In 1841, Mrs. John Little crossed the Ohio River and left behind a life of bondage. After a long journey, she was one step closer to her future life and freedom in Canada. Little was enslaved in Tennessee before she and her husband fled slavery. Her successful escape from slavery was remarkable. Yet in her story of her flight to freedom which was recounted by herself, Little also recalled her own physical abuse and that of other enslaved women, an experience that was all too common. Upon learning of her plans to flee, her enslaver beat and whipped her mercilessly. During the punishment, the enslaver attempted to torture Mrs. Little until she revealed information about another enslaved woman. This other woman had defied his authority, but through very different means. The enslaver interrogated Little about her knowledge of a woman who had “put her child aside.” She recounted, “Before striking me, master questioned me about the girl. I denied all knowledge of the affair. I only knew that she had been with child, and that now she was not, but I did not tell them even that.”1
Mrs. Little’s enslaver was infuriated not only at the audacity of her plan to run away. He was inflamed by the possibility that this unnamed woman had aborted her own child, an act that he treated as equally egregious as Little’s fugitive plot. Both women, Mrs. Little and the unnamed woman, challenged the authority of their enslaver. Little did so by running away. And in the face of her enslavers’ attempt to control her body, as well as the threat of physical punishment, the unnamed woman likely resisted by terminating the pregnancy.
White merchants and enslavers’ dominance in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and in New World slavery depended upon the control and exploitation of Black women’s reproductive abilities. When enslaved women interfered in this process, as they often did at various stages, they contested the terms and logic upon which the white supremacist patriarchy depended.
Enslavers enforced control over enslaved women’s reproduction through various means. One way they ensured the production of a laboring population was through breeding. Slave breeding involved forced relationships between enslaved men and women, and rape of enslaved women by white enslavers, overseers, and slave drivers. Enslaved women also received incentives, although very limited, for reproducing and raising children on the plantation. Whites attempted to counteract the deaths of enslaved children through practices of forced breeding without changing the unhealthy and hazardous conditions of pregnancy and childbirth, malnutrition, and over exhaustion which were all causes of infant mortality.
White doctors also participated in the maintenance of the plantation regime and of labor increase by overseeing and interfering in the births of enslaved children. Their involvement in Black women’s childbirth and reproduction was exploitative as they violently experimented on Black women without anesthesia or consent. This had a direct role in the development of modern gynecology. Nevertheless, enslaved women found ways to resist through traditional practices of childbirth led by Black midwives. They enacted a form of “womb liberation” by relying upon networks of care within the plantation community.
White enslavers, doctors, and proslavery advocates villainized Black women’s reproductive actions. They critiqued Black women’s choices in regards to their own reproduction. Whites reacted with fervor to the few cases of infanticide in which Black women killed newborn children, a highly unusual occurrence. In one well-known incident in 1856, and the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Margaret Garner killed one of her children and wounded others in an attempt to the lives of her children and her own when faced with their recapture into slavery. Garner was re-enslaved and the incident was sensationalized as an example of a violent and monstrous Black mother. Enslaved women were also criminalized in cases when they gave birth to stillborn babies or infants that died shortly thereafter.
Racist characterizations of Black women and girls’ sexual health and motherhood had deadly consequences. In Alabama, an enslaver J. Haywood Jones misdiagnosed a nine-year-old enslaved girl as pregnant when she had an abdominal tumor. The attending doctor claimed that all agreed that the girl was pregnant, despite her young age and unlikelihood of pregnancy.2 It was only after she died and they discovered that the growth inside her was not a fetus that the physicians and enslaver acknowledged that she was not pregnant.
In the face of white villainization of enslaved women’s reproduction, Black women and girls asserted power in their own health by spacing pregnancies, practicing coercive contraceptive methods, and even by terminating pregnancies. Enslaved women used herbal remedies and traditional knowledge to track and control pregnancy. They extended breastfeeding and marked the phases of their cycle by following the lunar calendar. They also induced their periods using sage tea and cotton root to stimulate menstruation.
The relative silence within records of slavery to what we would refer to today as abortion may be due to a number of factors. By the antebellum era, abortion was increasingly criminalized and taboo. Northern whites were the group of women who attempted to abort unwanted pregnancies most often, and southerners criticized them for it. White doctors had differing views on abortion and on when life began—whether at conception, quickening, or birth. Regardless, they performed abortions for financial gain.
It is likely that enslaved women had their own views on abortion, influenced by nonwestern forms of knowledge and of the conditions of slavery. Yet these views are virtually absent from many records of slavery. Certainly, Black women obscured records of their own sexual health in documentations of slavery, a phenomenon historians have remarked upon. Often, enslaved and former bondswomen recounted their experiences of slavery to white interviewers or editors, who were often white and male. Dominant, cultural ideas of sex and reproduction, as well as those practiced within the enslaved community, also limited their ability to speak openly about birth control and contraception. As a defense to the oversexualization of Black women and white supremacist patriarchal control and abuse, Black women enacted a “culture of dissemblance” or strategy to “protect the sanctity of the inner aspects of their lives.”3 Enslaved women’s methods of birth control and abortion certainly fall under this category of veiled history.
Yet birth control and abortions may have been more commonplace than many historians have yet to acknowledge. Their relative routineness might provide another reason why they are not represented in the historical record. Additionally, enslaved women’s practices and treatment of abortion were different than contemporary understandings of abortion. Enslaved women did not necessarily conceptualize their actions and methods of birth control as what we would deem termination of pregnancy. Historian Marie Jenkins Schwartz argues the enslaved community treated inducing menstruation without judgment due to “ambiguity about why the menses had ceased and when life began.” This allowed enslaved women a “degree of flexibility in controlling fertility without encountering resistance.” In doing so, Black women developed strategies to resist the exploitation of their labor by interfering in pregnancy.4
Contemporary debates over women’s bodies have led to developing restrictions to abortion, particularly across the U.S. South. Many states including Texas and Mississippi have enacted laws, which directly challenge women’s access to abortion, and even criminalize it. These laws defy the constitutional protections established in Roe v Wade. The history of enslaved women’s reproduction illuminates the sinister origins and violent strategies of such restrictions —the development and maintenance of white supremacy in the New World.
- Benjamin Drew, A North-Side View of Slavery (Cleveland: John P. Jewett and Company, 1856), 227. ↩
- Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 115. ↩
- Darlene Clark Hine, “Rape and the Inner lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14 (1989), 915. ↩
- Schwartz, Birthing a Slave, 96. ↩