In her book “They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South,” Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, associate professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, shatters the narrative that married white women were passive bystanders in the business of slavery.
Instead, her research found, many were active and enthusiastic participants who benefited financially and economically from slavery. In fact, when Congress offered slave owners compensation for their freed slaves in the District of Columbia, 40 percent of the claimants were women, including an order of nuns.
White women could be as brutal as male slave owners when it came to meting out punishment, she writes. Some husbands actually had to intervene to stop the brutality, and one women’s violence toward their slaves drove her husband to abandon her and take his slaves with him. Others forced female slaves to work in brothels in New Orleans, something Jones-Rogers says has been ignored by historians.
White women fought just as hard as men to keep their slaves after the war. Some held onto their former slaves by not telling them about emancipation. Some absconded with their slaves, taking them to more “friendly” states. Others held onto the children that were left behind or coerced their former slaves into signing labor contracts that re-created the conditions of bondage.
“Southern white women’s roles in upholding and sustaining slavery form part of the much bigger history of white supremacy and oppression,” Jones-Rogers writes in the epilogue. “And through it all, they were not passive bystanders. They were co-conspirators.”
Jones talked with About US about her book and the reaction to it. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
What does your book say about stereotypes, especially when it comes to white women in the antebellum South?
The book challenges the argument that these white women were not economically vested or legally vested in the institution of slavery. The research focused on married women. There’s an assumption that the legal doctrine, coverture, prevented these married women from having these legal ties and these economic ties to slavery. That’s because upon marriage, the doctrine mandated that the property or wealth that these women brought into their marriages would automatically become the property of their husbands. Because of that, married women who owned slaves have been left out of most of the scholarship on slavery and white women’s relationship to slavery.
What did you find that challenges that?
I think one of the more profound stereotypes continues to be a pervasive one — that white women were not masters of slaves because they were the weaker sex, they didn’t exercise systematic and popular forms of violence and discipline against enslaved people. The book certainly challenges the argument that they were averse to slavery, they were averse to the most violent dimensions of slavery and they avoided the violence of slavery at all costs.
The book shows that when women owned their own slaves, they had very calculated interests in ensuring that those enslaved people submitted to their will or their domination. The book challenges the sense of white women as silent abolitionists who were distant from the institution of slavery, whether it be the economic dimensions of it or the most violent dimensions of the institution.
What in your research led you to these conclusions?
The dissertation emerged by essentially looking at the interviews that the federal government did with formerly enslaved people during the 1930s and 1940s and using their recollections and the details that those provided about the women who owned them. I then use those details to try to piece together the story that I tell in the book.
I also draw on documents such as court records and bills of sale involving the purchase or sale of enslaved people, military letters, etc. I was able to trace white slave-owning women through these and other documents where many researchers looked before but had not looked for white women’s economic impact, their transactions and their activities. That’s really where the book started, as a dissertation that evolved over the past 10 years.
You wrote extensively about how white women kept their property, especially slaves, separate from their husbands’ property, and parents often gifted slaves to their daughters with the stipulation that the slaves remained their property.
In most of the scholarship on the subject, you get the impression that white women had no vested interest or any kind of interest at all in the institution until they became grown women. By listening to what formerly enslaved people had to say, they talked about little girls becoming vested in the institution of slavery. These little girls would inherit slaves when they were sometimes only infants or 1 or 2 years old. They would get slaves as gifts over the course of their lives. They would get enslaved people as wedding gifts. And what that showed was over the course of their lives, well before adulthood, these white females were learning about slavery, were being immersed in the culture of slavery and the violence that was necessary to sustain that culture.
What surprised you in your research?
Even though this legal doctrine of coverture mandated that a woman’s property or wages would become her husband’s, upon marriage, the parents and these young women worked together to take advantage of legal loopholes that allowed them to circumvent and get around the constraints that would be imposed upon them once they got married. I was really shocked to find what formerly enslaved people were saying. They said, ‘I belonged to my mistress by law. Her husband couldn’t do anything with me.’ That led me to believe I could find more in legal records. And, in legal records I found hundreds and thousands of white women making the same legal arguments that formerly enslaved people were talking about in the interviews.
I found records for thousands of women going into court, not simply to say, ‘I inherited these slaves from my father, and I want to ensure that I can continue to maintain control over them.’ They would sometimes sue their husbands, their fathers, brothers, and sons when the men in their lives overstepped the boundaries of their property rights. These women were winning, time and time again. And not only that. They were super savvy. When they went into court, they made sure that they were going to win. That was absolutely shocking to me. And it was even more shocking to me that they were winning.
Talk about how white women also were actively involved in disciplining and punishing slaves.
Formerly enslaved people talk very much about mistresses that were very much masters. There were instances where they said, ‘Our white male masters didn’t even punish us. It was the mistress that punished us.’ There were times that formerly enslaved people argued that not only were white women capable to exercising mastery over them, capable of being slave masters, they also were in some cases the only individuals who exercised mastery over them. They disciplined them, punished them and told them what to do and what not to do, not the husband in the household.
What has been the reaction to your book?
The reaction has been mostly positive, except when I argue that the book provides broader historical context for understanding modern phenomena, such as some white women’s decisions to vote for racist and misogynistic politicians, choices that seem to be against their best interests.
Do some people have problems with you destroying some myths?
There have been folks who try to excuse away my findings. Of course, many of these people haven’t read the book. The primary argument that they challenge most is the assertion that white married women owned enslaved people in their own right and maintained control over them after and during marriage. They assume that these women were coerced into alleging ownership over enslaved people that really belonged to their husbands, when, in the case of the women in my book, this was not the case. Beyond this, most people don’t take issue with the myths that the book debunks.
How did you feel when the book was completed? What reaction were you expecting?
As a descendant of enslaved people and sharecroppers, I was extremely proud of myself for completing this book. When writing an academic book, you never know what kind of reaction to expect. I was just glad to have my book published and available for those who might find it interesting. I have been overjoyed and overwhelmed by the positive reception of “They Were Her Property.” It has received far more attention and, dare I say, praise, than I could have ever imagined. I also wrote this book for my ancestors and for the enslaved people who dared to share their experiences with federal government employees after slavery was over, and it makes me so happy to know that people are finding my book worth the read.