Weak. Passive. Dependent. Sadly, these are the stereotypes that women were given in the 1800s. During the nineteenth century, women were considered to be in a lower-class when compared to men. Typically, women would stay at home, raise the kids, and care for the house while their husbands were out working and providing for the family. Although Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin deals with a tremendous amount of the wrongdoings of slavery, the strength given to women throughout the book cannot be forgotten or missed. Characters such as Mrs. Shelby, Eva, Eliza, and Aunt Chloe are all given uncommonly strength and power for women during their time; the knowledge and courageousness that these women possess are far more than many male characters in the novel. Stowe goes against the common theme of women rights in the nineteenth century by including female characters that are strong and influential both physically and mentally.
One prominent act of female power occurs when Eliza runs through the Underground Railroad from Kentucky to Ohio and eventually to Canada. With Harry in her arms, Eliza runs out the door and to the river away from Mr. Haley as he chases her. This was no easy task for Eliza, “The huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and created as her weight came on it, but she staid there not a moment” (Stowe 35). Eliza running across the river enduring all of the physical pain is about more than just her. She is doing this for her son and all of the other women who are not being treated properly. Additionally, she was able to instill her worth right in front of the men chasing her. Not only did they not have the strength and courage to run across the ice, they “instinctively cried out, and lifted up their hands, as she did it” (Stowe 35). Mr. Haley, Sam, and Andy decide not to go across because the horses will not make it. However, because they have nothing to lose the passion and will to get across is absent. Eliza is representing many people other than herself and that is a driving factor to continue across the river. She is doing this for opportunity, not just for her, but all women in the generations to come. The parental love that all mothers share for their children gives these women the strength to endure so much physical and mental pain to fight for their loved ones. According to Patty Onderko, “Mother-child bonding has evolved to become a complex physiological process that enlists not just our hearts, but our brains, hormones, nerves, and almost every part of our bodies.” Especially in the late nineteenth century when women were expected to stay at home with their children all day, the bond grew much closer. Harriet Beecher Stowe includes the dangerous measures that Eliza takes to show the strength that she, and other women, had that many men did not possess. She uses this deep motherly connection to give women an advantage over men and prove that women have a far greater role in society than what they are given during this time.
At the very beginning of the novel, Mrs. Shelby is described to the reader and her characteristics do not match the role of women during the early twentieth century. Harriet Beecher Stowe states, “Mrs. Shelby was a woman of high class, both intellectually and morally” (35). Unlike many women during this time, Mrs. Shelby has a voice in her household. After her husband sells their slaves, Tom and Harry, Mrs. Shelby is furious. Mr. Shelby has broken her promise to keep the two together. Most importantly, Mrs. Shelby, a women in the nineteenth century, has decided to voice her opinion and speak out against her husband. Stowe’s description of Mrs. Shelby shows her opinion of a perfect female: one with religious standards and courageous enough to have a voice. This loving, Christian women is the most influential female character in the novel, setting an example for the women of today. Although she is a slave-owner, she wants the best for them; she is even happy when Eliza runs away with her son, Harry. Unlike the way men treated women, Mrs. Shelby treated her slaves with equality and never looked down upon them. Also, she is doing something bigger than herself. The effect may not be noticeable in a short period of time, but the long term legacy that Mrs. Shelby will have is far greater than any male character in the novel. Once again, a women in this novel is doing something that is not typical of a female in their time period. However, Stowe gives them the physical and mental strength to stand up for what is truly right: equality. Many people are afraid of change and being uncomfortable, however Harriet Beecher Stowe allows the women in Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be the leaders in this movement. For many generations before Mrs. Shelby, women were not bold enough to speak their mind or treat slaves with equality. Yet, due to her religious and mental strength she is able to much more morally for the slaves than any male slave-owners.
Mrs. St. Claire is yet another female character that goes against typical feminine characteristics in the late nineteenth century. Although, she may be seen as an antagonist, her action of selling her husband’s slaves, was against his intentions. Having the mental strength to do what she wanted rather than what her husband wanted is a quality given by Stowe to implement another case of women power in this novel. A few days after Mr. St. Claire had died, “… one of the man-servants came came to say that her mistress had ordered him to take Rosa with him to the whipping-house” (Stowe 184). Sending Rosa to the whipping-house and having Tom sold was against what Marie St. Claire’s entire family wanted. Instead of using this as an act of cruelty, this can be seen as a step forward in women’s rights. Mrs. St. Claire decided to have the mental strength to make her own decision as a strong, independent women. Other women may have done what their husband had wished because that is what women were supposed to do. However, Harriet Beecher Stowe saw this as an opportunity to get women another step closer to equality. Stowe has given female characters power by either allowing them to help others benefit or by allowing them to benefit themselves. Marie St. Claire decided to benefit herself by selling Tom and gaining the profit. This action may be seen as selfish, however, the movement needs to start somewhere. Selfishness only goes so far; then, it becomes an act of leadership and standing up for what you believe in. Making yourself a priority and doing what you need rather than what others want are the first steps into becoming a strong, independent women (Krystal Kleidon). She had a chance to not only better her life, but also to better the life of women thousands of years later. Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to implant women’s power within all types of characters. Even the racist, selfish, cruel mother was able to stand up for herself and spark a change in women’s rights. Because many do not like to see the positive in a bad situation, Mrs. St. Claire is not seen as an activist for equality. However, her courageous act is one that should not be forgotten.
The power and influence that wives have on their husbands and mothers have on their sons throughout this novel stretches much further than just the household. During the Quaker Settlement the author states, “… for twenty years or more, nothing but loving words, and gentle moralities, and motherly loving kindness, had come from that chair…” (Stowe 77). A mother is able to instill morals and principles inside her from the day he is born. This power rises above any action that a man can do because a mother is the one who watches the child at home during this time. She will raise him to become the man she wants him to be in the community. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ability to include the influence of a mother on her child shows the reader that one right you cannot take away from a woman is her ability to raise her child. By raising children to become loving, God-fearing men, mothers, are able to influence the way the world of men will turn out. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Men are what their mothers made them.” Furthermore, during this time period wives were able to influence their husbands into becoming better men. When Mrs. Bird scolds her husband for the new law passed she states, “‘… I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible…’” (Stowe 46). Although women did not have many social rights, Harriet Beecher Stowe makes sure to include the moral and religious strengths that women have in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The men typically came home stressed from work, but the women had the power to open them up and bring out the soft spot in their husband. The psychological power women had to open up the minds of their spouses was eventually what gained them equality years later. For example, women could not vote but some women had the power and strength to speak out to their husbands and voice their opinion. This allowed men to see the bigger picture and eventually realize that women should have a bigger role in society than what they are given.
Harriet Beecher Stowe is able to take her anti-slavery novel and include the importance of women rights within it. When the wrong decisions seem like they are being made, the women come into power and take control. The use of power for the women varied between good and evil, but the power was prevalent throughout the entire book. Stowe shows that mothers and Christians are the best kind of people on this Earth. Whether the strength of the women was shown physically, morally, mentally, or psychologically, Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to put women in control throughout the novel. Slowly, but surely women started to have a voice in their household, community, and eventually the nation. Sarah Strohmeyer once said, “The power of women united, I am again reminded, is an invincible thing.” Each female character had their own individual strengths, but looking back on the entire book shows the true women strength Harriet Beecher Stowe gave the reader in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Kleidon, Krystal. “10 Ways To Gain Independence As A Woman.” Project Hot Mess, 3 Oct.
Lambert, Tim. “LIFE FOR WOMEN IN THE 19TH CENTURY.” A Brief History of Poland,
Jan. 2018, www.localhistories.org/vicwomen.html.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Vol. 1, CreateSpace Independent Publishing
...(download the rest of the essay above)