Book Review They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers

Status
Not open for further replies.

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#1
they were.JPG

They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers published by Yale University Press (2019) 320 pages. $30.00 Hardcover, $15.12 Kindle.
This book is about female empowerment and enslavement by females. It sets to rest notions that Southern White Women who owned slaves were "slaveowners in name only." While most slaveonwers were white men, there were significant numbers of women who owned slaves and many of them were full participants in the system of enslavement.

The author, Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, argues against the notion prevelent during the 1850s that white slaveowning women in the South were shielded from the worst aspects of slavery, were unaware of its brutality, and only functioned on the margins of slaves lives. While there were a broad set of experiences of slaveowning women, some bought and sold slaves, some ordered the beatings of slaves, and nearly all directed the exploitation of the people that they "owned."

Note: This review will be published in several sections.
 

Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#2
Part 2:

When the history of slavery was re-evaluated in the 1960s and onwards, the old "happy slave/benevolent master" myth was battered, but, as regards women slaveowners a new myth was put in its place. Women who owned slaves were described as being as much a victim of "white patriarchy" as the slaves themselves. They were described as women who exercised no control over their slaves, but whose names were on ownership documents for purposes hatched by their male family members.

Some versions of the story even portrayed the slave owning woman as the natural allies of the enslaved people they owned!

While there are some stories of kindness by white women to their slaves in the pages of this book, for the most part the female owners did not behave significantly differently from the men. They had been trained from birth to control black bodies and many seemed to take their early lessons to heart.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#3
Part 3:

The author draws upon the memories of former slaves collected by the Federal Writers Project during the Depression. Since these recollections depended on interviews with people who had been emancipated at a relatively young age, and since they were collected by white Southern inteviewers, these documents have to be used with caution. Yet, the author argues, in many cases the narratives accurately describe the lives of the interviewees, and without them we are just left with documents prepared by whites.
 
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
Messages
7,830
#6
I'm curious as to what Southern states these women slave owners were from since up to the beginning of the Civil War, some Southern and Border states still had the common law of coverture where a married woman was not allowed to own property regardless whether it was gifted or not.
You beat me to the question. I am aware that women in Louisiana (including free women of color) had rights in property ownership, but not necessarily in every Southern state.

To be fair, this will be just as true at the North and will vary, state by state.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#7
Part 4:

Jones-Rogers begins her analysis of the roles of women as slaveowners with the seemingly innocuous assertion that these women were "mistresses" in a sense devoid of the romance of novels depicting "the Old South." She writes:

Scholars such as Jennifer Lynn Gross argue that nineteenth-century southern “mistresses” assumed roles that were restricted to the “dependent positions of daughter, wife, and mother,” and that “daughters relied completely on their fathers for their public identities, and this dependence transferred to their husbands upon marriage.”16 Because of these constraints, historians contend, white southern women had little to do with enslaved people beyond the household. They generally did not personally own slaves, and when they did, their husbands exercised control over them. Southern mistresses were not adept at slave or plantation management unless extenuating circumstances, such as a husband’s prolonged absence or death, compelled them to be. Even then, such women typically complained about having to take on “masculine” responsibilities. When it came to legal and financial matters, the nineteenth-century southern “mistress” resembled the colonial “gentlewoman” who was “less likely to know about, or assist in, the management of her husband’s affairs or to be involved in trade or business of any sort.” These women tended to defer to their spouses and male kin in legal and financial matters, and if they did not want to, scholars maintain, law and custom forced them to do so. In virtually every dimension of life, then, southern mistresses were held to be at the mercy of white men.

In this book I employ the term mistress in a radically different way, one that aligns more closely with its original meaning. In Western Europe, a mistress was “a woman who govern[ed]; correlative to [a] subject or to [a] servant.” She was “a woman who ha[d] something in [her] possession,” and according to the historian Amy Louise Erickson, that something was capital. A mistress also exercised “dominion, rule, or power.” The term mistress did not signify a married woman’s subservient legal position or a woman’s subordinate status to that of a master. By definition and in fact, the mistress was the master’s equivalent.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#8
Part 5:

Many parents who owned slaves required their human property, old or young, to refer to their daughters as "Mistress," even if the daughter was a babe in arms. Former slaves recalled that soon after a child was born they would line up to walk past her and bow their heads and say "Young Mistress."

Some parents would beat slaves who failed to address their daughters properly as "Mistress." In some cases, they would have the daughter administer the beating. The author writes that this:

served to educate white slave-owning children about their difference from and superiority to all African Americans, regardless of age, and the deference that all African Americans had to show them. Beyond this, compelling and permitting white children to reinforce their superiority through bloodletting discipline allowed the children to practice the more brutal manifestations of mastery that might prove useful later in their lives when they came to own their own slaves.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#9
Part 6:

According to the author, while the use of violence to enforce black subordination varied from household to household, many slaveowners did not try to shield their daughters from watching the punishment of slaves for infractions, even when the punishment resulted in severe harm or death to the slave.

Girls did not always grow up to emulate their parents treatment of slaves. Jones-Rogers tells the story of one Mistress who beat a nine-month old to death with her own daughter Olivia watching on. When a sister of the dead girl retaliated much later, Olivia commented that "Well I guess mama has learned her lesson at last." The slaves later recalled Olivia as kind and beloved by all, even though she was a slaveowner.
 
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
Messages
7,830
#10
Part 6:

According to the author, while the use of violence to enforce black subordination varied from household to household, many slaveowners did not try to shield their daughters from watching the punishment of slaves for infractions, even when the punishment resulted in severe harm or death to the slave.

Girls did not always grow up to emulate their parents treatment of slaves. Jones-Rogers tells the story of one Mistress who beat a nine-month old to death with her own daughter Olivia watching on. When a sister of the dead girl retaliated much later, Olivia commented that "Well I guess mama has learned her lesson at last." The slaves later recalled Olivia as kind and beloved by all, even though she was a slaveowner.
Where does the author get this information? Would you provide an example of a primary source the author cites that supports her conclusions? Thanks in advance.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#11
Part 7:

The legal doctrine of coverture would seem to preclude the notion of a married woman having "slaves of her own" in most jurisdictions. Under this legal doctrine, the very act of marrying made woman a feme covert. "As such," explains the author, "her “very being” and “legal existence” were no longer hers; they had been subsumed into her husband’s. The English jurist William Blackstone, who penned one of the most oft-cited explications of the legal doctrine of coverture, reasoned that the newly wed woman no longer needed an independent identity because, likening the husband to a bird, her groom offered her “cover” under his wing."

Yet, writes Jones-Rogers, she found many cases where the letter of law seemed to be ignored by the flesh and blood husbands and wives. She uses one couple as an example. Sarah Davis brought her own slaves into her marriage with the much older John Bethea. She had inherited slaves from both her late father and her aunt. Jones-Rogers describes the legal situation upon Sarah and John's marriage:

According to the doctrine of coverture, the enslaved people that her father and aunt bequeathed to Sarah became her husband’s once they married. He had the right to sell them, benefit from their labor, collect the revenue they produced, and dispose of them as he deemed fit. Since Sarah was a feme covert, and she no longer owned or controlled her property, she had no right to sell her slaves, either. The legal doctrine forbade her from engaging in commercial endeavors in her own name and without her husband’s permission. If someone wronged her, she could not sue that person in court unless her husband joined in her petition and put forth the bill of complaint on her behalf. When Sarah made the choice to marry John, it was the last decision that she would freely make about her own life, at least until John died. Legally John “controlled her body and her property,” and “there were relatively few constraints on what he could do with either.” (KLoc 813)
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#12
Part 9:

Sometimes in a marriage, the law is not the principal definer of the relationship. The author writes:

Assuming that Sarah and John adhered to the doctrine of coverture to the letter, this is how events were supposed to unfold on the Bethea plantation after they wed: Sarah would hand over control of her slaves to John, who would employ, discipline, and even sell them at his own discretion. But Hester Hunter, a formerly enslaved woman whom Sarah owned, did not remember things this way. According to Hunter, Sarah “had her nigg@rs” and John “had his nigg@rs,” and anyone who saw them could easily differentiate between the two groups. Hunter vividly recalled that if a person visited the Bethea plantation, he or she “could go through dere en spot de Sara Davis nigg@rs from de Bethea nigg@rs” as soon as “you see dem.” This was no accident. Sarah’s slaves were looked after “in de right way.” She cared for them when they were ill, made sure they ate well, and had their healthy meals prepared. In contrast to some slave owners in the South, Sarah made sure that the breakfast served to her slaves always contained meat. She also ensured that their clothes were well made and that they had a “nice clean place to sleep.” She never allowed her slaves “to lay down in rags.” She did not compel them to work on Sunday, and she made sure that they took care of personal chores, like washing and ironing, on Saturday, so they did not have to do them on the Sabbath. She did not permit the enslaved children she owned to work at all, or at least in their early years, and Hunter remembered playing with her dolls in the backyard “aw de time I wanna.” When asked about who handled, managed, and cared for the people Sarah owned, Hunter reinforced the fact that Sarah “see ’bout aw dis she self.” (Kindle Location 813)
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#13
Part 10:

Sarah's slaves and John's slaves had separate quarters. Sarah disciplined her slaves and John disciplined his. Sarah had her own ideas on relations with her slaves. She did not believe in harsh corporal punishment. Her former slave remembered that one day when John tried to whip one of his wife's slaves, she told him not to and he desisted.

Jones-Rogers explains that:

The arrangements that Sarah and John made that Hunter described were neither rare nor exceptional.8 The enslaved people that women owned routinely described similar circumstances in their interviews with FWP writers. Yet these and other dimensions of life within slaveholding households, including agreements like Sarah and John’s, have remained obscure because they occurred away from the public gaze. Even so, during slavery and long after it ended, the enslaved people that white women owned talked about their mistresses and how these women challenged their male kinfolks’ alleged power to control their property, human and otherwise. Formerly enslaved people like Hester Hunter also make clear that...their grounds for contesting their husbands’ authority were...predicated upon their position as slave owners who possessed the right and power to control their own property as they saw fit. (Kindle Loc 842)
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#14
Part 11:

Jones-Rogers contends that many slaveowning women found ways to circumvent the "legal death" of coverture. She says that the broaders community beyond the household often acknowledged the power of white married women to own slaves in their own right.

Slave catchers caught escapees at the behest of these women and jailers returned the captees to the women, not their husbands. Judges issued orders to slaveholding women related to their slaves. Courts also routinely recognized woman as slaveowners in a variety of property matters.

How was this possible? Jones-Rogers has an answer:

Given the standard view of coverture in the nineteenth century, much of this seems implausible. But truth be told, the doctrine of coverture was a legal fiction, and an imperfect one at that, and legislators and court officials seemed to know it. As the historian Marylynn Salmon has aptly observed, it was premised upon the ideal marriage in which “men always acted wisely and fairly” and assumed the role of patriarch and household head with almost perfect precision. Legal cases made it clear that ideal marriages were rarely achieved, and propertied women often found themselves in dire circumstances as a consequence of their husbands’ poor judgment, misdeeds, and misfortunes.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#15
Part 12:

The recognition of widespread women's ownership rights in slaves can be ascertained from numerous sources. Jones-Rogers writes:

Abundant evidence from publicly available documents such as court records and newspapers supports enslaved people’s claims that community members and representatives of the state recognized women’s legal titles to human property. When an enslaved person ran away from his or her female owner, for example, runaway notices alerted the community to the owner’s title to the fugitive.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#16
Part 13:

White women slave owners controlled even the most intimate details of their slaves lives. One example was the use of slaves as wet nurses. Jones-Rogers writes that while some historians have assumed that the use of enslaved wet nurses was a last resort, she sees it as a fairly common use of slaves. In fact, she says, owners developed rating scales for the quality of breast milk.

Jones-Rogers provides evidence that a woman timed her slave's pregnancies to coincide with her own. The question left unanswered is how that was done. Did she have her slave sexually assaulted?
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#17
Part 14:

This book takes the reader deep into late-stage slavery, the experience of women slave owners during Civil War and Reconstruction and the ways the females mistresses remembered the experience. Jones-Rogers writes that "In the thirty years following abolition, the women who once owned enslaved people and their female descendants also wrote about enslavement and loss, but in a remarkably different way. They laid bare their thoughts about the system and how they perceived the roles they had played within it. Interwoven within their tales of privileged living, these women constructed preposterous narratives about slavery that omitted the trauma of separation, loss of self-determination, and violence that emerged in the “Lost Friends” and “Information Wanted” advertisements. When former slave owners wrote about slavery, their picture showed no brutality, no privation, no agony, no loss, no tears, no sweat, no blood."

None of the evils African Americans had experienced was in the recollections of the white women.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#18
Part 15:

Letitia Burwell wrote, without any sense of irony, “What courage, what patience, what perseverance, what long suffering, what Christian forbearance, must it have cost our great-grandmothers to civilize, Christianize, and elevate the naked, savage Africans to the condition of good cooks and respectable maids!”

The self-delusion in these remembrances is incredible.

What is important to understand, writes Jones-Rogers, is that white women did not write glowingly about slavery because they were forced to by their husbands and fathers. They wrote about it as they did because they believed in it.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#19
Part 16:

The construction of memory by the white women who owned slaves had an impact on how the end of slavery was remembered. Jones-Rogers concludes:

Former slave-owning women’s deeper and more complex investments in slavery help explain why, in the years following the Civil War, they helped construct the South’s system of racial segregation, a system premised, as was slavery, upon white supremacy and black oppression. Understanding the direct economic investments white women made in slavery and their stake in its perpetuation, and recognizing the ways they benefited from their whiteness, helps us understand why they and many of their female descendants elected to uphold a white-supremacist order after slavery ended. If we acknowledge that white women stood to personally and directly benefit from the commodification and enslavement of African Americans we can better understand their participation in postwar white-supremacist movements and atrocities such as lynching—as well as their membership in organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Southern white women’s roles in upholding and sustaining slavery form part of the much larger history of white supremacy and oppression. And through it all, they were not passive bystanders. They were co-conspirators.
 
Last edited:

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,371
Location
Long Island, NY
#20
Conclusion:

There was so much in this book that I had never considered. I knew that some women execised direct control over their slaves, but I had always assumed that they were older widows without a male figure who could step in to take over the day to day work of enslavement. Jones's description of married women segregating their slaves from those of their husbands and maintaining separate control was a revelation.

Like some of the commenters here, I assumed that coverture ended any real ownership power for married women, but Jones makes a convincing case that the law did not necessarily define the relationships. I like to tell my students that just because a law defines marriage a certain way does not mean that a couple does. I should have listened to myself before I accepted that coveture foreclosed female "ownership."

This book also dispells notions that women in families with slaves were shielded from its worst aspects. Jones demonstrates that even young girls were expected to learn how to master adult African Americans. These girls were sometimes encouraged to torture their families' slaves.

Jones does well to show that there was not a single pattern of white female slave ownership. Some were brutal, others relied on less violent methods for extracting profit from bondage. Unfortunately, we also learn that white women could be just as unregarding of their female slaves emotions at having a child sold off as their white male counterparts. There was no automatic sense of solidarity felt by white mothers with the suffering of their black sisters.

Jones opens up a useful path for future scholarship on women as slaveowners. Research may reveal how prevelent woman functioning as full-on "Mistresses" really was. While Jones found a fair number of such cases, I was still wondering if these went far beyond those she discussed in this book.
 
Status
Not open for further replies.



Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!
Top