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But, as historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers notes, there was one thing they could do, just as white men could: They could buy, sell, and own enslaved people. In her book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American SouthJones-Rogers makes the case that white women were far from passive bystanders in the business of slavery, as historians have argued.
Rather, they were active participants, shoring up their own economic power through ownership of the enslaved. These interviews, Jones-Rogers writes, show that white girls were trained in slave ownership, discipline, and mastery sometimes from birth, even being given enslaved people as gifts when they were as young as 9 months old.
The result was a deep investment by white women in slavery, and its echoes continue to be felt today. As the New York Times and others commemoratedyears ago, when enslaved Africans arrived in VirginiaVox reached out to Jones-Rogers to talk about the history of white, slaveholding women in the South and what that history says about race, gender, wealth, and power in America today. Our conversation has been condensed and edited. What struck me is that they seemed to be in direct contradiction to each other, in many respects. Conversely, those individuals who explored the enslaving of African Americans would often, in fact, say that a formerly enslaved person talked about having a female owner or talked about being bought or sold by a woman.
Were white women — particularly married white women — economically invested in the institution of slavery? Meaning, did they buy and sell enslaved people? They mentioned very sporadically issues related to answering this question, but there was not this kind of sustained conversation.
So, I said, African Americans are talking about this. Formerly enslaved people are talking about this. So, let me look to the interviews that they granted to these Federal Writers in the s and s. I tried to focus primarily on married slave-owned women in this book, in large part because those are the women who many historians of slaveowners say did not have a direct impact on the economic institution of slavery. And they say that, in large part, because of this legal doctrine called coverture.
Many historians have looked into this legal doctrine of coverture and seen it as all-encompassing. They also looked to a very small subset of women: highly literate, very elite white women who had the time to sit down and jot down their thoughts about the day. The vast majority of women who owned slaves owned less than And often, the women that I talk about in the book owned one or two, no more than five.
The vast majority of the women who owned slaves are missing from the analyses, in large part because they did not leave documents behind to tell us how they felt about these things, to tell us how they were investing in the institution. So in looking at those testimonies, what did you find in terms of the roles that white women and girls had in slavery, and the way that they formed their identities through their involvement in slavery?
What I thought was really interesting as I read much of the scholarship on white slave-owning women is that so much of it starts when women are adults. One really wonderful thing about the interviews of formerly enslaved people is they talk about white girls. They talk about white infants, female infants, and female adolescents.
So we are allowed into several phases of white female life through these interviews that have heretofore been obscured or kind of left out of the picture. I decided, in order for the second half of this story, the story of women, to make sense, I have to start the story at the very beginning, in the early years. So I start the book by talking about how white slave-holding parents trained their daughters how to be slaveowners. They give them lessons in slave discipline and slave management.
Some even allow for their daughters to mete out physical punishments. Slave-holding parents and slave-holding family members gave girls enslaved people as gifts — for Christmas sometimes, when they turned 16 or when they turned There are even s of slave-holding parents and family members giving white female infants enslaved people as their own. There is one particular instance of a case, in a court record, where a woman talks about how her grandfather gave her an enslaved person as her own when she was 9 months old.
When you think about the fact that their relationship to slavery, to slave ownership in particular, begins in infancy, in girlhood, what you begin to realize is that their very identities as white girls, as white Southerners, as white women, is intricately tied to not only ownership of enslaved people but also the control of enslaved people, the management of enslaved people.
The other really important lesson that their parents, their family members, and even their girlfriends, cousins, female cousins, and so forth are also teaching them along the way is that the way the law is set up, you have this property.
So, they essentially say, we have to make sure that does not happen. These legal instruments that they develop are very much like prenuptial agreements today. These women are not stupid. What can I do to prevent that from happening? Going along with that, can you talk about the ways in which slavery benefited white women and girls, both economically and socially? Women cannot do many of the things that men can do in this period of time. One thing that they are allowed to do by law, and this is particularly the case in the South, is invest in slavery.
Not only do they inherit enslaved people, but they also go into slave markets. They buy enslaved people. Then they use those wages to buy more slaves. They open businesses, and they employ those enslaved people in their businesses, those businesses make a profit, they use those profits to buy more slaves.
So they are investing in the institution of slavery in the same ways as white men are. The other really interesting thing that I observed in the interviews with formerly enslaved people is that white women often owned twice as many female slaves as they did male slaves. There are laws on the books, during this period that ensure whenever a person owns an enslaved woman, if that woman gave birth, that person also legally owned her children.
In these sales, if an enslaved woman hadthat child was seen as a liability to the slave trader. There are s that I talk about in the book where these slave traders are willing to just toss away the baby. But, there was this [white] woman in one particular case who would Man as women slave to state auctions, and if there were babies there that were not sold along with the mother, she would ask for those babies to be given to her.
She would keep the babies for free. In those respects, there were instances in which white men saw enslaved children as liabilities, and white women saw them as long-term investments. You talk in the book about how white women were able to achieve economic and social empowerment through ownership of enslaved people, essentially gaining some status in a patriarchal society through dominance over black people. There is a certain kind of power that comes with wealth. Enslaved people were wealth, their bodies held value on a real market, within a capitalist market.
White women understood it. But in order to sustain this system, white men realize that white women must be a part of that system. They must support it, they must see the value in it for themselves, not simply for their husbands or their children. They need to understand that this system benefits them personally and directly.
The only way they can do that is to allow for them to invest in the system and to participate in the system. And they are, in fact, invested in this system; they participate in the system. They benefit from this system, in every single way that white men do. And that is key to the longevity of, the perpetuation of the system. Slavery was a regime based on human bondage, [but] it was also an economic regime, one that was funding the national economy.
In thinking about the commemorationI was thinking about the part of your book where you look at the way white women wrote about slavery after emancipation. Can you talk a little bit about how white women remembered their role in slavery after the fact and how we actually ought to remember it today? When I think about that part of the book, I also think about what is happening today.
I think there are parallels to what this woman said in the early s and what white women are saying today about African-descended people, whether they be congresswomen or just average black folk on the street. I think there are many parallels between that kind of language now, and the argument that she made back in the early s.
A group of enslaved women and a man sit on the steps of the Florida Club in St. Augustine, Florida, midth century. A white woman, possibly a manager or overseer, stands behind them. Reddit Pocket Flipboard. Anna North Can you talk a little about how this book came about? Lily Cummings. Explainers Man as women slave we talk about when we talk about gentrification. Can the infrastructure bill fix that? Education Critical race theory bans are making teaching much harder.
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Sexual Relations Between Elite White Women and Enslaved Men in the Antebellum South: A Socio-Historical Analysis