Episode 120: Slave-Owning Women in the Antebellum U.S.

Host: Joan Neuberger, Department of History, UT-Austin
Guest: Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, University of California, Berkeley

Historians have long assumed that white women in the U.S. south benefited only indirectly from the ownership of enslaved people. Historians have neglected these women because their behavior didn’t conform to the picture we have of the patriarchal culture of the 18-19 century marriage. In an extraordinary new book, Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers shows that “slave owning women not only witnessed the most brutal features of slavery, they took part in them, they profited from them, and they defended them.”

Prof. Jones-Rogers joins us today to talk about the narratives of formerly enslaved people, whose testimony changes the way we view those white women and the lives of the enslaved in the U.S.

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Hi, this is Joan Neuberger, your host for this episode of 15 Minute History. Today our guest is Stephanie Jones-Rogers. She is a faculty member in the History Department at the University of California at Berkeley and she is a Fellow here at UT Austin this year.

Stephanie has just written an extremely interesting book about southern white women who owned slaves.  She tells us that “slave owning women not only witnessed the most brutal features of slavery, they took part in them, they profited from them, and they defended them.”  But historians have neglected these women because their behaviors doesn’t really conform to what we assume about nineteenth-century white women and southern culture.

So my first question is how did you realize that there was a story here to be told that was different from what historians have told us about white women?

Back in graduate school in Rutgers in 2009 I was prepping for my comprehensive examinations, reading scores of books from the subfields of slavery but also the history of women, southern women in particular, as well as African American history and I noticed that there was what seemed to be a disconnect between these subfields around the issues of white women’s economic investments in the institution. So there seemed to be a consensus amongst all of those subfields that women benefited indirectly from the economy of American slavery, typically because male family members owned slaves and so they could benefit from the profits of their production and reproduction, but also from their labor within the household and across the landscapes of slavery of the south. But they seemed not to be interested in the question of whether women more broadly, and in my particular case married women, were economically invested in the institution.

So when I looked at what African American historians were saying, they drew upon a body of archival documents that rarely appear up to that point in the histories of white southern women and very rarely did they factor into economic histories of the institution of slavery and they were about 2000, a little under 3000, interviews that have been conducted by the federal government with formerly enslaved people throughout the south. And in those interviews, federal employees asked formerly enslaved people about their experiences in bondage and they typically would talk about female owners, about women who bought and sold them, women who had inherited them, women who had been given gifts of enslaved people as girls, so I basically charted the story or reconstructed the story that those formerly enslaved people told about white women’s economic investments in the institution.

By looking at these sources with a new set of questions particularly questions shaped by my interest in women’s history and white women’s economic investments in the institution I was able to find an abundance of anecdotes and factoids and other details that I was able to corroborate in other sources from looking at the testimonies of formerly enslaved people.

Your research tells us a lot about how slaves felt about men and women owners and also gives us a whole different picture slave owners’ marriages, marriages between white men and women. Conventionally we think of women being financially dependent on men in the 18-19 centuries but not always.

Ownership of slaves gave women gave women some financial independence but at the same time made them dependent on their husbands because men got control of their wives’ property when they got marries.  Let’s begin talking about that by, how did women or girls come to own slaves in the first place?

Looking at what formerly enslaved people had to say shows that many young girls inherited enslaved people when they were even infants, so there are instances in which young girls who were just one –one year old –were given enslaved people as their own who also happened to be newborns or infants so they received enslaved people as gifts upon birth, at birthdays, for Christmas, also simply just for no reason at all, but most importantly what I found is that formerly enslaved people frequently talk about white southern girls and young women receiving enslaved people at the point of marriage. At the receptions, the wedding receptions, or shortly before or shortly after marrying they received enslaved people as wedding gifts. And then beyond that they also inherited enslaved people while their elders were still alive, so we typically think that if women were to inherit enslaved people, they would inherit them at the death of family members, but what formerly enslaved people talk about and I was able to corroborate in legal documents is that many white southern women were receiving advancements on inheritances that they would have gotten later in life. So those are some of the primary ways that they received enslaved people.

What are the numbers? What percentage of women owned slaves and what percentage of slaves were owned by women? What can you tell us about the proportions?

The numbers question is a really interesting one, in large part because gender shaped my ability to answer it, or rather not answer it in completion. And I should explain what I mean by that. First I should start with what we do know. Scholars of British slavery such as Catherine Hall who recently, with a team of other historians, compiled data from the British  parliamentary records from the emancipation era shows that 40% of the applicants who applied for compensation when Britain abolished slavery were women, were female applicants. Similarly when I looked at smaller samples of archival documents, typically bills of sale in select southern cities, in this particular case, I looked at the state of South Carolina, I too found that the numbers approached 40% in that particular sample. Thirty-eight percent of the individuals who were identified as a buyer or seller were women and that doesn’t count for issues surrounding just simply initials being noted for buyer or seller. So instances in which you can’t determine the gender of the buyer or the seller. So that leads me to some of the problems around coming up with a firm number to provide and one of the reasons you don’t see that in the book.

Because of gender norms and gender formalities, legal formalities in particular, around issues related to property, there are instances in which women, a female owner, would not be identified on certain legal documents or financial documents. In the case of many of the women I talk about in this book, they were able to maintain control over enslaved people through separate trusts, like trust funds, or through marriage settlements or marital contracts, which are very much like prenuptial agreements today. And in those cases a separate estate, a trust estate would be established for them which would protect those enslaved people and would also dictate the terms by which someone could or could not interfere with, dispose with, invest in or not invest in, to manipulate in any way the property, in this particular case the enslaved people, in that particular estate. And a trustee, typically a male trustee, would be placed in control of that estate. However in many of the clauses, the details of those estates, you can see that women secured for themselves a significant amount of control and a significant amount of say over what the trustees could or could not do. However when a historian like myself goes to try to find a women in certain documents, the fact that a trustee’s name appears on documents means I have to do a little bit more digging or a lot more digging to try to figure out whether there’s a female owner involved.

That’s also the case with census data. So in 1850 and 1860 the federal government decided that it was time to enumerate the number of enslaved people in the country. And when they did that they also identified by name the owner of those individuals, those enslaved individuals. Women appear throughout the census data for 1850 and 1860, but in the case of women who had separate trusts again you see this problem of the census enumerators actually identifying the trustee as the owner rather than the female owner in relationship to a particular slave holding. So that also poses problems for the numbers. But what I’ve found thus far the numbers do approach the 40% range.

And yet that seems to be a low estimate.

Absolutely, quite a very low estimate.

And then it would seem that the fundamental marriage relationship would also affect that, so women could inherit slaves or they could be given enslaved peoples at marriage but when they got married all their property was legally given over to the husbands? Can you talk about that and what kind of financial independence or dependence that involved?

There was a legal doctrine called coveture or coveture, which basically said that if a single or widowed woman owned property or earned wages prior to her marriage, upon marriage that property, those wages, any wealth that she owned at the time would automatically become her husband’s. So her legal identity and in many cases, economic identities were subsumed into their husbands’. Many historians have looked at the legal doctrine of coveture and the impact coveture had on many women’s abilities to own property or, if they owned property already, to maintain control of that property and have assumed that on the ground this precluded white women from investing in the institution of slavery, in the economic dimensions of slavery. But by looking at the ways in which women were able to circumvent the constraints of coverture vis-á-vis these separate estates that I referred to or these marital contracts or prenuptial agreements  that I referred to, you can see that there were tools at their disposal that they could use in order to continue to maintain control over enslaved people but also to acquire more enslaved people in the context of marriage.

By looking at the way they were able to be legally savvy I was able to trace them into the slave market and to see how they were able to use those legal loopholes in order to be financially savvy as well.

You write a lot about the slave market in different contexts and historians have generally tended to think that the women who showed up there were just there to watch,  but, in fact, you show that they were deeply involved in trading, can you talk about that?

Absolutely. There is this assumption that because the slave market was characterized as a dark business, it was an ugly business, and it was a sexualized business, so there were sexualized and quite violent dimensions to slave market activities and to the purchase and sale of enslaved people that this would be a kind of business that women would be averse to and they would avoid any kind of seeing it, observing it, or participating in it. And what I argue is that the slave market was really everywhere and this is something that other scholars have also maintained but they don’t usually include the household in that broader conceptualization of the slave market. So by looking at what formerly enslaved people had to say, particularly about female ownership and white female economic investments in the institution, you can see that the slave market was literally everywhere including in the household, on the plantation, in the fields, but also in the parlors, and on the porches, and so forth of the slaveholding household. This allowed for white women to access the slave market without leaving their homes but it also brought the slave market into their homes and also, I would argue, piqued their interest more broadly about slave market activities and in engaging in activities within the slave market proper, the brick and mortar slave market. So the slave market is dispersed throughout the south in spaces within the home and outside of the home and women were able to access it in all of its dimensions and all of its guises.

You mention what’s really a moral paradox or seems like one today that white people, men and women, considered the trade in human slaves to be a “dark “business but they defended it so may different ways and obviously didn’t want to see it abolished. Did women think about their ownership of human slaves the same way they thought about ownership of other property like land, or tea sets, or houses?

What’s really interesting is that a scholar of early South Carolina –Cara Anzilotti — she found in her own work that the women whose lives she examined inherited more enslaved people than they did land and that tends to be the case of the women that I explore in this book as well. So when you think about the fact that these women are inheriting far more human property than landed property, their identities are more deeply entwined not only with the promise of slave ownership but the realities of slave ownership and so what I actually show in the book is that you do find women diminishing the human quality of enslaved people, the humanity of enslaved people, but there also others who recognize fully the humanity of enslaved people and sometimes use it to try to keep enslaved people in submission. And that might sound odd but, for example, they understand that enslaved people treasured their familial relationships, their kinship relationships, so sometimes they threatened to sever those relationships in order to keep enslaved people in submission or to try to diminish the likelihood of resistance or flight. So they fully recognize the humanity of enslaved people so they do treat them as a different kind of property in many respects, but there are others who do, I think, dismiss the humanity of enslaved people but far more often they fully recognized that they are human beings and sometimes use it to their advantage.

Did enslaved people, then, respond differently to women owners than men owners?

There are instances in which enslaved people make it very clear that gender mattered to them in terms of arguing or, for example, refusing to be punished by a woman versus being punished by a man. So some enslaved people did see violent punishment or discipline as something that only white men did or men did, but far more often they recognize the power of female owners as equal. They saw parallels between and fully recognize that a female owner could be equally brutal but also wield the same kinds of power over them in their lives as male slave owners.

You have a whole chapter on the labor of enslaved women as wet nurses, that is providing breast feeding for their owners’ babies, and you point out that this a subject that really hasn’t been researched at all. How widespread was that practice and what does it tell us about  what we know about white women slave owners and what does it add to what we know about slave labor and enslaved people’s experiences?

What was really interesting to me as I did the research for this chapter was that formerly enslaved people again were saying something very different than historians of white southern women, and particularly white southern mothers and historians of southern motherhood were saying. So in the scholarship around white women and white southern mothers, there’s an argument that pretty much is a consensus that these women would only resort to the use of an enslaved woman and enslaved mother to wet nurse their child if there were no other options available, that these women were used as a last resort. When I examined what formerly enslaved people had to say about the practice they make it clear that there were a number of other circumstances under which white women would use enslaved wet nurses and those reasons had to do with necessity but there were others that had nothing to do with necessity, that they were merely using enslaved women as wet nurses as a matter of convenience. So while it’s not possible to actually determine concretely how widespread the practice was, in large part because of its intimate nature, this was a form of labor that, I argue, should be recognized as a skilled form of labor. And any listener who has had a child and has attempted to nurse their own child and has had difficulty like I did myself, knows that it requires a whole set of skills that you have to refine and you  have to adapt and it might vary from child to child, etc. So I do argue in the book that this is a form of skilled labor and that it’s one that was more widespread than scholars have argued but how widespread is still difficult to determine in large part because of the intimacy of the labor. However, there is a hint that it was more widespread again, even than perhaps enslaved people knew, because there was a market that emerged in the south for enslaved wet nurses. And in the book I talk about these newspaper advertisements — there are newspaper advertisements, which were very specific about wanting or hiring out an enslaved woman to serve in this capacity. Many of those ads ask for an enslaved woman immediately so there was a desperate need for them, but many others were simply specifying that this woman had either lost her child or would be hired out without her child. So there is a market that emerges, which suggested that there is a demand, a significant demand, that moves beyond a last resort argument.

It’s skilled labor and it’s also sexualized labor and intimate labor. Do you get a sense from the enslaved peoples’ testimony or from the other sources how it affected the relationship between enslaved people and their owners or did you get any sense of how it may have changed the white women owners’ relationship to their slaves when they were using them as wet nurses or was it labor just like any other labor to them?

I can point to one particular instance in which an enslaved woman talks about how she was coerced to have sex with an enslaved man that her female owner owned. She and this man were owned by this woman Emily Haidee — Henrietta Butler is the woman who I’m referring to. And she talks about how this woman coerced them to sex with each other and when those coerced sexual relations produced a child that she would sell the child if it was a boy or keep the child if it was a girl. So there is this economic or financial calculus that’s involved in these coercive sexual relations. She also talks about the fact that this was a multigenerational practice. She also forced Henrietta’s mother to engage in these coerced sexual relations as well. But what Henrietta talks about I think that’s most profound, and it hit me quite acutely, is that she lost the child that she gave birth to and rather than allowing Henrietta to mourn the loss of her child, her owner Emily Haidee  forced her to wet nurse her own white child. And when you read Henrietta’s account you can feel the bitterness, you can feel the anger, not simply because of the loss but also because of the whole confluence of circumstances that arose in order to put her in a position to be compelled to serve in this way And I would suggest that while we don’t have a lot of the voices of these enslaved wet nurses,  we do have the voices of the children who were separated from the mothers so that their enslaved mothers could serve in these capacity, so that their enslaved mothers could serve in this capacity. They too are bitter. They too are angry. They too are upset about the trauma that emerged as a consequence of the separation that they experienced from their mothers. So they were traumatized by these experiences. So the trauma both affected the mothers as well as the children in the community.

You chronicle many, many ways and the regularity with white slave owners physically tortured their slaves, for what they called discipline or for management or just because they were brutal human beings. As a Russian historian who has studied serfdom in a way this doesn’t surprise me because Russian women serf owners were often known as being as brutal if not more brutal than men. But still it’s very hard for me to read this part of your book and I actually wanted to start if it’s ok to ask you: was it hard for you to write about or read about, was this a different level of the slave experience that you have to process in a different way?

So I should be honest about the fact that I consider myself a historian of violence so I immersed myself in violence in the past pretty regularly. And I’m not saying that to say I’m desensitized but I think I’m fascinated by the history of violence in large part because I have a bachelor’s in psychology and that’s one of the things that drew me to the history of slavery. All these questions I that I had a psychology major, as an undergrad, taking history electives, courses as electives, and having lots of questions about how slave people endured the trauma of slavery and the violence and brutality of the system. So when I came to write this particular chapter, it was in large part because of this idea that white women could not be masters of slaves. So there’s a pretty widespread assumption that white women, because they’re the “weaker sex” that they couldn’t wield the kind of power,  they couldn’t be as brutal, the couldn’t be as violent, as white men, so mastery was the purview of white men. And so by looking at how formerly enslaved people described the violence that white women perpetrated against them or delegated to others so that violence could be perpetrated against them, what I found was that they talked about a system that fell along a continuum. So there are these various strategies and techniques that women picked and chose, when they came to try to define and to develop a system of mastery, they chose from a host of strategies and techniques, those that were also available to white men. So while writing that, I was certainly overwhelmed by many of the instances of over the top violence, the atrocities that white women were able to perpetuate or to orchestrate in many of the stories that I tell here, but what I was most interested in is trying to understand this broader system of slave discipline and management and how white women used or deployed certain techniques and strategies in order to try to get enslaved people to submit to their will, try to get enslaved people to fall in line.

It was very difficult. There was certainly times when I would have to step away from the work and not just for a few moments, for maybe for a day or two. I often talked to my husband about what I was discovering and trying to process, the emotions that emerged as a descendant of enslaved people. But ultimately what I wanted to do was to do justice to enslaved peoples’ testimony because for me, it is very difficult for me and I know it’s very difficult for the readers but we’re learning about this second hand. There were individuals who suffered this brutality these atrocities on a daily basis and for me, it was more important to tell the stories that they deemed worthy to put onto paper than my feelings. But I did have to contend with the trauma second hand from what I read.

That’s very powerful. And you give a very good sense of how not just the women were trying to come up with a system to create their own womanly form of control or ownership, but one that was responding to their own sense of being different from the way men treated their slaves.

I think one of the things that I found most powerful about enslaved people’s testimony about white women’s mastery or systems of mastery is that they identified households in which both the white husband as well as the wife owned enslaved people in their own right and how their systems of mastery could, in fact, be complementary but could also be at complete odds with each other so you see these conflicts arise around those differences between how white women chose to discipline or not discipline their slaves versus how their husbands did or did not choose to discipline their slaves. So it’s a really interesting way that enslaved people talk about their households that  aren’t ordered or organized in the ways that we think about patriarchal households in the south. These are households where power was shared between men and women, or white men and women, and not simply held by white men over all his alleged dependents in the household. Enslaved people were quite observant and really quite brilliant in eloquently articulating the ways in which slavery was this complex system and white women were fundamental to it in ways that have yet to be explicated.

And you talked just now about the ways that discipline was shared between men and women but was also shared across generations?

Absolutely. Formerly enslaved people talk about white mothers, slave owning mothers, also delegating forms of discipline to their children, or sharing in disciplinary tactics or rituals, I think you could say. For example, there is one case in which an older enslaved woman had a disagreement with a young white girl and accidentally knocked her over. And the young girl told the woman she would tell her father when her father came home, she did that. The father began to whip the older enslaved woman, then he took a break and gave the rod to this daughter and told her to finish the whipping until she was satisfied. So there are ways in which it was a multi-generation system as well. I argue in the book white women come to learn and acquire the skills of mastery, practice those skills, refine those skills in preparation for what’s going to happen when they get married. They going to come into their own, they’re going to own enslaved people in their own right, and they’re going to already have these systems of mastery and discipline already perfected so to speak. So it’s not necessarily a learning process immediately upon marriage, they already know what to do.

Were there any women who decided there was more to gained from not torturing their slaves and what does that tell us about this system?

Yes, there was instances in which, I talk about vicarious lessons, these young girls are watching their parents engage with enslaved people to see their systems of mastery and discipline and management and they can choose or decide whether to adopt the same systems or to modified their own systems that they think would be better. So there are daughters, that I talk about in the book, that do choose “kindness,”  so to speak, I think “kindness” should have air quotes around it. They choose “kindness” as a disciplinary strategy and there are many other slave owners who embrace or adopt an incentivized system of discipline or lack of discipline so instead of punishing they’ll reward an enslaved person who behaves themselves or whose family produces a certain amount of a crop or harvests a certain amount of a crop. There are systems that are not violent but are laden with incentives. I argue that that looks like benevolence, it looks like kindness but when you look at what enslaved people have to say about those systems that are build on incentives and kindness versus violence and deprivation, they know that there is always a threat of sale, even if it’s unspoken, there is always a threat of sale, there is always a possibility they might be sold for debt, or they might be given to a daughter when a daughter moves to Texas, which is something that you see a lot in the narratives, and they’ll never see their families again or their mistress wants a new dress so they buy a new dress. They see violence as an important kind of cornerstone of enslavement, but they also understand that even when violence is absent there is always the threat of violence, there’s always the threat of sale and separation, so those things are always bubbling underneath the surface even when they’re not being brutalized or abused.

Stephanie, thank you for writing such a powerful book that opens up this whole new side of the ownership of slaves in the United States and does such a good job of honoring the voices of the slaves who gave their testimony.

Thank you, Joan, for having me.

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