Saturday, October 7, 2023

Review: They Were Her Property by Stephanie Jones-Rogers

Women have always been smart, able to make decisions for ourselves, creative and enterprising, and both interested in and capable of shaping the world around us to our own benefit — to the same extent as our male counterparts. Some social configurations limited the sorts of actions available to us, and we may not have received the same education and resources as our brothers did, but we were never simply passive members of society. Many of these decisions and actions we took, the ways we shaped the world, are not obvious from a more superficial reading of historical sources. This is true for the important roles women played in science and art and politics, and also for the less savory parts of human history, like the ownership and exploitation of enslaved people.

In this work, Jones-Rogers exhaustively documents white women’s autonomy and shrewdness in their roles as slave owners in the United States. She draws from sources as diverse as advertisements, women’s magazine advice columns, sales records and lawsuits to show over and over again how involved white women were in the institution of slavery. They made decisions to purchase or sell their human property, determined how to discipline them, how to get the most value out of their property, and other aspects of ownership. Jones-Rogers shows how important slave ownership was to the culture of this class: enslaved people were often parts of dowries, wills, coming-of-age-gifts and other markers of life. She discusses several instances of “power couple” slave owners, with husband and wife taking wildly different tactics to the care and discipline of their slaves. 

All this at a time when a woman’s property was considered to be her husband’s! In practice, women had say over their own property, and their property rights were enforced in court orders. Women would often sue their husbands for mismanagement of their (human) property, or sign premarital agreements governing the ownership and management of their (human) property. Other historical sources often overlook the role women played in slave ownership, and Jones-Rogers documents a number of factors that led to this under-count. For example, female slave owners were more likely to own female slaves, and female slaves were not recruited for Civil War efforts as male slaves were. When these slave-owners lined up for compensation for slaves taken from them during the war, women slave owners were therefore underrepresented. Women slave owners also used slave traders to a relatively greater extent than slave markets, compared to their male counterparts. They also often used (male) go-betweens to execute their wishes. Buyers and sellers may also be listed only with a first initial, complicating assessment of the individual’s gender. A superficial examination of limited sources might conclude that this practice was mostly a male affair.

The most interesting and unique chapter of the book was the chapter on wet nursing. This practice involves biology and culture, and exploits inequalities and prejudices about race and gender and class. It was a life-giving practice for many people, disgusting in its particular form of oppression, yet rarely features in history books. In my opinion, it works well as a stand-alone chapter, highlighting many of the other themes Roberts pulls at throughout her work.

The rest of the book is very detailed, and though it really brings to life the period and all its ugliness, it’s not a casual read but a scholarly work. I recommend it for those with an interest in the topic, but for the reader casually interested in race and gender in American history, I suggest Angela Davis' Race, Women, Class.

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