Slavery is defined in Webster's dictionary as the submission of a person to a dominating influence. This statement, however does not portray the true nature of the inhumane treatment that Africans and Afro-Americans were subjected to in the United States during the years previous to 1863. There is a plethora of narratives and facts that deal with all aspects of the lives of slaves and their relationships with the white man. This web site deals only with a small, nevertheless just as important, part of slaves' lives: the issue of gender.
There were many gender specific differences in slavery. They began as early as the middle passage. The women, generally, did not travel in the holds below the deck, but were allowed to walk about the quarterdeck without shackles. This had a couple of significant consequences; they were easily accessible to the sexual desires of seamen and there were very few attempts to stop the sailors from molesting the women. Once they were put up for sale, the most highly prized women were of child bearing age and "looked" like they could have many children without complications. Many times they were closely examined by the purchaser, degrading the woman even further. Thomas Jefferson frankly stated that he considered "a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man on the farm [for] what she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labor disappears in mere consumption." Since the men were almost always more expensive than women, the ratio of men to women soared to 2:1 or sometimes even higher. Once purchased the woman's fate did not improve. They were either put to labor or bought as "concubines" or wives for the male slaves. Women worked in the fields, but oftentimes they had other duties. The jobs that were almost exclusively female were: prime and full hands in the fields (reason: cheaper to purchase, same taxation as males), nurses, midwives, seamstresses, house cooks, children's cooks, overseer's cooks, overseer's girls.
There were some duties that were shared by both sexes: half hands, highland hands, house servants, gardeners. Of course it was the woman's job to raise her own children, while working eight to ten hours per day. It is important to mention, however, that pregnant women were treated better than other slaves. That is not to say that the master cared for the woman, but as stated above, she brought into this world an important addition to the capital. Once the woman was past child bearing age she would work like everyone else until the age of 65 - 70. At this time the owner would usually provide for the rest of the woman's life, although there were reported incidents when the master would "free" the bondswoman and basically run her off the plantation, inevitably ordering a death sentence.
Women, however, were not absolutely helpless. Since they were even more confined to the plantation than the men, they developed interdependent relationships or female slave networks, which helped them survive and resist the brutal and inhumane treatment of the master. Female slaves were taught how to deliver babies, treat the sick and overall how to care for the slave population on the plantation. They formed conspiracies against the master. For example, midwives helped women abort unwanted pregnancies caused by rapes by overseers, masters or even other slaves. Women cooperated in many other aspects of everyday life. Because of the incredible demands of the master, motherhood responsibilities had to be shared, hence the names like Aunt or Granny (regardless of the fact there was no blood relation). Overall the supportive atmosphere of the female community was buffer enough against the depersonalizing regime of the plantation work and the general dehumanizing nature of slavery.
Male slave bondage was neither better nor worse, more or less severe than female bondage; it was unique. From the very beginning the male's journey through the middle passage took on a different form than that of women. Because of their physical stamina the slavers were afraid of the men and therefore were more cautious. Men were bound in steel and kept below the deck for weeks at a time. Once at the end of their voyage the men had to recover from the hardships of the trip (if they were unlucky enough to survive). Unlike women, men were not prized for their fertility, but rather for their health and ability to perform hard labor. Slaves from the West Indies were preferred, since at least they spoke broken English, and were "broken in". Once purchased they were taken to the plantation where they were assimilated into the slave community. From the very beginning they were taught who was in charge and what their tasks were going to be. These tasks differed greatly from those of women. While most were bound for hard labor designed exclusively for males like ditchmen, plowmen, drivers, minders, stablemen,
few were lucky enough to become skilled craftsmen. Positions like carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers, and engineers gave the slaves the opportunity for greater mobility than women. Because of their skills they were able to hire themselves out to other employers and therefore earn money (remembering that half or more of their salary went to the master)which they could later use to purchase their freedom. This helped to ease the stifling monotony of plantation life. The average age for a male slave to retire was about the same as that of female (65-70).
Men not only performed different duties than women, but more importantly, could not play the traditional role of the male control and dominance of the female. In almost all societies where men consistently dominate women, their control is based on male ownership and distribution of property and/or control of certain culturally valued subsistence goods. Since men could not and did not own and distribute property the women were not subject to the male dominance. Under the institution of slavery husbands could not provide protection for their wives. Although this gave women a greater autonomy it destroyed the traditional role of the male. Furthermore, perhaps the most difficult outcome of the destruction of this role was the male humiliation. Bondsmen constantly had to witness the beating, whipping, and raping of their wives. If they chose to defend their loved ones against the rage or desire of the master or the overseer they would be whipped themselves, and in the worst cases sold-off. This demasculization led some men to avoid marriage in the first place.
1. Top 50 books in Afro-American reading
2. Sojourner Truth Ain't I a Woman
3. Women and Children in Slavery
4. Lincoln on Slavery
5. Frederick Douglass
6. University of California at Riverside/ African American History
7. Index of Resources for Historians
Berlin, Ira. Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on British Mainland North America.. First presented at the Conference on Comparative Perspectives on Slavery in the New World, held in New York, May 1976.
Joyner, Charles. Down by the Riverside: a South Carolina Slave Community. University of Illinois Press, Chicago, IL 1984.
Piersen, William D. Black Yankees. The University of Massachussetts Press, Amherst, MA 1988.
White, Deborah Gray. Ar'n't I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY 1985.
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