies in the readings, Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl and Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative which both imply that sexual abuse, jealous mistresses', and loss of children caused the female slaves to endure a more dreadful and hard life in captivity.
It is a difficult predicament to be in when one is held in captivity. The situation is that much worse if a child finds himself held as a slave. From a young age the child must endure the fact that he is owned and not free to live life on his own terms. A child slave is already denied his freedom and childhood in the sole fact that he is a slave. However, female child slaves had to endure yet another hardship that made life that much more difficult. Young African girls that were enslaved were sexually abused from an early age. Olaudah Equiano, in Interesting Narrative, tells of misfortunes that the female slaves met with at the hands of white men that he witnessed aboard a ship that belonged to his master, he writes: "I have even known them gratify their brutal passion with females not ten years old" (p. 483)
Equiano claims that even very young slaves were savagely attacked in a sexual way. This fact shows how difficult the life of a female slave was. Because of such gruesome occurrences as the sexual attacks, it would certainly be safe to assume that the young slave girls were not only physically hurt but also emotionally distraught. They were prone to grow into young women who felt stripped of their dignity and carried the burden of shame.
Not only did young women get sexually abused at a young age, but also the abuse continued on as they matured. As the slaves got older they were forced to engage in sexual affairs with their married masters, as is seen in the case of Harriet Jacobs. This naturally caused the slaves to feel shameful, immoral, and wrongful in doing so. However, they did not have much of a choice in the matter. To make matters worse, the mistresses who were jealous that their husbands, the masters, were being unfaithful to them with the slaves.
This commonly resulted in persecution of the slaves by the mistresses. Although the mistresses knew that the masters were committing wrongful acts in sexually abusing the slaves, they did not show any compassion. Instead, they were enraged. Harriet Jacobs explains the typical reaction of a mistress as she writes: "The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage". (p.969) The fact that the slaves were abused and then persecuted for an act that they were forced into engaging in left the women at a dead end. They were not shown any kindness, eventhough they were the victims. In addition, they were looked down upon and shamed. This made the lives of slave girls immensely difficult.
In addition to other hardships, enslaved women had to deal with one particularly heart wrenching event in their lives which was losing their children. This aspect of the slave women's lives was one that a man could not experience the way a woman does. Women have a natural ability to act as nurturers. This is an ability that women in captivity and free women alike possess inherently. For that reason it was hard for the women to have their children be sold into slavery.
Harriet Jacobs shows her fear that her master, Dr. Flint, would sell her child, fathered by Mr. Sands, out of vengeance when she writes of her child: "Horrid visions passed through my mind when I thought of his liability to fall into slave trader's hands". (Chapter XIV) Jacob, as a female, possesses innate motherly love. So for her to have lost her child would have been devastating. The bond with her child, that a mother has, cannot be fully understood by a man. For this reason women slaves endured even more suffering than the male slaves.
Evidently, for a number of reasons, female slaves endured greater hardships than the male slaves. Literature such as that written by Harriet Jacob and Olaudah Equiano depicts the problems that slaves faced, in particular female slaves. Among other things, the females were taken advantage of, put down, and stripped of their dignity after they were victimized and sexually abused.
Jealous and enraged mistresses, who were dismayed at the fact that their husbands were living a life of infidelity, mistreated them. In some cases, they were deprived of their most prized possessions, their children. This kind of life for the female slaves was overwhelmingly painful. They dealt with many circumstances that were not a part of the lives of male slaves. For this reason, it is fair to say that the lives of female slaves were harsher than the lives of male slaves.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. 1861. Ed.
Olaudah, Equiano. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Yassa, Written by Himself. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.