Laboring Women

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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.51r2bmccv95l-_sy344_bo1204203200_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.

-Sarah

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2 thoughts on “Laboring Women

  1. Hi Sarah, fascinating post! Your final paragraph raises the issue of the similarity or difference in experience of women in colonialism/slavery etc. Your final paragraph implies that reproductive and productive labor, and sexuality, determined the value and place of all women. Does Morgan address this question? How did physicality or emerging ideas of race shape differences?

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    1. I don’t think Morgan fully addresses this idea, though she does talk about the value of indentured servants in early American society in both reproductive and productive labor. I think that she does hint that a case can be made that this argument extends beyond the slave and indentured servant spheres as well. As Michelle pointed out in her post, the value placed on a landowner’s wife being pregnant was much higher in some ways than his female slave being pregnant, because each woman had her productive role to fulfill in the home. The ways that the home was enriched by the addition of children meant a loss of money and productivity for a longer time for a white woman, who was considered much weaker than an African woman; while the enslaved woman was expected to return to productive work much sooner and her children were expected to become productive earlier than the white woman’s children.
      I would be curious to explore this idea further, not just in terms of enslaved versus free women, but through the different strata of society. How were women’s work monetized and how much value was placed on reproductive labor? Does this connect to the myth of white female sexual purity? I am sure I have more questions now and didn’t answer your questions…

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