The Cult of True Womanhood

The Cult of True Womanhood and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Dr. Theresa Vara–Dannen, J.D., Ph.D.
American Studies Department (Early College Experience)
University of Connecticut, Hartford, Connecticut

Course: American Studies; United States History
Syllabus section: American Culture; Gender and Race
Audience: Advanced High School; Undergraduate

Number of class periods: Three per week, 85 minutes each


Subject Areas:
  • History and Social Studies> People> African–Americans
  • History and Social Studies> People> African–American women and children
  • History and Social Studies> Cult of True Womanhood
  • History and Social Studies> Antebellum period
  • History and Social Studies> Slavery> Effects on Families


Common Core State Standards:

CCSS.ELA–Literacy.RH.11–12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CCSS.ELA–Literacy.RH.11–12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA–Literacy.RH.11–12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

CCSS.ELA–Literacy.RH.11–12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).

CCSS.ELA–Literacy.RH.11–12.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

CCSS.ELA–Literacy.RH.11–12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

CCSS.ELA–Literacy.RH.11–12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.

CCSS.ELA–Literacy.RH.11–12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

CCSS.ELA–Literacy.RH.11–12.10 By the end of grade 12, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 11–CCR text complexity band independently and proficiently.

Unit Overview

In this unit, we will examine evolving gender roles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Students will read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, and “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder” by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, taking careful notes as they read. In previous classes, we would have already discussed each text in depth, without yet conducting an analysis of the two texts in light of each other. Jacobs’ biography may be found at the Oxford African American Studies Center.

Lesson Overview

This lesson will advance an understanding of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs in its cultural context; students will first have to determine what the values of 19th century true womanhood were, based on a period text that clearly articulates those values. Students will then have to apply their understanding of those values to the predicament faced by Harriet Jacobs and other enslaved women.

This multi–part lesson requires students to have read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1860–1), and “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder” (1852), two antebellum works, one non–fiction and the other fiction. While reading they have been taking careful notes regarding passages that elucidate value systems, noting paragraph and page numbers. These notes are checked daily and students are tested daily on their reading.

Incidents autobiographically reveals the psychological pain and torment of an enslaved mother whose children are constantly threatened, separated from her, and enslaved themselves, while she is deprived of every parental right and opportunity to care for them.

In “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder,” a fictional middle class mother with a cook and a “nanny” takes some time for herself and her studies, encouraged to do so by her husband. In a dream, Mrs. James realizes that an angel on her right shoulder records every act of love she performs for her family, while her ego, on the left shoulder, prompts her to seek out selfish (intellectual) pleasures. Thus, the story reinforces the primacy of a mother’s duties to her children and her family, and lastly God, all before herself.

Students will compare the experiences, and the very different conflicts and concerns of Harriet Jacobs and the fictional mother in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ story.


In this lesson, students will analyze Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs in light of the Cult of True Womanhood.

Skills Objectives

Students will:

  • use a graphic organizer as they reread sections of the texts
  • define key vocabulary and identify critical text
  • use literature to clarify social values
  • exercise note–taking skills
  • reinforce learning with notes organization and revision
  • execute scholarly online research
  • employ close textual reading and literary analysis to gain historical insight
  • critically analyze and compare period texts
  • write and revise nuanced essays from outline through final draft
  • use primary sources
  • conduct scholarly class discussion, using text to support their arguments

Learning Objectives

Students will

  • look closely at the experiences of enslaved African–Americans women and their children
  • learn how some African–Americans acted to circumvent the strictures of slavery
  • study the effects of slavery on women, children and the family unit
  • begin to familiarize themselves with personal slave narratives
  • integrate understanding of the Cult of True Womanhood and its effects on enslaved women vs. free women

Essential Questions: Please see essay questions below.


Students will have read The Adventures of Huck Finn by Mark Twain before reading the texts discussed here. The overriding central question of this course is this: how have American gender roles evolved in the last one hundred fifty years? By reading Twain first, students will be introduced to the fact that geographical place, economic and social class, and race all determine the many answers to this question. In focusing on Harriet Jacobs, and the protagonist in Elizabeth Phelps’ story, we are pairing fiction and nonfiction; social constructs of racial identity; privilege and enslavement; freedom and oppression; and a theoretical religion with an emotional, reality–grounded faith. The goal is that students will read all texts closely to follow the strands of reasoning and dictates of tradition to get a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the era and the inhumane dilemmas faced by enslaved women.


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (in any edition)

"The Angel over my Right Shoulder” by Elizabeth Stuart.

Procedures (Instruction and Assessment)

Class I: Students will have read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs prior to this lesson. Have students create a timeline of slavery–related events from 1830 through 1860. Prominent among these will be the debate over slavery in the expanding American West; the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion; the Amistad case; the Fugitive Slave Act; the Harper’s Ferry Rebellion; the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Onto this timeline, students will insert the publications of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder,” to put them into historical and chronological context. Students will then lead a discussion about the implications of the timing of these events.

Homework: Read and take notes on "The Angel over my Right Shoulder” by Elizabeth Phelps Stuart.

Class II: Elicit from students of the several areas of potential comparison between two Mrs. James and Harriet Jacobs: race, class, economic status, educational background, geography.

Divide students into groups, some examining the Jacobs text by chapter, and some taking sections of the Phelps text; using a graphic organizer, have them provide textual evidence, pointing out values that both women seem to share, and pinpointing the passages by page number and paragraph. Students can use the notes that they have already taken and will report to the class on these text passages.

Homework: Review, reorganize and rewrite notes on class discussions.

Classes III, IV: Students, as a whole group, will discuss the following questions.

Where does the tone or subject matter of the women’s concerns indicate differences?

In what ways do their family lives differ?

To what family does Harriet Jacobs or her children “belong”? (Explore the multiple meanings of the word “belong” in this context.)

Extended family plays an important role in Harriet Jacobs’ life; is there any evidence of extended family in “Angel”? What does this suggest about the nature of each family?

In what way does the educational level of each woman impact her?

How is education more or differently valued in each family? Why?

What might have been Harriet Jacob’s response to “The Angel over the Right Shoulder”?

How do the roles of the adult male members of each woman’s family affect the women?

How do the adult male family members affect the lives of the children?

Harriet Jacobs’ life depends on the current events and social climate of her time. Is there any suggestion that this might be true of Mrs. James?

Discuss the role of faith in the lives of Harriet Jacobs and the fictional Mrs. James.

Which woman is freer? Why?

Homework: Review, reorganize and rewrite notes on class discussions.

Class V: Using their notes, students will write an in–class response essay on the effect of True Womanhood values on middle class white women vs. African–American enslaved women. If time, students will read their essays aloud to their group partners.

Homework: Proofread and revise essays for next class.

Class VI: In class, the students, working in pairs, will discern and record the messages intended for mothers in the passage below in “The Angel over my Right Shoulder” by Elizabeth Phelps Stuart. Students will use this extract as a starting point and, as they proceed through their graphic organizer, they will be expected to cite other text to support their theses.

“It seemed to her as if she had entered upon a new existence. She had found her way through the thicket in which she had been entangled, and a light was now about her path. The Angel over the Right Shoulder whom she had seen in her dream, would bind up in his golden book her life’s work, if it were but well done. He required of her no great deeds, but faithfulness and patience to the end of the race which was set before her. Now she could see, plainly enough, that, though it was right and important for her to cultivate her own mind and heart, it was equally right and equally important, to meet and perform faithfully all those little household cares and duties on which the comfort and virtue of her family depended; for into these things the angels carefully looked––and these duties and cares acquired a dignity from the strokes of that golden pen––they could not be neglected without danger”

Homework: Review, reorganize and rewrite notes on class discussions.

Class VII: In small groups, students will address the decision of Harriet Jacobs to hide away and attempt to run away, leaving her children behind. (This takes place in Chapter XVII, The Flight.) Students will evaluate Jacobs’ reasoning in light of her circumstances and record their discussions and conclusions in a graphic organizer.

Homework: Review, reorganize and rewrite notes on class discussions.

Class VIII: In this class, students will look at Jacobs’ situation through the lens of the values espoused in “The Angel over my Right Shoulder” by Elizabeth Phelps Stuart.

They will answer one of the following questions, first in small group discussions, then full class discussions, and finally, in essay form, at home. The teacher will follow up to help students revise or rewrite their essays.

In what ways does Jacobs share the commitment to devoted motherhood as articulated in “The Angel over my Right Shoulder”?

How does Jacobs’ enslavement pose an insurmountable obstacle to her performing her mothering duties in accordance with her beliefs?

To whom was she addressing her story? Why?

Is Jacobs’ situation a powerful argument against slavery as an institution? How does race enter into this discussion? Does it matter that her children are three–quarters white?

Would Harriet Jacobs’ faith lead her to make the same decision she made, or would it challenge her not to act?

Homework: Proofread and revise essays for next class.

Class IX–X: Instructor reminds the students that historians have only a limited knowledge of the identities of runaways, and that runaways were understandably unwilling to reveal their status, even after emancipation. Students will engage in a short discussion on the reasons for this, based on the readings of Jacobs and Mark Twain.

Students will then access the Oxford African American Studies Center and search the database for runaway slaves, sorting for biographies only. Divide the results (about 295) among the students (this can be easily done by page number); students will then read the results briefly, recording only women fugitives from their page selection. When all the women’s names are listed, grouped students will read a small number of biographies. They will divide them in a graphic organizer by state of origin; age at time of escape; number of children at the time of escape; escape route, if known; method of escape (by water or land); assistance, if any. As a class, discuss whether patterns in the results are detectable. (For example, are there more successful runaways from border states?) Students should then compare these facts, as far as they are known, to those in the case of Harriet Jacobs. When students are done with their organizers, the teacher should have students address the following questions:

What states had the most recorded escapes by enslaved women? Explain why this is likely to have been so, citing geographical and logistical evidence.

What time period seems to have had the most escapes by enslaved women? Using the timeline we created earlier, evaluate why or why not we might see a trend and whether such a trend is valid, given the information at hand.

Is there evidence in any of the biographies that anyone besides Harriet Jacobs hid in a slave state for any period of time? If so, cite your evidence.

Did most of the escapees have children? If so, did the women travel alone? Did their children escape?

How does the number of recorded escaped enslaved women and their places of origin shed light on the challenges Harriet Jacobs faced?

What does it mean to be called a “slave”? Should we in the present time avoid the use of that word? Explain.

Extension Options

The next reading assignments will be the following primary documents: “The Triumph of the Spiritual Over the Sensual” by Frances Osgood (p. 229). After reading this piece, students will discuss the impact of the notion of female purity on enslaved women like Harriet Jacobs who were repeatedly and commonly subject to rape. We will also extend this discussion to today’s double standard, which continues to thrive in spite of much other progress.

For further insight into the experience of American families during slavery, students may read Chapter XXXV of Caroline Gilman’s Recollections of a Southern Matron and a New England Bride for homework. In class the next day, instruct the students to form groups, and then examine, extract, and report upon the cultural dictums (passivity; silence; sacrifice; selflessness; unquestioning faith in the rightness of their husbands’ behavior; piety; repression of wifely anger and protest) directed at all wives; then expand the discussion with a careful look at these especially potent consequences for southern women taught to accept their husbands’ behavior and obey their husbands in silence. Remind students of the character of Mrs. Flint in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Consider the following questions:

In what ways could Gilman’s messages affect the behavior of women of that era?

How does the author make her messages so powerful?

How does this piece of literature challenge or support the values of the Cult of True Womanhood?

Does Incidents in any way indicate Harriet Jacobs’ acceptance of these ideas?

For visual depictions of the contradictions inherent in True Womanhood and racial ideologies, see the this link.

In addition, soon after these assignments, students will extend their research by examining other women’s accounts of their slavery at Slavery and the Making of America, which offers original letters written by enslaved women.

Further Reading:

Brown, Herbert Ross. The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. PS377.B7

Burgett, Bruce. Sentimental Bodies: Sex, Gender, and Citizenship in the Early Republic. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1998.

Cogan, Frances B. All-American Girl: The Ideal of Real Womanhood in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman’s Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860." American Quarterly 18 (Summer 1966): 151-174.

Oxford University Press