The Dichotomy of Enslaved Women’s Work in the Antebellum South

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The work of enslaved women on plantations was coerced labor performed as a result of their circumscribed condition as chattel. Most emerged like Silvey (Lucas) or Millie and Frances Johnson from the slave quarters, while others, who provided round-the-clock services, descended from attics, ascended from basements, or like Mattie Jackson, appeared from behind closed doors of a room within her master’s house where a picture of President Abraham Lincoln boldly hung. Then, there were bondwomen like Sarah Holiday who rose from her own home on the big house lot. From every corner of the plantation, they arose at dawn, prepared to work until dusk. By the nature of the institution of slavery, enslaved women were exploited commodities that provided a free labor force, enabling the Southern economy to thrive. Ungendered, they labored just as their men. Activist Angela Davis underscored their labor stating that “there was no compensation for work in the fields: it served no useful purpose for the slaves,” and “black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered.” Their labor—except for a few cases like that of California, who hired herself out—yielded no compensation or reward. As historian Jacqueline Jones explained, they “derived few, if any, tangible benefits from their labor to increase staple crop profits and to render the white family comfortable.” However, the unprofitable and dehumanizing labor required under the watchful eyes of overseers was not their only work. Within the confines of the slave quarters, enslaved women created an alternative workplace that gave them purpose and value.

During the Antebellum era, the institution of slavery intensified its already oppressive restrictions affecting enslaved women. The era was marked by what scholars Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross describe as “a unique mix of trials and tribulations as well as success through struggle.” Slaveholders, already weary of the anti-slavery movement and abolitionist rhetoric of the era, understandably grew fearful of slave revolts and flight. News of the Nat Turner rebellion and David Walker’s Appeal quickly spread across the South, emboldening bondpeople to embrace resistance and imagine the possibilities of freedom even more. To thwart further acts of insurrection, slaveholders and local politicians amplified their surveillance of enslaved people by increasing the number of overseers and slave patrols in proximity to plantations, enacting harsher laws that restricted Black movement, and intensifying punishments that adversely affected enslaved women who grappled with their role as working women.

Enslaved women’s labor included a long list of arduous responsibilities. As Berry explained, non-gendered equality prevailed in agricultural labor, whereas enslaved women who worked in houses “served as housemaids, nurses, cooks, seamstresses, laundresses, dairymaids, weavers, [and] spinners.” Domestic labor was arduous and included: “cleaning and maintaining the home, keeping the home supplied with necessities such as food and water, washing clothing and other linens, preparing meals, the bodily care of household residents, and helping to make ends meet through various cost-saving measures and prudent shopping, all of which took training and skill.” Most bondwomen were skilled laborers who displayed exceptional abilities when completing their responsibilities. Their children bragged about their mother’s craftsmanship, and owners and traders alike valued their skillfulness whether to encourage a sale or boast of prized possessions. Academic Alexandra J. Finley expanded on the nature of domesticity to include “emotional labor,” emphasizing the painstaking efforts enslaved women made to camouflage their exhaustion, frustration, and rage. As these women entertained thoughts of retaliation, they restrained themselves to appear enthusiastic in the moment. Unknowingly, masking their emotions allowed them to excel and master their skills.

Enslaved women’s labor even expanded to scientific and reproductive spheres during the Antebellum era. Medical doctors purchased and leased enslaved women. The medical malfeasance inflicted upon them resulted in the unconscionable torture and mutilation of their bodies. Despite the inhumane treatment of these women, their involuntary sacrifice contributed to the creation of gynecology. Then, after the cessation of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808, breeding further commodified enslaved women’s bodies and exploited the sexuality of enslaved women as demands for slave labor increased exponentially. Scholar Deborah Gray White argued “that which was private and personal became public and familiar,” and there was no consent to intercourse, childbirth, or the invasion of their purity, love relationships, and marriages. The physical and emotional toil was no doubt equally unfathomable but underscored the striving for meaningful family bonds.

While the majority of enslaved women’s labor occurred on and around the plantation, on rare occasions, they also labored in factories, universities, and government buildings across the counties where plantations were located. Some of these women were the property of institutions, but most were leased out. Not being bound to the plantation for several hours of the day provided “a sense of personal autonomy.”  Enslaved women were conscious of their unnatural circumscribed status as chattel, but as skilled laborers, they often brokered their opportunities for new or different placements. Their efforts to establish normalcy in their lives amid a dehumanizing and barbaric institution was an explicit rejection of slavery and their denied roles as women, wives, and mothers. The slave quarters became the station where enslaved women capitalized on their ingenuity and creativity—not in a monetary sense—but in a quest for agency and the liberation of the mind. Consequently, work in the slave quarters was an act of defiance as they refused to succumb to the gender restrictions and manipulations of enslavement.

Despite the pervasive daily threats of sporadic invasions by slaveholders, the slave quarters were an inner sanctum for bondwomen. They integrated skills from field and domestic work to benefit themselves, their men, and their children, away from their plantation responsibilities. In doing so, they, as Davis proclaimed, “transformed that negative equality which emanated from the equal oppression they suffered as slaves into a positive quality.” Enslavement was a “wrongly organized society” that thrived on the dehumanization and exploitation of enslaved women, but work in the slave quarters was an opportunity to claim and exercise agency, respectability, and dignity in their lives as they built and maintained self-defined frameworks of family and community.

Within the slave quarters, enslaved women’s work was mostly voluntary and done without constant surveillance as they enthusiastically worked to benefit their families.  When plantation labor ended at dusk, enslaved women had other responsibilities. While they may have appeared powerless and submissive toiling in the fields and in and around the big house, they became organizers and facilitators of kinship, maintaining their own families, extended families, and the entire community within the slave quarters. It was a unique cultural ecosystem that, according to Berry and Gross, “represented a place where they could express love, joy, peace, happiness, pain, sadness, and sorrow.”

Enslaved women also had tremendous influence across the plantation community in their religious work. They created and maintained a spiritual, emotional, and psychological connection within the slave quarters in a spiritual leadership role. As historian Brenda E. Stevenson explained, “religious womanhood was an important tool that enslaved women could, and did, utilize to construct positive, even powerful, social identities.” As religious women, they advocated for respectability, provided comfort, and offered sound advice. Their religious work gave them a “social power” that elevated their existence above the circumscribed status as laborers and gave them a sense of autonomy that rejected irrelevancy, invisibility, and inferiority. Through their religious work, enslaved women assumed the responsibility to create sociocultural norms that “humanized, feminized, and moralized” them. Also, their medical work as healers mixing roots, herbs, and bark into teas, and as midwives working to ensure successful deliveries of infants while valuing the lives of mothers, further demonstrated their impact. These women were devoted guardians of kinship bonds, and cognizant of their sexuality and femininity.

Since there was always a threat of violence and abuse from enslavers, enslaved women worked to protect themselves from harm when enslaved men could not. While there were instances where enslaved men risked punishment and death to advocate for their women, oftentimes enslaved women relied on their grit and willpower to defend themselves from abuse and violence. They resisted the sexual attacks of their slaveholders and separation from their children.

As enslaved women nurtured kinship relationships working within the slave quarters, Jones observed that women possessed a “communal spirit” and shared “mutual obligations among themselves.” They found “emotional significance” in their domestic work that instilled a sense of obligation, responsibility, and dignity in their service. They created pathways to reclaim their womanhood and sexuality by creating an alternative workspace where their destiny hinged on ensuring not only their survival but the well-being of the slave community. In the end, during the Antebellum era when slavery was at its worst, and the bodies of enslaved women had reached the most exhaustive height of commodification, exploitation, and surveillance, they did not break. Instead, enslaved women “found ways to thrive and survive.” Their skills transcended the totality of their labor and work, but only one job garnered respectability, dignity, and agency—working in the slave quarters. With all of its complexities, it persisted as the only job that mattered.

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O.G. McClinton, III

O.G. McClinton III, originally from Compton, California, is a budding historian currently enrolled in the African American History master's program at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. Specializing in Antebellum Southern Slavery, he is poised to embark on a doctoral journey in the Spring of 2025. O.G. earned his B.A. in African American History: Arts and Literature from California State University, Northridge. O.G. studied Short Story Writing and Playwriting at UCLA Extension and Urban Education at Langston University in Oklahoma. He is an accomplished writer, with works including poetry, plays, and the short story "The Truth About Trees." Currently engaged in various writing and research projects, he is crafting a memoir and a family history commemorating the 55th anniversary of a significant photograph featuring his father. In addition to his academic pursuits, O.G. is an avid movie-goer and a devoted fan of Black cinema and Blaxploitation films, and a range of film genres including action thrillers, suspense dramas, and horror. Before his return to academia, O.G. ventured into the entertainment industry, touring with En Vogue, featuring in a national Coca-Cola commercial, and making appearances in Michael Jackson's "Remember the Time" video and the iconic Whitley and Dwayne wedding episode of "A Different World." O.G. is a proud member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

Comments on “The Dichotomy of Enslaved Women’s Work in the Antebellum South

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    It’s amazing how all these different traumatic events have ultimately shaped our culture in such impactful ways and black women STILL continue to thrive and survive. ❤️

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    Mr. McClinton, what a beautiful love letter to Black women. These enslaved women empowered their families—men included—with the skills and knowledge gained from being “leased out” to factories and institutions. As Mr. McClinton pointed out, Black women have always fought to keep their homes intact. Black women have always led and been able to rise above even the most horrific of situations. And, we’ve always been to add dignity and find a way to flourish in our humanity and femininity.

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    Excellent job OG with the historical work.

    …so many folks at the wedding and so long ago…but I looked for you. That scene was a classic.


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    This post is truly amazing. Despite all the trials and tribulations black women experience during those dark times and currently, we still continue to thrive and prosper.
    Keep writing O.G.!!!!!! I look forward to reading other material from you.

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    Nephew, your piece is amazing. There is nothing like a strong black woman. Thank you for this beautiful post reminding us, that no matter what trials and tribulations, we as black women face in the past or in the future, we can’t be broken. Keep up the good work Nephew. I’m so proud of you! I’m looking forward to your next piece.


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