Women’s Involvement in Slavery in the US

by Adele A Wilby

Many feminists, and indeed scholars more generally, frequently, and rightly, decry the writing of women out of history. Books such as Cathy Newman’s Bloody Brilliant Women, attempt to redress the historical omission and accord recognition to women who have made major contributions to the progress of humanity. However, while these developments are to be welcomed, it has to be acknowledged that women’s history has its darker side also: women have been complicit in the perpetration of historical wrongs. Sarah Helm’s If This Is A Woman documents the dehumanisation of female prisoners by female guards at the notorious all woman concentration camp at Ravensbrück during World War II; Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry’s Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics points out the potential of women to support and participate in acts of genocide. And, as Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South informs us, women were deeply involved in another historical wrong: slavery in the United States. Women were, as Jones-Rogers’ says, ‘co-conspirators’ in the institution of slavery in the US, and their involvement constitutes an aspect of the wider history of white supremacist organisations in the US.

Jones-Rogers lays to rest any assumption that the trading and ownership of enslaved human beings in the US was primarily the domain of white men. Indeed, the objective of Jones-Roberts’ book is ‘to focus on women who owned enslaved people in their own right and, in particular, on the experiences of married slave-owning women…the pecuniary ties formed one of slave-owning women’s primary relations to African American bondage’. Thus, women as slave owners challenges our understanding of the gender identity of women, gender power relations and indeed property rights during this period in US history. She reveals just how far the ownership of enslaved people was a source of economic independence and hence power and status for many white women in the family and society, and the creation of such conditions for women frequently began in early childhood.

Female children, and single women, were often ‘gifted’ enslaved persons on birthdays or other events in a woman’s life, and indeed as hereditary property. But far from just accepting these ‘gifts’, the women also learned how to ‘manage’ their slaves and become slaving owning ‘mistresses’, and such a process and power relations was nurtured in property owning girls from a very young age. Understanding the power relations and control over their slaves therefore linked ideas of ‘white superiority’ with the economic interests of these women in early childhood.

Nevertheless, the authority, independence and power that the ownership of enslaved people gave to unmarried women was not always secure; it came under threat at the time of marriage. Women were subordinated to patriarchal relations according to the terms of the ‘doctrine of coverture’ that deprived women of their independence and gave control of a woman’s property to the husband.  Such a system was, however, flawed, exposing women to exploitation and economic loss by incompetent husbands who mismanaged property and wealth, or by unscrupulous men seeking a quick and easy fortune. Families subsequently learned to utilise legal instruments to secure women’s ownership of the enslaved and the economic benefits that accrued from their labour.

But the ownership of the slaves by women was not confined to the domestic setting; it is only one part of the nefarious saga of women’s involvement in the institution of slavery.  We learn from Jones-Rogers that women were ubiquitous at slave markets and auctions where the buying and selling of human flesh took place. In some instances, women visited slave jails where the enslaved were held until the owners were ready to sell them, or, in the case of children, in slave pens where the enslaved children were ‘fattened’ and prepared for sale and shipment to slave markets.


Jones-Rogers book does therefore dispel the assumption of slavery as predominately a male enterprise and women as financially dependent on men in marriage. But if Jones-Roger’s research challenges the stereo-typical gender identity of women as financially dependent, was there anything in women’s treatment of their slaves that was consistent with stereotypical characteristics of women, such as compassion for those enslaved and exposed to such inhumanity?

Jones-Rogers does not make generalisations about the attitude of all white slave-owning women to slavery and the enslaved, but her research does imply that demonstrations of humane concern by white slave owning women were few and far between, and that indeed some women had no compunction in the perpetration of acts of cruelty against the enslaved.  As she makes known, many women delegated the administration of punishment to overseers, usually men, but they ensured that the punishment was concomitant to the infringement, regardless of its severity. Moreover, women slave-owners were savvy, and ‘good’ business individuals who kept abreast of the value of their ‘property’ and the strategies for the management of slaves; they learned that the physical damage caused by ruthless punishment could potentially damage the slave and therefore devalue their ‘property’. Women slave owners therefore exercised caution in the administration of punishments, and indeed some made efforts to ensure that the living conditions and food for slaves was sufficient to maintain the value of their investment in human beings.  But white women slave owners also inflicted women-on-women emotional pain: they sold off their slaves at their discretion and in the process, tore women from their young children and wider family; the breast milk of lactating slaves was not for their own children, but went to the children of white women slave owners who preferred not to or could not breast feed; some set up brothels and condemned slave women to a life of prostitution, amongst other cruelties.

Given that women were slave owners concerned to secure their property and the economic independence that accompanied their individual wealth, there is no reason to assume that they would be any more sympathetic to the emancipation of the enslaved than their slaveholding male counterparts, and in general they were not. Women slave owners had a lot to lose by the emancipation of their slaves: the loss of their primary source of income and economic power that would render them dependent and relocate the power they exercised in marriage and society. Thus, as Jones-Rogers reveals, when the probability of abolition became an ever-present reality and many of the enslaved started to move to the northern states to escape their owners and fearing the slaves who remained in their possession would be confiscated, many women packed up and removed themselves and their slaves out of the reach of the Union forces in a process known as ‘refugeeing’. Others simply imprisoned the slaves to prevent them from escaping. With the abolition of slavery in the Confederate states in 1863 many white women continued to resist the reality, frequently failing to inform the slaves of their emancipation, and finding ways and means of keeping them in servitude and exploiting their labour.

But while white women’s resistance to the abolition of slavery can be couched in terms of fear of economic loss, women also argued from an ideological position: they believed their African slaves to be their inferiors and unintelligent and unable to manage and govern their own lives, views that are common parlance in white supremacist ideology today.

Thus, Jones-Rogers’ book is an informative history of southern white women’s involvement and support for the institution of slavery in the US. The book also has relevance to scholars and feminists interested in gender issues. While most feminists would welcome women’s economic independence, it is a tragedy that women had to find that independence through such an inhumane institution as slavery. Moreover, women’s involvement in slavery challenges stereo-typical gender identities of women as caring and compassionate; women have also engaged in acts of inhumanity. Finally, Jones-Rogers provides knowledge of the context in which white supremacist views were nurtured amongst a section of white women, views which continue to endure as a legacy of slavery in the politics of the US today.