Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2019), 296 pp.
Consider the following paragraph:
I sipped my port, thinking of [the slaves] gathered around their fires of an evening, their rude passions inflamed by the wild talk of some preacher, planning how best to kill us all. And it wasn’t just the field hands. In New Orleans, I had heard of an American lady who discovered her maid attempting to poison the entire household by lacing the sugar with arsenic. What benefit would her mistress’s demise be to her, since she would only be sold again, perhaps to a more severe mistress? (Martin 101)
These lines are the thoughts of the protagonist Manon Gaudet in Valerie Martin’s 2003 novel Property. Apart from representing this White slave-owning Louisiana woman’s innermost feelings and fears of enslaved people’s uprisings, we can also recognize in her interior monologue a clear sense of entitlement to (her) enslaved human property. While certainly the object of much intellectual scrutiny at least since the seventeenth century and within analytical arenas such as Legal Studies, Political Philosophy, and Cultural Studies, the concept of property came to play a decisive role within the histories and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade. As Black feminist thinkers and historians’ deep engagement with the intricate connections between property, racial capitalism, and gender continues to remind us, the institution of slavery maintained and renewed itself through the calculated acquisition and reproduction of human property (see Harris; Hartman; Morgan). With They Were Her Property: White Women and Slave Owners in the American South, Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers joins this line of Black feminist critical inquiry, offering crucial insights into the claims to and uses of enslaved human property by White married and slave-owning women in the nineteenth-century U.S. South.
In this groundbreaking regional study, Jones-Rogers critically supplements existing historical scholarship on White southern women’s participation in the institution of slavery. This incredibly rich monograph—based on her PhD dissertation originally submitted to the State University of New Jersey—is concerned with White women’s economic relationship to slavery. Over the course of its eight compelling chapters, Jones-Rogers weaves a comprehensive narrative of these women’s significant investments in their property, showing how they “contended with husbands, male employees, community members, and officials about their ownership of slaves, as well as about how much control such men could exercise over their property […]” (204). Throughout, Jones-Rogers convincingly argues that White married slave-owning women were not only slave owners in their own right but “co-conspirators” (204) who actively benefitted from the Southern plantation economies. They Were Her Property relies on the testimonies of formerly enslaved people gathered by employees of the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project within the first half of the twentieth century, as explained in the introduction entitled “Mistresses of the Market.” Jones-Rogers enriches this approach with succinct readings of various legal documents, newspapers, and archival records. This work thus breaks with established Southern historiography, which tends to draw on the written records by wealthy White (widowed or single) antebellum women (xi-xii).
The study’s first chapter reveals the ways in which White Southern girls learned “how to be mistresses and slave owners through an instructional process that spanned their childhood and adolescence” (1-2). Turning playmates and companions into mistresses and slaves, this process decisively encouraged the development of “techniques of management and discipline” (4) of human property—a form of knowledge about the daily practices of slave ownership that adolescent White girls would also acquire by reading juvenile newspapers (13). In the next chapter, Jones-Rogers traces the manifold ways in which married women resisted the legal system of coverture that would give their husbands total control of their human and other property upon marriage. Whether by, for instance, drawing up antenuptial contracts or by bringing legal petitions to (chancery) courts, slave-owning women “frequently rejected the legal and economic ramifications of marriage by devising instruments that protected their personal investments in chattel slavery” (55).
Married slave-owning women, as the third chapter convincingly shows, were their husbands’ equals when it came to exercising authority over their slaves. As revealed by testimony of the formerly enslaved, mastery “was an objective that male and female slave owners and their delegates aimed to acquire through techniques ranging from kindness to brutality” (62). Repeatedly reminding us that married women were not dependent on their husbands for ownership and management of slaves, Jones-Rogers productively conceptualizes this balanced distribution of power—and violence—as the “heterarchy” of the Southern plantation (71).
That White married slave-owning women were no strangers to slave markets is discussed in Chapters Four and Six of the study, respectively. The chapters demonstrate not only that these women held slave markets in their homes but that they also were an active presence at formal slave auctions. Be they private or public, these women were “ubiquitous in slave-market dealings” of any kind and thus “helped sustain the institution of slavery” (149, 150). Chapter Five, “Wet Nurse for Sale or Hire,” shows that married slave-owning women were acutely aware that ownership of enslaved human beings constituted a significant economic investment. Slave-owning women capitalized on every conceivable form of labor done by slaves—including enslaved women’s ability to nurse. Whether hiring enslaved mothers out to White women unable or unwilling to breastfeed or depending on wet nurses to suckle their own children, slave-owning women recognized breastfeeding as a particular form of skilled labor to be extracted from their human property. By extending their claims of right to ownership to other women’s breast milk, married slave-owning women routinely perpetrated “acts of maternal violence” against enslaved mothers (122).
Chapters Seven and Eight bring the study’s interrogation of White married women’s claims to their human property to a close. The chapters are powerful accounts of how these women—in reckoning with the economic impact the Civil War had on their lives—would go to exceptional lengths to keep their enslaved property, from hiding away their slaves from Union forces over exploiting postbellum apprenticeship laws to filing petitions for financial compensation after the war. The women examined in the study, like Martin’s fictional protagonist, “fully embraced the institution of slavery and all the economic benefits that came along with it” (Jones-Rogers 204). Jones-Rogers’s epilogue firmly establishes the study’s critical as well as methodological trajectory as a rich reservoir for generations of scholars and students of slavery and its aftermath. They Were Her Property is mandatory reading.
Samira Spatzek (Freie Universität Berlin)