Sympathy as a Reform Strategy
By writing personal accounts of their lives, many women of the nineteenth century used the emotion of sympathy to share their feelings. According to Rosemarie Garland Thompson, "Sympathy is an effective rhetorical strategy in women's writing because it combines and embodies the fundamental elements of the feminine script." (Thompson 131) By using sympathy in their writing, Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Barret Browning, both nineteenth century women writers, made their readers want to help reform the South.
Harriet Jacobs wrote a moving slave narrative where she describes in great detail how her master constantly verbally and sexually harassed her. She was scared for her life many times when both her master, and his wife, threatened her. She tried many methods of escape, including becoming involved with a white lawyer who lived next door. Reading of her affair with a white man was completely shocking to northern white women. At the time, women were supposed to be pure by keeping their chastity. If you were pure, you had something to offer a future husband. By having this affair, Jacobs loses her purity, which was very important for women to have at the time; without it you weren't a woman. Jacobs appealed to her white readers saying, "You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom.... You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares and eluding the power of a hated tyrant." (Jacobs 506) She couldn't find protection anywhere, from anyone. Her master was continually after her, finding new tricks to bother her, and attempt to seduce her. Not even the master's wife was willing to help. She was so lost in her jealousy, that she became blind to the fact that this poor slave girl simply needed some help. On page 507 of The Longman Anthology of Women's Literature, Jacobs describes her desolate hope for protection saying, "But where could I turn for protection? No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by friends who bear the shape of men."
Women were supposed to be pious, keeping everything neat and clean, and the household running smoothly. They were expected to be the keepers of their children and husbands, to keep them safe from sin (extramarital affairs). Women were these religious pillars that were all that was good in the world, holding up the household. However, according to Jacobs's narrative, the southern white women couldn't keep their husbands from sin. How could these women allow such sin and disgrace in their homes? Their homes were being tainted by the sin created by their husbands. Jacobs informs her readers on page 511 that; "My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves." She continues on page 512 saying, "Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair...