Saturday, 27 May 2017

"[No] doctor but my master": Health reform and antislavery rhetoric in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the life of a slave girl.

2014 Mar;35(1):1-18. doi: 10.1007/s10912-013-9265-1.

Author information

Department of English and Comparative Literature, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, 300 Pulteney Street, Geneva, NY, 14456, USA,


This essay examines Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) in light of new archival findings on the medical practices of Dr. James Norcom (Dr. Flint in the narrative). While critics have sharply defined the feminist politics of Jacobs's sexual victimization and resistance, they have overlooked her medical experience in slavery and her participation in reform after escape. I argue that Jacobs uses the rhetoric of a woman-led health reform movement underway during the 1850s to persuade her readers to end slavery. This essay reconstructs both contexts, revealing that Jacobs links enslaved women's physical and sexual vulnerability with her female readers' fears of male doctors' threats to modesty and of their standard bleed-and-purge treatments. Jacobs illustrates that slavery damages women's health as much as heroic medicine, and thus merits the political activism of her readers. Specifically, Jacobs dramatizes her conflicts with the rapacious physician-master at moments that are crucial to women's health: marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. Ultimately, this essay advances a new understanding of the role of health reform in social change: it galvanized other movements such as women's rights and abolition, particularly around issues of bodily autonomy for women and African Americans.
[Indexed for MEDLINE]