Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.

This passage from Chapter XIV embodies Jacobs’s most important contribution to the literature of slavery—her depiction of the emotional anguish of slave women. Most slave narratives were written by men, and followed a standard formula that placed great emphasis on bodily pain and physical endurance. They included graphic descriptions of whippings and other physical abuses that stripped the slave of his masculinity. In order to reclaim his manhood, the slave had to assert bodily control over his master by fighting him. The male slave then endured more physical suffering during his dangerous and solitary escape to the North.

As a female slave with a very different story to tell, Jacobs creates a new type of slave narrative. She emphasizes that whether or not they are beaten, starved, or made to work in the fields, all female slaves suffer horrible mental tortures such as sexual harassment and the loss of their children. In repeated anecdotes, she portrays the emotional agony of mothers whose children are taken from them, as well as the shame of slave girls who are sexually victimized by white men. For these women, such experiences were just as difficult as any physical punishment, if not more so.