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They Were Her Property [Book Review]


They Were Her Property by Stephanie Jones-Rogers discusses the role that White women played in the institution of slavery. It’s pointed out that often, in part because of patriarchy, White women are not perceived as having played an active role in slavery. This is because White women were also subjugated by the patriarchal society of the time and did not have voting or other basic civil and civic rights that were afforded to men. But as we see throughout history, and is explained here in They Were Her Property, an individual or group of people being oppressed does not mean that they are incapable of oppression.


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Show Notes

There are various races and ethnic groups in America (ex: Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, etc.) and there are different income levels within those groups. And yet that doesn’t mean a poor White person who is economically exploited by a wealthy White person can’t then be racist or themselves exploit people from other groups. Or that a Black man who experiences racism can’t also be sexist.

This also means that while White women might have been disadvantaged by sexism, oppressed really, they in turn could also be racist and/or classist. In this case, Southern White women were second-class citizens within White society. But being White gave them privilege over people who were lower on the social hierarchy, especially if the White woman was wealthy to some degree.

All people should be treated fairly. Regardless of race, gender, or economic standing, everyone should be given the same basic rights. At a minimum, people should have equal opportunities for a shot at success and their merits should dictate where things fall beyond that.

But there’s an idea that’s promoted in the telling of history which is influenced by patriarchy. White women who were alive during slavery and even into Jim Crow benefited from institutions of white supremacy. In some cases, they even helped to perpetuate them. But because they were women, their involvement in the system is often overlooked or downplayed.

They’re viewed as not having been in a position to go against the norms of their time as they were unwilling participants. Playing devil’s advocate, that might have been true for some. But the reality is that not only did many benefit from these institutions but some played an active role in perpetuating and instigating the oppression of Black people.

Southern White men are portrayed as the primary slaveholders of the South. They are the ones that control and manage the slaves, plantations, businesses, etc. And that’s probably true for the most part. It’s often implied that White women’s involvement with slavery was indirect. That their contact was through their relationship with a male family member as they did not directly run plantations or otherwise manage slaves.

This assumption is based on Southern White women of the time being housewives as the men worked while the women took care of the home. And the belief that these women only managed plantations and slaves in the event of their male relation having died, being incapacitated, or absent for an extended period. But as They Were Her Property earnestly points out, this wasn’t always the case.

Not everyone in the South owned slaves. For example, poor people often didn’t own slaves but wealthier, more financially comfortable people did. Let’s say middle class and up as lower-income people most likely did not have the money needed to purchase and maintain slaves.

At that income level, like males, females would also inherit property from their relatives. And as at the time, slaves were considered property, they could and often were included in an inheritance. You could have a woman inheriting a plantation or some other form of property from a relative which might include slaves.

These transfers of slaves often occurred at the time of a child’s birth, reaching childhood milestones, marriage, or upon the death of a relative. It’s assumed that ownership and management of slaves and any other property automatically transferred to a husband at marriage. But in some cases, as They Were Her Property points out here, some women chose to continue to actively and independently manage these assets. They and the legal system considered them to be the owner of whatever assets they brought into the marriage.

Much is made about women marrying for money. But it was eye-opening that a woman who owned property, including slaves, might be sought after by men who were ambitious and trying to elevate themselves financially and socially. And I’d imagine that men who already owned property might look at a woman who also owned property and view her as an opportunity to obtain more.

Through marriage, he might get access to those assets but not necessarily ownership. It was at the wife’s discretion to decide how she wanted to handle the ownership and management of assets she brought into a marriage. There are examples of wives loaning money or enslaved people to her now husband so that he could build himself up with his ventures. But these arrangements weren’t transfers of ownership and were not necessarily a permanent or long-term management agreement. Sometimes the wife would in turn expect for those properties at the very least to be returned, if not provide her with some degree of profit.

It dispels this notion of White women being completely removed from the system of slavery, especially at higher income levels. And that dispels this patriarchal view which absolves White women of being involved in the institution of slavery while only placing accountability onto their male counterparts. To be clear, White males were certainly involved and deserve their fair share of the blame.

But White women who were of the slaveholding class were also culpable. First, through benefiting from the institution whether directly or indirectly. It’s an important note as even the women whose male relatives solely traded and managed slaves while they had no involvement were still culpable because they benefited from the institution. And it’s especially applicable in instances where White women were actively involved in the trade.

As They Were Her Property points out, White women were by default second-class citizens and in some instances would have to take additional steps to establish and maintain their ownership rights when entering into a marriage. Ownership of property and other assets brought them a degree of financial freedom. There was a difference in their standing and circumstances compared to women whose households did not own property or slaves. And even a difference between women who directly owned and managed property and slaves versus those who benefited from their relation to males who did.

Women who had slaves in their household in any form had a degree of freedom in comparison to those who did not. This was because it often freed them from household chores and even child-raising responsibilities that they might otherwise have to perform themselves. And women who directly owned and managed slaves could also experience a different kind of freedom due to their financial independence. As such it was within their best interest to maintain this system of slavery because it granted them rights and privileges that they might not otherwise have.

While They Were Her Property focuses on slavery, I thought forward to suffrage and the Women’s Rights Movement. These women trying to own and maintain their property during slavery was not a push for feminism or anything like that but rather based on their individual best interests. Within these later movements, there was a division of sorts where White women pushing for their rights did not necessarily extend their position to include the needs of Black women.

During suffrage, women were pushing for voting rights. And for some members of the Suffrage Movement, one of their talking points was that giving White women the right to vote at the very moment that Black men were gaining the right to vote would help to expand the White voting bloc. That could help to maintain White control over the political process. As part of pushing for expanded rights for White women, there was a willingness to reinforce racial prejudice and oppression in exchange.

Looking back at slavery, this was true as well. Here you have White women who are otherwise second-class citizens within society. But they decided against working across racial and economic lines to help all oppressed groups obtain equal rights. Their intent was not to reshape society and make it fair for everyone but rather for them to join or remain within this privileged class that was oppressing everyone.

Consider how normalized this all was, given that in slaveholding society from a very young age girls would be given a female slave as a playmate. As they grew up, they and this enslaved child might play but the enslaved child was really their first slave. Imagine that from the time you’re a toddler, you have a female slave to play with. And this is as you’re growing up in an environment where the adults around you own slaves.

You would learn from a very young age, that in having ownership over this person, you can tell them what to do. Just think about children and the behaviors that they see exhibited by their parents. Often, children imitate what they see from the adults around them. Seeing examples of how adults interact with enslaved people would give a child ideas about what they should do. It’s like a training ground for you later owning slaves of your own. During their childhood, they would be raised within this social structure that would show and reinforce various aspects of owning and maintaining a plantation or just owning and managing slaves.

Imagine that, there were also publications dedicated to teaching, not just girls, but also boys of the slaveholding class about the ownership and management of slaves and plantations. There was one publication that was mentioned, that provided instruction for young girls as far as how to manage a household and one to teach young men about being slave masters. It was propaganda aimed at indoctrinating children from a very young age.

Keep in mind that a lot of these people were barely literate if they were literate at all. In the South, the literate people were usually of the slaveholding class. This was because their families had the money to pay for private education as public education was not a thing at the time. But women, whether poor or of the slaveholding class did not have the same education opportunities. Thus they were less educated than their male counterparts. Yet, for the few children who could read, this is the kind of content being made for them?

Given how slave society functioned, typically slave-owning men would have control over both the men and women on a plantation. But more frequently, slave-owning women had ownership and control over the women on a plantation. This in part came about because slave-owning women were usually given female slaves by their family members during childhood and/or when they married. Families sometimes did this because females would more typically remain under the control of their female slave owners. Whereas male slaves given to a female slave owner were more likely to be used by the female slave owner’s husband in his business endeavors.

This was a way of giving slaves to a female slave owner but increasing the likelihood that she would be able to maintain ownership and control over that slave versus her husband. It was a means of helping their female relative with a start in life. Whereas males were seen as needing to build their potential and create a livelihood on their own.

It takes a man and a woman to create a child. But because of how slavery was structured, the offspring produced by an enslaved woman would typically become the property of that woman’s owner rather than the father’s owner. Giving female slaves to female family members was a way of ensuring these women’s economic future as over time their slaves would likely have children thereby increasing the female slave owner’s property holdings.

Unless there was some kind of agreement or something to the contrary, a man would often assume ownership and management of his wife’s property at marriage. What sounds like a prenuptial agreement would be drawn up stipulating that this property belonged to the wife and whatever debts or responsibilities the husband had would remain separate. This was to prevent the wife’s property from being taken to cover the husband’s debts or losses.

There’s an interesting point made about reputations. You had some wealthy families that went back for generations and as the country was still relatively small, they knew each other and had an idea of what everyone else had. Granted, you wouldn’t know the specific details of anyone’s finances without seeing their books. But you’d have a good idea of the property that a family owned.

When negotiating a marriage, you could entertain a proposal from the sons from such families with some assurance that they’d be able to provide for a potential bride. As the country began to expand after the Revolutionary War, more young men began going west and deeper into the South to seek their fortunes. When these men proposed marriage to women from well-off families, the accuracy and truthfulness of what they claimed to own were more difficult to verify.

An example is given where a woman was proposed to by a man who told her that he was the owner of a huge plantation with many slaves in Mississippi. She married and moved with him to what she thought was his plantation in Mississippi. Upon arriving she realized that he was not the owner but rather was employed by the plantation’s owner as an overseer. The woman came from what sounded like a comfortable if not wealthy family. And he was planning to use the assets that had been given to her by her family to establish himself. (It’s like an old-school version of the “Tinder Swindler”.)

I don’t know why I was surprised but who would have thought that being a gigolo or kept man was a thing back then. I’ve heard other descriptions of fortune hunters where young men would try to woo or seduce the daughters of wealthy families in hopes of getting access to their money. Male suitors would lie about the amount of money that they had intending to marry a wealthy heiress or at least a woman with some property so they could utilize her assets to establish themselves. Essentially using their wife’s wealth to become wealthy themselves.

After marriage, a wife would have to go through a legal process to maintain control of her assets as control would typically default to the husband. Women had limited legal rights and in some jurisdictions, this could affect their ability to file suit or seek other legal redresses. Thus it was incredibly important to ensure that a potential husband wasn’t just attempting to use the wife to get access to her assets. Thus some families structured how property, slaves, and other assets were given to females in a manner to ensure that they wouldn’t be left destitute or fully at their husband’s mercy. While they lacked several civil and civic rights, this was a way of trying to provide some degree of long-term financial security.

To a degree people mentally limit the involvement of White women in the system of slavery because to some degree, White women were locked away from society. Once married, women did not socialize or move about as freely in society as their male counterparts. But that varied by the individual.

There are several examples provided where some White women went to slave markets themselves and some even owned slave pens. Others who did not venture to slave markets or public auctions had slave traders come to their homes where they could view slaves without venturing out in public. Those who wanted to be even less involved would have a representative such as an overseer purchase or sell slaves on their behalf.

The author dispels this notion that any one way of doing things was applicable across the board. Things varied by the individual woman, her husband, and other aspects of her family structure. This is also the case with the idea of slaveholding women shrinking from the responsibility of managing and disciplining their slaves. That also wasn’t something that they necessarily shied away from due to their gender.

You had some male slave owners who did not whip or beat their slaves. Not due to any means of humanity or caring for the slaves but rather as a matter of that they didn’t do physical labor and didn’t want to get their hands dirty. They might have another enslaved person or an overseer carry out the punishment. You also had some slave owners who just never beat their slaves whether directly or indirectly. But you also had some who were incredibly vicious while others fell somewhere in between.

As part of Southern propaganda, their society was portrayed as being genteel with White women being delicate shrinking violets. But in reality, we see things were quite different based on court records and recollections of formerly enslaved people from the WPA project. Multiple examples prove these commonly held beliefs and characterizations to be inaccurate and untrue as things varied based on the individual and how they chose to run things.

It was interesting when They Were Her Property got to the point of discussing wet nursing. I previously knew this as a practice where a woman who was lactating would breastfeed another woman’s child. Yet, I didn’t give it much thought beyond that. I just assumed that formula wasn’t around at the time so this was an option for women that were not producing milk. Or possibly because they outsourced everything else and didn’t seem to do much of anything that this was just another facet of raising children that they left to enslaved women. I thought it was weird because why would you choose to have another person breastfeed your child?

But the explanation and breakdown were quite unexpected. Sure you had some women who were physically incapable of breastfeeding their children. There wasn’t as much known then about prenatal care to increase the likelihood of a safe and healthy pregnancy. And because circumstances were different, life was different and arguably a bit harder.

But as They Were Her Property explains, some women just used this as an opportunity to have a bit of freedom. Back then people had a lot more children and started earlier than they do now. A slaveholding woman might have upwards of four children. Pregnancy is very tough on the female body and can put a woman’s life in danger. And because there was less knowledge back then, you might have more complications.

Some women decided to have a wet nurse so they could rest after the birth of a baby. But for others, it was more of a social thing. They didn’t have to stick as close to home to be available to feed the child whenever it was hungry. This became a way to absolve themselves from select aspects of raising their children and it gave them more freedom to socialize. They might not necessarily negotiate the procurement of such an enslaved woman but they tended to dictate when the service was needed and arrangements would be made.

There is a division between what’s deemed skilled and unskilled labor. Typically what’s regarded as labor versus what’s regarded as the natural course of things. It’s often overlooked that some slave women’s function on the plantation was to care for children. And for some that was breastfeeding which is still work. Women’s bodies produce milk to feed their children so feeding your own child is natural. But there’s an exchange of commerce if you’re feeding someone else’s child, especially if you’re being purchased or hired for that purpose. It becomes a form of work.

Taking that into consideration helped put into perspective, the reality that pregnant enslaved women were made to work until very far into their pregnancies. In the present for most women and I’m sure it was the case for White women back then, you try not to have a pregnant woman do any kind of strenuous work. But consider that back then, pregnant enslaved women were not just working late into their pregnancy but were likely not receiving healthy or adequate food. How long a pregnant woman worked into her pregnancy and what type of food she got was at the discretion of her owner.

Bear in mind that White women in the South were put on a pedestal for the role they played in White society. This was not the case for Black women as they received no special recognition or respect as wives and mothers. Family relationships, including marriages, between slaves were ignored when convenient. Even the bonds of motherhood with regards to enslaved women were tenuous at best. If push came to shove there was no hesitation to sell a mother away from her children or to sell children away from their mothers.

In the course of Southern White women using Black people for their needs as wet nurses that might or might not include whatever children the enslaved woman had. For a woman to be lactating she would have either been pregnant recently, given birth to a child, or had a child that she was still breastfeeding. Thus having to also provide milk for another woman’s child might mean that her child won’t get enough especially if she’s not getting proper rest, food, and nutrition.

And because later in development, enslaved women were tasked with raising their slave masters children or performing other types of work they would have less time for their own children. Much ado was made about Southern belles and their important roles as mothers. But it was seemingly not considered that enslaved women would want to bond and spend time with their children as well. Southern White women were placed on a pedestal for playing this role in society but this was while they were using enslaved women to relieve themselves of some of the perceived burdens of motherhood.

These are individual points that have been made in other books I’ve read. But the way it’s broken down here by cohesively pulling everything together gave it even further weight.

There’s also some discussion about the sexual abuse and coercion that are associated with slavery. That’s not to say that White women engaged in direct acts of sexual abuse towards Black women or enslaved people as a whole. It seems like if that did happen, it was probably rare. But more surprising was the explanation of prostitution or the “fancy” trade in New Orleans.

The term describes the practice of brothels providing enslaved Black women for sexual exploitation by customers. Some slave owners, including owners who were White women put female slaves that they owned to work in brothels despite being women themselves. This is just another instance of slaveholding White women having no qualms about exploiting other women in this fashion.

During the Civil War, most able-bodied White men went off to fight while White women remained behind at home. Slavery did not officially come to an end until the end of the war. If White women were at home with relatively few White men around but plantations continued operating, who was running them? It’s also worth noting that later there would be frequent claims of Black men lusting after and/or attempting to rape White women. There were now plantations where Black people outnumbered White people during the war. Yet, there were no reported cases of Black men raping White women or other large-scale acts of violence perpetrated by Black people. For the most part, they were trying to survive or were more concerned with trying to escape.

Yet, there are plenty of examples of White women trying different strategies to maintain control over their assets. Not just their property concerning their homes and plantations but also slaves, jewels, and other physical goods. They made an effort to keep slaves on the plantation going so far as to utilize agents to retrieve slaves if necessary. The system surrounding slavery might not have been operating in the same manner as before the war but the trade was still taking place.

Crops might not have been coming in at the same scale and past a certain point, people were experiencing economic hardships. It’s unfortunate but previously discussed in They Were Her Property that some White women who owned slaves might sell a slave to buy a dress or make some other random purchase. Thus in need of cash during the war, some sold slaves as a way to purchase items they needed more. And later sensing the potential end of slavery some sold slaves in hopes of turning a profit before the market collapsed.

The Union offered restitution to slaveholders in the states that remained loyal to the Union. In time they emancipated their slaves or at least Washington D.C. did. Slaveholders began looking to take advantage of the reimbursements being provided by the government. They could hold on to these slaves only to have them be freed later and not receive anything in return. Or they could cut their losses and take whatever they could get for them. Some of these individuals actually made out quite well. They benefited from this unpaid labor in the years before the Civil War and received more money after slavery ended. It’s like getting a financial reward for having exploited these people.

The owners of enslaved people who were pressed into service for the Confederacy were supposed to be able to appeal to the Confederacy for restitution. Or at least that’s the way it was supposed to work but it sounds like people didn’t actually get their money. There was a lot of fuss about supporting the war effort. But there are examples of women who owned slaves fighting tooth and nail to either reclaim their slaves or receive compensation. Some went so far as to take officers to court so the slave trade in the economic exploitation of enslaved people continued.

Some people were desperate to hold on to slaves because they constituted a major part of their property, this was especially true for women. In attempts to avoid the Union army and make it difficult for slaves to escape, they might move from one part of a state to another or even to a whole other state. They might even go so far as to physically hide away or lock up their slaves. Yet you had these false narratives of enslaved people being happy in bondage. If that was the case, you wouldn’t have to plot and scheme to keep them from running away.

These finer details or history are overlooked maybe just outright ignored is more accurate. There are different layers to history but They Were Her Property does a good job of pushing aside a lot of these fables and fallacies that were told about slavery. Southern genteel within slavery and even after was a farce. And these women were not all meek, feeble, or timid individuals. They were just as hard-driving and inhumane as their male counterparts and in some instances, even more so.

This implication or often assumption that White women were unwilling participants is shown to not have been the case. They benefited from and to a degree, some were directly involved with the slave trade. I don’t think you’ll learn anything new specifically about the overall history of slavery as the events are the events. But They Were Her Property does help to dispel quite a number of myths or rather it helps to clarify the involvement of different groups in the institution of slavery.

Unlike men, a lot of Southern women primarily inherited enslaved people rather than land. With the end of slavery, these women were especially affected because so much of their wealth was tied up in the value of their slaves. With slavery ending and the slaves now being set free, it meant that a lot of slaveholding women lost a tremendous amount of their wealth. And with that, you had this rather tremendous reversal of fortune for several White women and some realized that their financial position was quite precarious.

In desperation, some of them had to appeal to family, neighbors, friends, and sometimes even the people that they formerly held in bondage for assistance. Keep in mind that these women likely hadn’t done much of any work themselves so this would be their first time venturing to do so. And depending on their age that might not have been a feasible option. For the most part, the option of free labor was now gone and they like others would have to either hire and pay the formerly enslaved or White workers.

That’s not to say some people didn’t try to finagle their way into continuing the institution. It’s explained that people would attempt to place minors into what they referred to as apprenticeships. The kids wouldn’t be paid and it was often formerly slaveholding people attempting to regain control over children who likely had parents, from whom they might have been separated. Or even when their parents were present the former slave owners would claim that the children were orphans. And that was just one facet of the new exploitative system for kids.

For adults, systems of sharecropping, tenant farming, and convict leasing developed. And that’s in addition to just plain old hiring people, agreeing to terms, and then coming up with excuses or just refusing to pay. It shows how as the society was trying to rebuild itself after slavery you still had White women managing and maintaining things until men returned. But some of those men had died in battle and would not return leaving the women to figure something out for at least the foreseeable future.

I could pretend to care about these former slave owners experiencing hardships or being destitute. But I do not. I feel no sympathy for them. The ones that I do feel sympathy for would be the formerly enslaved who were now put in the position of starting from scratch. They were now tasked with trying to build lives for themselves after having lived through generations of being held in bondage. That’s where my sympathies lie not with these individuals who played a role whether directly or indirectly in exploiting people for generations. They don’t deserve sympathy and I’m not going to pretend to care about them and I’m not going to pretend to.

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