Gender and Slavery in America
Deborah Gray White’s “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” attempts to illustrate and expose the under-examined world in which bonded, antebellum women lived. She distinguishes the way slave women were treated from both their male counterparts and white antebellum women by elucidating their unique race and gender predisposed circumstances, “(…) black women suffer a double oppression: that shared by all African-Americans and that shared by most women” (p. 23). In all, black women suffered an exclusive oppression due to their specific race, bondage, and gender. This essay will attempt to explain how institution of slavery did not protect women from the injustices placed upon them but instead, how they had to create unique and often unexpected strategies in order to protect themselves.
One of the most significant injustices which bondwomen endured was sexual exploitation. From rape to being used as an economic vessel for childbearing, the black women involved in these horrific acts were physically and psychologically abused; unfortunately, this inappropriate employment of the bonded female body was not uncommon. To begin, childbearing was seen as an economic venture for slave owners. Children produced by personal slaves did not incur an initial acquisition fee and provided unlimited labor for life. Gray White explains, “Once slaveholders realized that the reproductive function of the female slave could yield a profit, the manipulation of procreative sexual relations became an integral part of sexual exploitation of female slaves” (p. 68). Not only were women expected to have children, they were often punished or sold if they did not prove to be procreative. In addition, masters commonly forced women to have children with men of the master’s choosing even if the woman had no interest in the chosen male. The story of Molly from St. Simon’s Island tells of a woman whose true love was sold away. She was subsequently given a new husband with which she had nine children and two miscarriages. Molly’s story is concluded by summarizing her ill-fated situation while also alluding to the overexploitation of her body, “In Molly’s heart her real husband was the man sold away by their master eleven pregnancies ago” (p. 149). Her story is not unique as many women suffered the same fate. Further exploitation of the female body is uncovered when examining the lack of proper medical attention provided to pregnant, bonded women. Antebellum gestation and the process of giving birth therefore produced a high rate of maternal, fetal, and infant fatalities as these women were often taken care of by unprofessional midwives. While the deaths of some infants and fetuses were purely biological, some were surreptitiously induced. Though black women were often abused for their reproductive capacity, they found ingenious ways to elude the system. “(…) [S]lave women knew how to avoid pregnancy as well as how to deliberately abort a pregnancy” (p. 84). With the help of fellow black midwives and herbal concoctions passed down from descendants, women were well versed on how to terminate and circumvent pregnancy. They used this knowledge in order to rebel against the system of slavery but also in order to avoid bringing a child into the painful and unjust world of antebellum bondage. The story of Lucy of Charles Colcok Jones’ plantation describes specific example of this unique type of indirect opposition. “(…) [L]ucy gave birth in secret and then denied that she had ever been pregnant”, but twelve days later the body of her decomposing child was found (p. 126). In addition, bonded mothers used a different technique to prevent their daughters from becoming pregnant: “Some slave mothers apparently tried to shelter their daughters from the adult world by withholding knowledge of the mechanics of childbirth” (p. 96). This effort was successful in some cases yet in others the masters were so assertive towards adolescent girls that they were...
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