112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Blurred Lines: The Troubling Intersections of Labor, Dependency, and Gender in Jacobs’s Incidents and Factory Women’s Writings

Meghan Wadle, Southern Methodist University

While an antebellum public worried that a factory woman’s dependent wage labor threatened her sexual identity, it often submerged similar associations when it discussed the female slave. This essay examines the troubling ideological connections between labor, dependency, and gender through Jacobs’s Incidents and female industrial laborers’ writings.


With women’s labor being traditionally circumscribed within the domestic sphere, what sorts of anxieties did the woman who labored outside the home raise for the American public in the early 1800s? Using Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, with its description of the public and private spheres and the distinct activities accompanying each, this essay examines the connections between labor and gender, production and reproduction, as they hinge on female slaves and factory women’s bodies. I contrast Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl with antebellum factory women’s writings to draw out the ideological assumptions surrounding the female laborer’s body. Situating cultural discourses about the dependent female laborer’s body within the larger context of an expanding antebellum market culture, this essay explores how antebellum authors figured women’s bodies as they entered and became subject to a market economy.

Since the slaveholding societies of ancient Greece, Arendt notes, the Western world associated women’s and slaves’ labor with the private and hidden world of the home. The household, governed strictly by the patriarch’s rule, marked the de-individuated space of dependent laborers but also represented a locus of stability for all who lived there. Women’s dependent labor within that sphere was seen as wholesome and natural. But as a spreading market culture eroded the connections between private property and stability in antebellum America, it also cast doubt on the sexual wholesomeness of woman’s labor and threatened to treat her as consumable and disposable. In Jacobs’s narrative, market culture reduces the female slave to the logic of capital, treating her as a freefloating value with no place in the world. Even her body’s reproductive capacities becomes a currency for future investments, as Dr. Flint constantly reminds her when he threatens to sell her children. Jacobs’s narrative shows how the slave is essentially homeless, which is tantamount to being sexually unguarded. The connection between placelessness and sexual abuse exposes the links between labor, dependency, and gender for the slave women living essentially outside the home’s protective circle.

Though public discourse about slavery rarely acknowledged that female slaves were dependents outside the home, and therefore sexually vulnerable, it constantly worried over those connections with respect to factory women. As factory women exchanged dependency within the home for waged dependency within the factory system, the public suspected this new form of dependency as unnatural. In “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” Melville depicts factory women as sexual cyphers, while Orestes Brownson explicitly equates factory work with sullied virtue. Such disparaging accounts galvanized factory women to enter agonistically into print culture. In the Lowell Offering and the Voice of Industry, female industrial authors defended their virtue to public opinion. In so doing, they simultaneously entered the public sphere and argued women could retain their sexual identities within that sphere. By putting Jacobs’s narrative in dialogue with the factory women’s writings, this essay exposes the sexual dilemmas facing women whose labor challenged gendered ideologies about the spheres and activities appropriate for women.

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