For this particular round of books, Amber, Sarah, and I have each read a different book pertaining to enslaved women in the antebellum period. I read Deborah Gray White’s Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1985), a groundbreaking study of antebellum southern plantations. Crucially adding to the traditional historiography on American slavery, which had long focused almost exclusively on the experiences of enslaved men, White presents a detailed narrative that carefully examines the lives of southern enslaved women. In this monograph, White uses new evidence that better enlightens the everyday experiences of these women, including both their physical work and struggles to forge their own individual identities, as people more generally and as women more specifically, despite adversity and suppression. This book examines these issues from practically the beginning of the antebellum period through the Civil War and post-emancipation period.
Because the purpose of this book is to as thoroughly as possible unveil who these women were, White’s first chapter is dedicated to explaining what most of these women were not: the stereotypical Jezebel and Mammy. Thus, White debunks contemporary (and even perhaps modern) misconceptions about southern slave women as either sexually promiscuous or as asexual matronly figures. These two stereotypes open discussion for family dynamics, as well as racial dynamics on southern plantations. White claims that “half-white children told a story of white man’s infidelity, a slave woman’s helplessness (though this concerned few whites), an a white woman’s inability to defy the social and legal constraints that kept her bound to her husband regardless of his transgressions” (40). Because the actions of southern white men pertaining to improper treatment (to use a euphemism) of their female slaves were increasingly condoned by northern abolitionists, southerners conjured up the paternalistic image of the domestic slave, the middle to elder-aged Mammy, whose role as nurse and housekeeper became integrated into the loving fabric of white families. White points out that this justification for slavery overemphasized the unfailing devotion slaves had to their masters, as well as the numbers of slave women who actually were in charge of white households.
After debunking these myths, White then thematically tackles different aspects of slave women’s lives. She addresses the economic significance of female slaves’ procreative abilities (later tackled in Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women, as we have discussed earlier); she discusses the 1629 Virginia field labor tax that helped solidify the conceptualization of the racial other in American society (as later discussed by Kathleen M. Brown in Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs and covered in this blog); she discusses everyday slave resistance such as feigning illness; she discusses the evolving nature of women’s work over the course of their lives; she addresses the nature of sexual and romantic relationships; she discusses the significance of motherhood in keeping slave families functioning both within themselves and the larger slave community on plantations; she discusses the lack of justice for these women in cases of sexual violence done to them by white and black men; she discusses the prejudice women faced even after fleeing to Union lines during the Civil War; and she discusses formerly enslaved women forming identities as women, and largely working women, in a world that repeatedly tried to take away that part of their identity. White emphasizes that even after living as legally free people in the U.S., black women needed to be self-reliant: “In short, life still challenged them to a different kind of womanhood, nothing like that of white women” (176).
As is the case with many women and gender studies, White explores the lives of antebellum enslaved women while also glossing over the experiences as men for comparison and contrast. However, White makes the crucial point that “Female slave bondage was not better or worse, or more or less severe than male bondage, but it was different” (89). Thus, White’s purpose remains to help fill in the gaps in the historiography on slavery as a whole. Before White, these women were largely left out of the story of slavery in the American South. White’s study enlarges that image to encompass not only the many types of labor done by slave women (including the duties of childrearing), but also different images of enslaved women sewing dresses, attending church, and performing midwife duties on neighboring plantations. Essentially, while showing antebellum slave women as victims of an oppressive system, she also shows the agency exerted by these women to form their own identities and shape their own lots in life despite their circumstances.