Jennifer Morgan’s book is widely regarded as a fantastic approach to studying women within slavery, a topic which prior to Morgan was much neglected. Morgan’s voice makes the reading informative and enjoyable. Taking a quasi-chronological approach to tracing women’s experiences within slavery, Morgan begins with accounts by Europeans of encountering native women and African women in the early age of sail. The emphasis which was placed by the Europeans on exaggerating bodies and sexuality allowed for “othering” of these women. Morgan importantly points out that these were not the first encounters with other cultures or skin colors for many of these Europeans, as trading had been occurring with Africa and Asia for centuries, but the othering became a deliberate choice. It is not clear what caused this choice, because I believe that it had to have been in place to support the wide-scale enslavement which followed it, it leads me to think that it could have been a means to sell travel novels. I of course do not have enough knowledge of early modern European literature to compare these accounts to, but I think that it would be interesting to see if there are similarities in other travel accounts.
The discussion on othering and hyper-sexuality with which Morgan opens the book reminded me of the ways in which indigenous people were portrayed in the journals of the conquistadors and Columbus, as a means of completely differentiating the Europeans from the “other”. Morgan does an excellent job of setting up discussions of how these ideas of otherness and sexuality pervaded the representations of African American women in America to modern day, which dovetails nicely with a book by Pysche Williams-Forsen, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, in which Williams-Forsen follows these ideas of otherness and hyper-sexuality through Reconstruction and into modern popular culture.Of particular interest to me is Morgan’s chapter on resistance, “Gender and the Changing Nature of Resistance”, in which Morgan deconstructs what resistance means, and how women were both restricted by their ability to specialize within the slave society and how they ultimately were the key to teaching resistance to the next generation. I found this one of the more compelling arguments which Morgan makes in a stunning book. I have been fascinated with protest and resistance as forms of developing agency within strict social hierarchy for a long time, and Morgan’s book helped deepen that interest for me. Placing Laboring Women in the broader context of this course, Morgan I think shows us how diverse the Americas were at the time of colonization, and how restrictive the society became not just for enslaved women but for all women who had to adhere to their gender roles. I hope that the rest of our readings allow us to explore the ways women were able to resist and change their roles within strict societies.