In ‘They Were Her Property,’ a historian shows that white women were deeply involved in the slave economy
In contrast to the stereotypes of the ‘gentler sex,’ female slaveholders were just as vicious and calculating as men
White women of the pre-Civil War era were far more shrewd and sophisticated than stereotypes would have us believe. They were savvy economic actors, not airheads in crinolines and corsets.
A new book from University of California, Berkeley historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers ought to dispel the myth of the Southern belle for good. In They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, Jones-Rogers looks at testimonials from formerly enslaved people, collected by Federal Writers’ Project as part of the 1930s Works Progress Administration. She then cross-referenced their accounts with bills of sale, census data and other legal documents to paint a new picture of what female slaveholders were like. By showing the enormous financial interests white women had in slavery and the steps they took to secure those interests, Jones-Rogers provides proof that these women often were no different from their male counterparts.
Yet, the image of the kind, nurturing white woman is deeply ingrained in our culture when it comes to race relations. Actor Allison Williams encountered this phenomenon after the release of Get Out in 2017. In an interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Williams revealed how white fans would question her about her character, Rose Armitage, who is at the center of a diabolical plot to entrap black men.
“They’d say, ‘She was hypnotized, right?’ And I’m like, ‘No! She’s just evil.’ How hard is that to accept? She’s bad!” Williams said.
“And they’re like, ‘But maybe she’s also a victim?’ ”
Those who found it difficult to believe in Rose’s unmitigated evil should read They Were Her Property, which suggests there were quite a few Rose Armitages in American history. The professor recently spoke about her research with The Undefeated.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
How does the way slave-owning women are depicted in pop culture affect our perception of them? And how is that different from the way they actually behaved?
We have Scarlett O’Hara in mind when we think about white women’s relationships to slavery. And there are a lot of reasons why that’s the case. In the era of slavery there was a very strategic attempt to craft a very positive perception of slavery as an institution, in a direct contrast to the characterization by abolitionists at the time.
One of the key elements of that narrative has to do with the depiction of white women’s role in the institution of slavery. One of the primary things abolitionists said was, ‘Look at what slavery does to white women. This is the fairer sex. This is the gentler sex. Slavery turns these white women into monsters. And if slavery can do that to the best of us, the better of humanity, then we need to get rid of it. We have to get rid of it because this is what it does to the individuals who care and nurture the most.’
So pro-slavery apologists, who are refuting negative views of slavery, are saying, ‘Oh, no. Look at what white women do. White women are caring for these enslaved people like their children.’
That image has stuck. Except for one really important exception, and that’s the Jealous Mistress: the white woman who lives in the house and learns that her husband is having sex with an enslaved woman and she lashes out violently at that woman because she can’t lash out violently at her husband because of patriarchy.
So female slaveholders weren’t just lashing out because of frustration with their lack of power in their marriages?
When you look at what formerly enslaved people had to say about that, not only do they not let white women off the hook for simply turning a blind eye, they don’t see it as they had no choice. They see it as these acts of sexual assault were also economic calculations.
There’s one particular instance in which a woman said her mistress said basically, ‘So what?’ And she said, ‘Go on. Do what he asked you to do, because you’re his property and you belong to him.’ Essentially acknowledging that part of ownership, a key element of ownership, was being able to do what could be done to enslaved people. Not only were white women complicit in acts of sexual violence against enslaved people, enslaved people also said that there were white women who orchestrated acts of sexual violence against them.
A white woman who owned enslaved people in Louisiana would force enslaved men and enslaved women to have sex with each other. When those forced sexual relations produced children, she would keep the girls, sell the boys. And then once those girls came of age and became of age to the point where they could have sex, she would force them to do the same thing. It was a multigenerational cycle of sexual violence that this woman orchestrated. The formerly enslaved woman who gives this account, she doesn’t know this indirectly. She knows this personally because she was subjected to this, and she said that her mother was subjected to this. There’s no white male slave owner in her accounts. This is simply a white woman, who owned her and owned her mother, who is orchestrating acts of sexual violence so that she could then reap the economic benefits of their ability to produce children as a consequence of their sexual assault.
What made you decide to write this book?
In graduate school I specialized in African-American history, but I was also interested in women’s and gender history. What I noticed was much of the scholarship I was reading about the experiences of enslaved African-Americans was in some way contradicting what many historians of white Southern women were saying about these women’s roles in relationship to slavery.
I had a gut feeling that there was more. I went to one of the primary places where we try to document the economic dimensions of slavery and the slave trade, and that’s bills of sale.
There were thousands and thousands and thousands of women who were either buyers or sellers listed on these bills of sales. Would I find references to these women in the records of slave traders, individuals who bought and sold slaves for a living? Would I find them in those documents as buyers and sellers?
Women were in those documents as buyers and sellers.
Would I find references to them in the slave market, so people who may have passed by the slave market, been in the slave market, would they mention seeing women at auctions?
They were there.
Every other place that I looked I was finding copious evidence to support what formerly enslaved and enslaved people were saying about white women’s economic relationships to the institution.
Who benefits when this information is obscured?
This is a very ugly feminist history. This is a story about a certain group of women finding their freedom, finding their liberty, finding their agency and their autonomy in the bondage, the oppression, the subjugation of another group of individuals. That’s not a pretty feminist story. That is not the kind of feminism that makes women’s history and feminism morally comfortable.
What happens when we realize and reckon with the fact that these individuals who we want to believe are maternal, we want to believe are more caring, are more nurturing, are in fact destroying families, severing connections between mothers and children, are selling human beings away from everything they know and love for the rest of their lives? What do we do when we realize that those individuals who we had hoped upon hope are our better angels are not our better angels? That they’re equally as dark, equally as vicious and brutal and calculating, you know? The jig would be up.
You write that it was common practice to regard people who were formerly enslaved and spoke to the Federal Writers’ Project as unreliable narrators of their own lives. Why?
I think it has to do with things that historians have said about why we should approach these narratives with caution. It has to do with the fact that many of these formerly enslaved people were children when they were enslaved. They were children, so how much could they really remember about enslaved people or slavery when they’re, like, 7 years old? They’re in their 80s and 90s and some of them are even 100 when they’re giving interviews.
Others say maybe these stories have been passed to them and then all the stories that they’ve heard form this kind of conglomerate, this kind of mosh of other people’s accounts, that they can’t really deem them credible because they don’t know that these stories don’t belong to them. The other thing that they say is that many of the interviewers who conducted the interviews, the Federal Writers themselves, were white Southerners, were also descendants of slave owners, so these formerly enslaved people were highly intimidated. They would not reveal the truth of slavery to these individuals for fear of insulting them or also for fear of violent retaliation.
From my own research, I find that we’ve been overly cautious about these accounts. We have infantilized formerly enslaved people by saying that we cannot trust what they say. These are the things that we say about children. These are not the things that we say about an individual who stood in the crowds at a public slave auction and watched their mothers be sold to Tennessee. We are infantilizing formerly enslaved people who could never forget something like that. They can never forget being themselves on auction blocks and being sold away from their mothers and their families and never seeing them again.
There is evidence, there are documents, that suggest that we are being overly cautious. Accounts that were taken immediately after slavery was over, not 30, 40, 50 years later, but immediately after slavery was over, substantiate much of what formerly enslaved people were saying much later to WPA Federal Writers. I think it’s time for us to just get over it and to trust that the individuals who experienced slavery and oppression on a daily basis would be the experts to tell us about those experiences.
You provide receipts on top of receipts on top of receipts, in terms of primary source documents.
It was easy to do that in many cases. There are instances in some of the documents, some of the testimony of formerly enslaved people, where they give first names, middle names and last names. And they say what her maiden name was. When you have those details, it is not hard.
They could tell me who she married, who she was married to before she married the person who they later referred to as their master. They were giving genealogies that were connected to their continued and perpetual enslavement. They were essentially telling these life stories through who had owned them and then also creating family trees for their owners that allowed for me to go to other sources — the census, for example — and trace these women for decades through the census data to be able to identify and to corroborate what they were saying about who these women were married to, when they became widows, if they remarried, who they remarried.
I was able to go through the documents that historians and others beyond the academy deem as ‘legitimate’ and find that the details could be corroborated through those legitimated sources.
So for me it was really important to do that because, again, I think we infantilize these formerly enslaved people when they tell us these stories and we say, ‘Well, we don’t know how we can tell …’ There are instances in which we can now for sure, without a doubt, without a question.
It just simply took me saying, ‘I need to do this because I know that people are gonna question what these people have to say. And here are the documents. Here are their receipts.’
You illustrate that white women developed workarounds for relinquishing their assets to their husbands upon marriage. I thought about the way marriage is often prescribed to poor black people as a mechanism for closing the racial wealth gap, as if the reason there are so many poor black children is because their parents aren’t married.
These women know what’s going to happen to them when they get married. They understand that if they own anything, it becomes their husband’s. Not only do they know those things beforehand, but they know that the law will eventually cripple them in really important ways that would allow for them to be financially stable and autonomous, would allow for them to have a legal identity separate from their husband.
Parents know this. The girls know this. The women know this. And they work around the law. They figure out how they can preserve some measure of financial security, in this particular case through the ownership of human beings, the ownership of enslaved African-Americans.
It’s really laughable that people would argue that for a black woman marrying someone would actually be a economic benefit for that. It’s laughable because you can actually see white women fighting very hard to avoid the financial disability that comes with marriage, that are built into the institution of marriage.
If you look at these [white] women and the gymnastics that they engage in in order to circumvent these disabilities that come with marriage, when it comes to their economic well-being, you realize that if it doesn’t work for them, it sure as hell ain’t gonna for the black woman.
You don’t provide concrete numbers regarding the number or percentage of white women who owned enslaved people. Why not?
Because the number of women who owned enslaved people in the 19th century alone is so extraordinarily large that I could not collect and analyze that data in the time that it took me to write this book by myself. This is something that is something that I’m doing now. I’ve begun a project that is looking at selected cities and rural areas in the South, both in 1850 and 1860, in order to try to get a kind of just a slight, a basic understanding of slaveholding patterns amongst white women throughout the South during these two decades to try to understand the broader phenomenon.
South Carolina has bills of sale for property transactions from the 1700s to pretty recently. I looked at a sample of 3,000 bills of sale involving enslaved people being purchased or sold. Close to 40 percent of the bills of sale included either a female buyer or a female seller.
The documents are there to collect this data. I believe that if these other data sets are suggestive of anything, it would suggest that the number is far greater than we have imagined that they were before. The numbers, although they aren’t in the book, they are forthcoming. But they suggest exactly what I show, that white women were deeply invested economically in the institution of slavery and in the bondage and oppression of enslaved African-Americans.