A Woman’s Place

White female slave owners in the South were just as deeply invested in the institution as their male counterparts

Enslaved women acting as wet-nurses for white babies
Enslaved women acting as wet-nurses for white babies

In her explosive new book, They Were Her Property, historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers corrects the record about white women slave owners in the American South, proving that slavery and its associated markets were far from the sole domain of men. Since women often inherited more slaves than land, they were deeply invested, in a social, moral, and an economic sense, in the trade of enslaved people. A white woman could cordon off her property from her husband’s in a prenuptial agreement, preserve her right to manage her own property, and fend off her husband’s debtors in court. She also ensured the continued reproduction of the institution by engaging in the market for wet-nurses, who were often coerced into serendipitous pregnancies through sexual violence, and whose breast-milk was then used to nurse white children. How does the power of women slave owners change our understanding of the relationship among gender, slavery, and capitalism in the 19th century? Why were these relationships obscured for so long?

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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