White Women as Slave Owners and the Myth of Sisterhood – Stephanie E. Jones
White Women as Slave Owners and the Myth of Sisterhood – Stephanie E. Jones
White Women as Slave Owners and the Myth of Sisterhood – Stephanie E. Jones
White women were as faithful to the Plantocracy as White men – in Settler Colonial Societies the allegiance of women settlers is to their men
When the women’s liberation movement first grew up in the late 1960’s Black women and women of colour were largely absent or invisible. It was a largely White women’s movement. Nonetheless the first British Women’s Liberation Conference in March 1970 saw‘the struggle for social change and the transformation of society’ as inextricably linked with the fight for women’s liberation.
The 1970s saw repeated attacks by the Right on women’s rights, most notably in the repeated attempts to amend the 1967 Abortion Act by MPs such as James White (1975) and William Benyon (1977). At the same time the Women’s Movement was increasingly internalising its politics, summed up in the slogan ‘The Personal is Political’ or in its concentration on issues such as pornography (‘Porn is the theory, Rape is the practice’). This was even though the second wave of feminism had begun with the strike of the Ford sewing machinists for equal pay in 1968, which in turn led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act.
It was summed in the statement of the Combahee River Collective
We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.
Although understandable coming from a Black feminist group, when generalised throughout the women’s movement it came to embody the belief that struggles against racism and imperialism, Palestine in particular, were divisive and undermined the unity of women. This is not very different from the idea that class struggle is divisive to national liberation struggles.
This became a particular problem for the magazine Spare Rib in Britain which had always found it difficult dealing with issues of racism, which manifested themselves not just in the personal but the political. In September 1980 Spare Rib’s editorial stated that ‘controversial topics have always been a problem for SR’’. With Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 it became more than a problem as the Editorial Collective divided over the question of Zionism and anti-Semitism. [See for example Corinne Malpocher’s Ph. D thesis Sexuality, Race and Zionism – Conflict and Debates in Spare Rib, 1972-1993].
The issue of race and imperialism divided and nearly destroyed the magazine of the women’s movement and arguably led to its eventual demise in 1993. At one point the editorial collective was meeting in two halves, Black and White.
Feminism, which has gone through a number of different phases is, in essence a movement for democratic rights on behalf of the one half of the population whose reproductive abilities are the basis of discrimination against them. But it is also a movement divided by class and race. One can the role of women today in the struggle against Zionism with the prominent role played in the attack on Jeremy Corbyn by women such as Luciana Berger, Ruth Smeeth and Margaret Hodge.
The concept of an all-embracing sisterhood was one from which class and race were largely absent. The reasons for this are obvious. Such issues were seen to divide the movement and therefore the most oppressed and exploited women were mean to shut up for the sake of their liberal and bourgeois compatriots.
The idea behind patriarchy breaks down when women become the oppressors and exploiters. None represented this better than Margaret Thatcher. Historically, as the articles below demonstrate, White women played a prominent role in the history of slavery and they were full participants in the enslavement of Black women. With very few exceptions, White women didn’t see Black women as their sisters.
Stephanie Jones’ new book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American Southdemonstrates that White women were not passive onlookers, subjugated by White slaveowners but very much held the whip hand, literally. They had a direct property interest in the enslavement of Black people, including of course women.
It also demonstrates the fallacy of an overarching sisterhood. White women in the Deep South, just like White women in South Africa and Jewish women in Israel overwhelmingly supported the racial status quo. To ignore questions of class and race is to have a one-dimensional view of oppression and racism. Which of course is why intersectionality has largely displaced reactionary identity politics although it fails to place class as the overarching method by which one understands the different forms of oppression.
She knew, but she didn’t participate — not fully. She participated, but she didn’t know — not everything. She was a bystander. She was an anomaly.
The full role of white women in slavery has long been one of the “slave trade’s best-kept secrets.” “They Were Her Property,” a taut and cogent corrective, by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, examines how historians have misunderstood and misrepresented white women as reluctant actors. The scholarship of the 1970s and ’80s, in particular, did much to minimize their involvement, depicting them as masters in name only and even, grotesquely, as natural allies to enslaved people — both suffered beneath the boot of Southern patriarchy, the argument goes.
Jones-Rogers puts the matter plainly. White slave-owning women were ubiquitous. Not only did they profit from, and passionately defend, slavery, but the institution “was their freedom.” White women were more likely to inherit enslaved people than land. Their wealth brought them suitors and gave them bargaining power in their marriages. If their husbands proved unsatisfactory slave owners in their eyes, the women might petition for the right to manage their “property” themselves, which they did, with imaginative sadism.
How have so many historians gotten it so wrong?
According to Jones-Rogers, they have not been listening to the right people. “They Were Her Property” draws on the customary sources — letters and other documents from slave-owning families and the like — but radically centers the testimonies of formerly enslaved people in interviews conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration.
From these stories, Jones-Rogers brings an unseen world to life: of white women’s instruction in domination, a process of grooming that began in infancy. W.P.A. interviewees recount threats, abuse and whippings administered by white children. “It didn’t matter whether the child was large or small,” one woman said. “They always beat you ’til the blood ran down.”
“They Were Her Property” joins a tide of recent books — among them, Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton,” Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told,” Walter Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams” and Caitlin Rosenthal’s “Accounting for Slavery” — that examine how slavery laid the foundation of American capitalism, including the invention of financial instruments, such as bonds that used enslaved people as collateral. Jones-Rogers writes, “If we examine women’s economic investments in slavery, rather than simply their ideological and sentimental connections to the system, we can uncover hitherto hidden relationships among gender, slavery and capitalism.”
Previously invisible sectors of the market are illuminated, many created and controlled by white women. Historians long asserted, for instance, that Southern women used wet nurses only “as a last resort,” but the testimonies of formerly enslaved people — and advertisements from the 18th and 19th centuries — tell a different story. The practice appears to have been widespread. One woman recalled that her enslaved mother always gave birth at the same time as her mistress, so she would be available to nurse the white baby. “These recollections make it clear that enslaved women were giving birth on a routine basis. But what often remains unexplored is what led to these constant conceptions,” Jones-Rogers writes. Some were “undoubtedly the result of sexual assault.”
In horrifying, meticulous detail, this book illustrates the centrality of violence to capitalism. Baptist argued the same point in “The Half Has Never Been Told.” It was sheer brutality that dramatically increased the cotton yield between 1800 and 1860, he wrote. No new technology or innovation surfaced in those years, but constant beatings, sexual abuse and waterboarding had become common practices. In that era, “white people inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed.”
Jones-Rogers reveals how the violence of slave-owning women especially could go unchecked, particularly when the victims were black children. She gives the example of Henrietta King. As an 8- or 9-year-old, King was accused of stealing candy. Her mistress wedged King’s head under a rocking chair. For about an hour, she rocked back and forth on King’s head while her young daughter whipped her. King’s face was mutilated. For the rest of her life she was unable to eat solid food.
King lived, though. There are, somehow, even more painful stories in this book. Many of Jones-Rogers’s findings give credence to the historian Thavolia Glymph’s claim that enslaved people faced significantly more physical violence from their mistresses than their masters.
Jones-Rogers is a crisp and focused writer. She trains her gaze on the history and rarely considers slavery’s reverberations. They are felt on every page, however. It is impossible to read her on “maternal violence” — the abuse of black mothers and babies during slavery — without thinking of black maternal mortality rates today. This scrupulous history makes a vital contribution to our understanding of our past and present.
They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South By Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers Illustrated. 296 pages. Yale. $30.
In the past, historians had often based their conclusions about white women’s role in slavery on the writings of a small subset of white Southern women. But Jones-Rogers, an associate professor of history at the University of California Berkeley, drew on a different source: interviews with formerly enslaved people conducted during the Great Depression as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, an arm of the Works Progress Administration. 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 commemorated 1619, 400 years ago, when enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, Vox 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.
Can you talk a little about how this book came about?
When I was in graduate school, I was taking all these different courses and reading all these books on African American history but also on women’s and gender history. I was particularly interested in what these two subfields of history had to say about white women’s economic investments in the institution of slavery. What struck me is that they seemed to be in direct contradiction to each other, in many respects.
Those historians who explored the experiences of white Southern women would often argue that while women had access to enslaved people that male kin or their spouses may have owned, they were not directly involved in the buying and selling of enslaved people — particularly married women weren’t.
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. And so I asked myself, what’s the real story here?
Were white women — particularly married white women — economically invested in the institution of slavery? Meaning, did they buy and sell enslaved people?
I looked to traditional sources where we might think to find those answers: a white woman’s diary, a white woman’s letters and correspondence between family members, et cetera. 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 1930s and 1940s. And so when I look to those interviews, formerly enslaved people were talking about white women’s economic investments in a variety of ways consistently, constantly, routinely.
The historians you mention who didn’t see white women as economically invested in slavery — what sources were they drawing on and why is there such a disconnect between those sources and the interviews with formerly enslaved people that did really delve into these economic questions?
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. Essentially, this doctrine says that when a woman who owns property or earns wages, or has any assets, gets married, those assets, those wages, that wealth, immediately becomes her husband’s — their identities are subsumed into one.
Many historians have looked into this legal doctrine of coverture and seen it as all-encompassing. [But] scholars who have made this argument have essentially not examined the voluminous evidence that appeared in the testimonies of formerly enslaved people.
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. And so they’re missing the vast majority of those women who owned slaves.
The vast majority of women who owned slaves owned less than 20. And often, the women that I talk about in the book owned one or two, no more than five. So these are the women that were probably not literate, and if they were literate, they didn’t have enough time to sit down and write down what was going on in their day. 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.
Formerly enslaved people’s testimonies about these women are, in many respects, the only surviving record to document exactly that.
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 21.
There are even accounts 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. And when you get married, it will, if we don’t do anything about it, become your husband’s. And, if he is a loser, you’re going to lose. So, they essentially say, we have to make sure that does not happen.
So before these young women get married, their parents and sometimes female kin and friends will encourage them to develop legal instruments, protective measures to ensure that they don’t lose all of their property to their husbands. These legal instruments that they develop are very much like prenuptial agreements today. They’re called marriage settlements back then, or marital contracts, which essentially detail not only what property they’re bringing into the marriage but what kind of control their husbands can or cannot have over it.
These women are not stupid. They’re like, I’m about to get married, the law says that everything I have is going to be my husband’s. I don’t want that to happen. What can I do to prevent that from happening?
They are prepared, they are knowledgeable, and they work with parents and others who are willing to assist them to develop protective measures to ensure that the relinquishment of all of their property wealth and assets doesn’t happen once they get married.
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.
And that’s exactly what they do. Not only do they inherit enslaved people, but they also go into slave markets. They buy enslaved people. They’ll hire them out and they’ll collect their wages. 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. When I would talk about this with scholars in the field, some of them would remark, “Oh, that makes sense, because if women are in the house, they need more female help.”
I said, “Okay, yes, that would be practical,” but what has also been important to recognize is that these women understood the law. 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.
And so owning an enslaved woman means that you’re not only reaping the benefits of this woman’s productive labor but also her reproductive labor.
Was that true of white men, too? Did they have more female than male slaves?
Much of what I’m describing was also true for white boys and white men. [But] during this period of time, there was the development of the domestic slave trade, which essentially was the purchase of enslaved people in the upper South, in places like Virginia and Maryland, and then their transport into the lower South and into the Southwest when the country expanded during the 1800s.
In these sales, if an enslaved woman had a child, that child was seen as a liability to the slave trader. There are accounts 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 go 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. I’m curious if we see echoes of this today when we look at white women gaining economic empowerment under capitalism?
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. I think that is the same for capitalism — when you tell a woman, “You might not make as much as a man for doing the same work, but if you can get your hands on these funds, nobody can deny you.”
Slavery was a regime based on human bondage, [but] it was also an economic regime, one that was funding the national economy. When those white women are invested, it’s not very different from them being invested in capitalism today. It’s just a different commodity. It’s just a different source of wealth.
In thinking about the 1619 commemoration, I was thinking about the part of your book where you look at the way white women wrote about slavery after emancipation. In your epilogue, you write that they portrayed themselves as “forever sacrificing women who had played purely benevolent roles within a nurturing system.” And you quote a white woman who wrote that maybe the descendants of enslaved people should even consider creating an “anniversary to celebrate ‘the landing of their fathers on the shores of America,’ when they were bought and domiciled in American homes.”
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. The erasure of certain elements of horror and the darkness of [white women’s] investment and involvement in the history of slavery are very much why we’re shocked to see the way that some white women respond to interactions with black people today.
You can also see that in the “send her back” chants — the idea that black people have never been citizens and they never belonged. I think there are parallels to what this woman said in the early 1900s and what white women are saying today about African-descended people, whether they be congresswomen or just average black folk on the street.
It’s very much like, you should be grateful because you’re here now and stop complaining, because look what we’ve done for you. I think there are many parallels between that kind of language now, and the argument that she made back in the early 1900s.
Stephanie Jones-Rogers says this book project represents “10 years of pain, intermingled with pride.” But the slaves’ stories of trauma compelled her to persevere. She asks readers to “be brave and reckon with the history that appears on the pages.” (Photo by Lily Cummings)
In her new book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, UC Berkeley associate professor of history, expands our understanding of American slavery and the 19th century slave market with an investigation into the role of white women in the slave economy. She found they were active participants, profited from it and were as brutal as men in their management techniques.
What led you to research white women slaveholders?
While in graduate school, I stumbled upon a rather notorious slave-owning woman from New Orleans, Marie LaLaurie. She was well-known because she became the subject of a scandal when local members of her community discovered she was torturing and had even murdered some of the slaves she owned. She was married and the mother of two daughters at the time of the discovery. What I found remarkable was not her violence, but what was clearly a deep economic investment in slavery and the extraordinary level of control she exercised over the enslaved people in her household. She was the only slave owner in the household and, as a consequence, she was the only person who exercised control over them. I wanted to know whether there were other women like her — that is, white married women who also held legal title to enslaved people and who exercised control over them. This led me on the research journey that led to my dissertation, which formed the basis for my book They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South.
Initially, I sought out these women where other women’s historians had looked; their letters and diaries. But I found that they rarely discussed their economic investments in slavery. This compelled me to look elsewhere, and I examined the records which scholars of the African American experience look to when they study the lives of the enslaved — testimonies of enslaved and formerly enslaved people and a collection of interviews which the federal government conducted with formerly enslaved people in the 1930s and 1940s. I was astonished to discover just how frequently formerly enslaved people identified married slave-owning women who owned them or others and how they talked about the deep economic investments these white women had in the institution of slavery. Taking my cue from formerly enslaved people and using some of the details they provided in their interviews, I ventured into other archives — financial, legal, military records, newspapers, and letters and personal correspondence — to tell the story that unfolds in my book.
Who was the typical white woman slaveholder, and how did she come to acquire slaves?
The typical female slave owner claimed legal title to 10 enslaved people or less. Far more often, she owned less than five, and this holds for the average male slave owner, as well. Much of the scholarship about white women and slavery tends to examine their relationships to enslaved people in adulthood, but my book starts the story far earlier, when these women were young girls and infants. By doing so, I was able to show that white girls often received enslaved people as gifts; some were only infants when they were given enslaved people as their own. While many of these girls and women inherited enslaved people from loved ones throughout their lives (not just when a family member died), they also bought them from slave markets throughout the South.
Was this a common practice in the South?
Berkeley News is helping the campus observe the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans to the English colonies.
It was quite common for girls and women to own enslaved people. The question of just how many women and girls owned enslaved people is a complicated one to answer for several reasons, but I am completing a quantitative project that I hope will bring us closer to an answer. Some of my preliminary data show that white women constituted approximately 40% of all the slave owners in my data sets. This is a figure that also holds in data collected by Catherine Hall at the University College London. She and a team of researchers created a database using British Parliamentary records related to abolition and slave owner compensation, and they also found that women constituted 40% of the slave owners who sought compensation after Britain abolished slavery in its colonies and territories.
What were the advantages, for women, of owning slaves?
In my book, I focus primarily on married slave-owning women, rather than single and widowed women (there are many studies that focus on them). Prevailing scholarship contended that married women rarely possessed control over property because of a legal doctrine called coverture. Under coverture, when any property-owning or wage-earning woman married, all of her property and wages immediately became her husband’s, and he could do whatever he wanted with them. Scholars have looked at this doctrine and, for the most part, argued that these women did not have economic investments in slavery because, by law, their slaves would become their husbands’ upon marriage. This was certainly true for some women, but not all of them. In the book, I show the ways that these married women circumvented the disabilities that came with marriage, particularly as those impairments pertained to property ownership. Slave-ownership allowed these women to exercise certain kinds of power in and over their lives, power and control that would not be available to them if they didn’t own enslaved people, and in this way, slavery was their freedom.
What did you learn about how these women treated their slaves?
The institution of slavery necessitated a culture of violence, and white women and girls were a part of this culture. In order to sustain the institution and to keep enslaved people in a state of near submission, violence and the threat of violence were vital. This culture of violence also created opportunities for some people to indulge their propensity toward sadism, and women were not immune to this. Women perpetrated acts of extreme violence against enslaved people for the same reasons that white men did.
One woman kept the enslaved people she owned in a state of near-starvation and would tempt a young enslaved girl who cleaned her bedroom by leaving a piece of candy on her dresser each day. One day, the enslaved girl yielded to temptation and ate the candy. When the slave-owning woman discovered the candy missing, she accused the young girl of stealing it and proceeded to punish her by placing her head on the floor underneath the curved portion of her rocking chair. This woman then summoned her young daughter to help her punish the enslaved girl. While she rocked back and forth on the young enslaved girl’s head, her daughter whipped her. When they finished punishing the enslaved girl, she was irreparably disfigured. She was never able to eat solid food again because her jaw would constantly slide to one side of her face. When she reached adulthood, her teeth never grew on that side, either. Each time she was in her mistress’s presence, her mistress was daily reminded of her cruelty, and it became so overwhelming that her mistress gave her to a relative, so she wouldn’t have to look at her anymore.
You also explored how slave-holding mothers raised their daughters from a young age to manage slaves. Tell us about this.
Children learned vicariously by watching their parents and other white adults in their communities interact with enslaved people, and some parents even allowed young white girls to manage and discipline enslaved people themselves. Because slavery necessitated a culture of violence, and it required constant reinforcement, white girls were constantly immersed in this culture. Even more than this, they played critical roles in it, too. They learned about the power and authority as white people, and they also came to understand their roles in sustaining the institution of slavery. Ultimately, they came to learn that, while they might endure oppression because of their gender, they possessed extraordinary power as white people, and they embraced this power.
How did your research findings impact you emotionally?
“The story of our founding and the story of American slavery are far too often masculine ones,” says Jones-Rogers. (Photo by Lily Cummings)
As a descendant of enslaved people, this was a hard book to write. I’ve lived with this project for 10 years, and that has been 10 years of pain intermingled with pride. I’ve dealt with the pain of telling this story by taking time away from the book, but I always returned to the work because I remembered that the enslaved people whose stories I tell in this book often braved dangerous and potentially fatal circumstances in order to have documented what had happened to them. When they gave these interviews, they lived in a nation plagued by racial violence, when African Americans were lynched for not using the right salutations when addressing a white person or moving out of the way when a white person approached them on the street. The interviewers were primarily white Southerners, and some of them were the descendants of slave owners. Formerly enslaved people knew this, and they knew the risks of telling these white interviewers about the most intimate dimensions of their lives, about the brutality they endured, and they told them anyway. In spite of the trauma, I owed it to them to persevere. And I ask those readers who find this book a “hard read” to remember this, to be brave and to reckon with the history that appears on the pages.
Why hasn’t the truth about slave-holding women been better known in history?
A few factors could be at play. The first studies focusing on women and slavery were written and published when women’s history emerged as a field of study, and the field was formed at the height of the women’s liberation movement. The story of white slave-owning women is a very ugly one, one that doesn’t align with a (primarily white) feminist narrative in which white women find common cause with women of color and forge alliances based on shared gender oppression. Additionally, many women’s historians studied women who left documents behind and thus focused on women who were literate and often elite, and by doing so, they offered studies of a very small subset of an already small group of women. The women in my book could be counted among the majority of slave-owning women, rather than the minority. Because many of these women were not literate or elite, historians often miss them. But using the interviews conducted with the formerly enslaved people they once owned, I was able to tell their story. And lastly, I think we hold out hope that women represent the better half of humanity; we hope that women will save us. This book dashes those hopes.
How does your work add to the mission of this 400th anniversary year?
The 400th anniversary of the landing of African-descended people in what would become the United States allows us to center the story of slavery and the lives of African Americans in our national narrative. Rather than being tangential to our founding, the anniversary compels us to recognize African Americans as fundamental to our nation’s birth. The story of our founding and the story of American slavery are far too often masculine ones. My book disrupts these masculine narratives by showing the fundamental roles that white women played in the enslavement of African-descended people and in sustaining the institution of slavery until its end.