White Women Slave Owners, Economics, and the Law

Une Dame d´une Fortune Ordinaire dans son Intérieur au Milieu de ses Habitudes Journalières, Jean-Baptiste Debret (Photo by Wilfredo Rodríguez)

In a treatise published in 1681, Anglican clergyman Morgan Godwyn, who had ministered to parishes in Virginia and Barbados, recounted the public flogging of an enslaved woman. Godwyn disliked the naked display of cruelty, but he was even more distressed by the presence of an English “mistress” among the crowd. “To the shame of her sex,” he wrote, this white and likely slave-owning woman stood alongside the “men and boys.” She did not deign to blush as she gazed upon the bondswoman who was stripped to the waist and whipped repeatedly.1

Godwyn was shocked, but it probably did not strike the other onlookers as unusual. Certainly nothing about this scene would surprise Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers. They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South is superb in demonstrating that white slave-owning women were not exceptional. Indeed, they were as invested in slavery as their male counterparts and assumed central roles in buying, selling, and disciplining enslaved people in public as well as in domestic spaces. Although these women rarely documented their economic investment in slavery, Jones-Rogers provides ample evidence that in and beyond courtrooms across the antebellum South, traders, parents, husbands, overseers, and, more particularly, enslaved people recounted—much as Godwyn did—white women’s investment in slavery.

They Were Her Property is focused on the typical female slave owner: a white married woman who enslaved ten or fewer people. This is, as Jones-Rogers argues, a vast category when compared to the elite southern women who left behind diaries and letters and have never been studied systematically. Jones-Rogers mines legal records and enslaved peoples’ testimonies to show that these typical slave-owning women were deeply concerned with all manner of financial and disciplinary matters related to their human property. Young girls were socialized to be enslavers. They were instructed in the arts of discipline and knew that they could demand, as did one three-year old, that her enslaved caretaker be punished (by cutting her ears off) and replaced. Parents gave or promised human property to daughters in order to attract suitors. As those girls matured and married, their control over their enslaved property did not diminish. Slave-owning girls became slave-owning wives who worked to protect their financial stake in enslaved people. If overseers contradicted their management style or husbands or their creditors attempted to sell or seize their wives’ slaves, women fought back. They were often successful in protecting their property and had the backing of family, lawyers, and justices.

Jones-Rogers gives radical new meaning to the concept of “mistress-ship.” Slave-owning women were not “fictive widows,” “deputy husbands,” or  “fictive masters,” the concepts developed by earlier generations of women’s historians to conceptualize women’s roles in household management. Rather, Jones-Rogers shows that from the early modern period forward, mistresses were considered to be equal to masters in exerting power over dependents. In colonial British America, the earliest of slave statutes explicitly empowered mistresses alongside masters with the right to discipline, punish, and kill enslaved people if necessary.2 In the antebellum period, slave-owning women occasionally wrote columns for pro-slavery publications outlining the challenges they faced as mistresses.  By law and practice, white southern slave-owning women were fully engaged with purchase, sale, management, and discipline of enslaved people.

They Were Her Property forces historians to rethink their assumptions about the disabilities of coverture. As Jones-Rogers demonstrates repeatedly, patriarchal and paternalistic gender ideologies did not disempower southern white women, and coverture did not delimit women’s ownership of enslaved people. Protecting the private rights of slave owners was paramount in the South, even when those owners were women. Safeguarding the ownership of human property was more important to southerners than privileging patriarchy. Or, to turn it around, only elite white women had the luxury of distancing themselves from property ownership. Pervasive beliefs about female inferiority in no way undermined white women’s rights to their enslaved property in the southern courts.

Moreover, slave-owning white women simply did not allow themselves to be divorced from their ownership of human property. They tenaciously maintained their claims and went to court—against their husbands—when necessary. Sometimes they shielded their rights through prenuptial agreements. Even without protective mechanisms, however, women could thwart dissipated husbands who tried to waste, alienate, or otherwise take control of their wives’ enslaved properties. In common law courts, a married woman might be covered by her husband’s identity, but she could resort to chancery courts that treated her as a distinct person under the law. In these venues, white women often found their interests protected, even in cases when they had no written contract and their slaves were given to them by a verbal promise. Wives litigated against husbands, not with an eye to dissolving their marriages but, rather, to protect wives’ rights of ownership. They drew on family, informal advisors, and legal networks in order to do so successfully.

In addition to legal evidence drawn from a range of southern jurisdictions, testimonies from formerly enslaved people found in the 1930s Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) are central sources for this study. Their observations form a compelling and substantive core of each chapter. The result is deep, nuanced and, at times, heartbreaking, and it positions the perspective of the enslaved alongside the testimony about white women’s ownership of them. The avowed subject of the book is white slave-owning women, but its reliance on FWP testimony ensures that the experience of being owned is an equally compelling theme of They Were Her Property. And, of course, this makes great sense: the enslaved had every reason to calculate their own value and to understand how their mistresses and masters calculated it as well. They took a keen interest in the people who hired, bought, or sold them, just as they had every incentive to familiarize themselves with the economic and legal system that oversaw the nuts and bolts of each of these transactions. In these ways, They Were Her Property brings to light the intertwined legal and economic consciousness of enslaved people.

It should come as no surprise that enslaved people understood better than anyone else what it meant to be owned: reckoning the many meanings of ownership was central to survival. Enslaved people distinguished between the mistress’s slaves and the master’s slaves because they were tasked with navigating both owners (26). Slave-owning couples exercised “double mastery,” and each spouse had their own style of discipline and management (71). Enslaved people also understood that the slave market was expansive, a “mobile, spatially unbounded economic network” that might be situated in urban slave pens but might just as easily be found in “porches, kitchens, dining rooms, and bedrooms . . . fields and the quarters, along with the pathways and roads surrounding them” (82). The market—and white slave-owning women’s presence in it—was continuous across public and domestic space: they bought, sold, and managed slaves all along that network. In all of these spaces, slave-owning women supported the slave trade economy. They speculated in slaves. They hired out enslaved women as wet nurses, often separating those mothers from their own infants. And in urban centers like New Orleans, brothel-keeping, slave-owning women “initiated” and “orchestrated” acts of sexual violence against enslaved women and men (149).

Patriarchy has many faces. The portrait painted by Jones-Rogers does not so much depict a hierarchy of men over women as much as it renders, in her words, a “heterarchy” in which white men and women both had the power to own enslaved people. White slave-owning women were economic agents who figured centrally in the intertwined engine of capitalism, slavery, and nation-building. In the southern states, where the ownership of other people was supremely protected by law, women could be the economic equals of men. They did not need to be literate or upper-class to command ownership of other people, and we can no longer underestimate their role in ownership and economy of slavery. They were not reluctant participants. They were, as Jones-Rogers concludes, “co-conspirators” (205).

Read this book. Teach this book. It is original and insistent, written with candor with a sure hand. It is ideal for undergraduate and graduate courses in U.S. history, women’s history, and African American history courses, and would also be an excellent choice for a history methods class. They Were Her Property gives us many lessons to ponder about women and race across and beyond the sweep of slavery in the Americas.

  1.  Morgan, Godwyn, The Negros and Indians Advocate (London, 1681): 81-82.
  2.  Virginia’s 1705 “Act concerning Servants and Slaves,” for instance, refers directly to “master (and) mistress” (Chapter XXXII). It also singles out women as slave owners through pronoun usage: “ And if any slave resist his master, or owner, or other person, by his or her order, correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction, it shall not be accounted felony . . .” (Chapter XXXIV).
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Terri L. Snyder

Terri L. Snyder is Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Her research focuses on the history of gender, race, and the law in British North America and, more recently, on the memory of slavery in the modern U.S. She is the author of The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Brabbling Women: Disorderly Speech and the Law in Early Virginia (Cornell University Press, 2003). Snyder is also a member of the Council of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.