George White spent his childhood in slavery in Virginia and had firsthand experience of the behavior of plantation “mistresses,” the counterparts of slave-owning male “masters.” In a 1937 interview, White recalled that whenever his mistress “wanted a dress, she would sell a slave.” Drawing on accounts such as White’s, the historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers provides the first extensive study of the role of Southern white women in the plantation economy and slave-market system.
The field of women’s history has long been committed to making the invisible visible: taking topics and sources that were obscured, overlooked or hiding in plain sight and bringing them into sharp focus. Plantation mistresses’ exercise of mastery and their complicity in the system of slavery have been obscured, ironically, both by very old forms of proslavery propaganda and by modern feminist scholarship. Proslavery propaganda from the 19th century depicted white women as the “gentler” face of slaveholding — as benevolent souls whose acts of kindness softened the system and as domestic creatures content to submit to male authority. Some modern scholarship, emphasizing white women’s discontent within antebellum patriarchy, ascribes to them a “covert abolitionism,” or resentment at the violence perpetrated by slaveholding men; in such an interpretation, white women shared a measure of victimhood with enslaved women. Building on the scholarship of Duke historian Thavolia Glymph, who foregrounded white women’s violence in her 2008 book, “Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household,” Jones-Rogers demonstrates in “They Were Her Property” that white women wielded immense power and authority as slaveholders in the Old South, and wielded them callously and cruelly.
Slaveholding, Jones-Rogers emphasizes in her opening chapter, was learned behavior, and white girls were groomed for the role of plantation mistress. At a young age, they were gifted and bequeathed slaves and participated in slave management, including the meting out of brutal punishments. Jones-Rogers explains that the very term “mistress” did not connote womanly subordination in this cultural setting but instead referred to a slaveholding woman’s dominion as her husband’s counterpart. Enslaved persons, adults and children alike, were often required to call white females — even infants and toddlers — by the title “mistress.” And the prerogatives of the master class extended beyond the boundaries of any given household. Jones-Rogers notes that “young white southerners, by virtue of their skin color, were empowered by law and custom to exercise control over any enslaved person they crossed paths with, even those they did not own.”
Tracing the transition from childhood to adulthood, Jones-Rogers turns to married women’s roles and identities as slaveholders. At the heart of her book is the distinction between legal doctrines and everyday realities: While the doctrine of coverture stipulated that a woman lost her legal autonomy once she married, ceding her property to her husband, in practice women often refused to relinquish the power over slaves that they had cultivated since girlhood. Through legal tools such as marriage contracts (the equivalent of modern prenuptial agreements), deeds, wills and trust arrangements, mistresses moved to exert control over their own estates, seeking to ensure, for example, that their inheritances would not be seized to pay their husbands’ debts.
At every turn in her analysis, Jones-Rogers takes care to illuminate how we know what we know. Her central sources are firsthand accounts by enslaved persons, especially the more than 2,000 interviews with former slaves recorded by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency, in the 1930s. In those interviews, formerly enslaved people clearly recall having female owners and recall, too, the authority those female owners exercised in exploiting, punishing and tormenting their bondspeople. A vast documentary record confirms these recollections: For example, women appear as slave owners in census records; in newspaper advertisements for the return of runaways; and in court records, confronting spouses who refused to recognize their property rights.
Jones-Rogers offers her most potent challenge to received wisdom in her chapters on the slave market. Historians have made great strides in the past generation in mapping the geographic scope and tragic human toll of the domestic slave trade, which redistributed slaves from the Upper South to the Deep South “cotton kingdom.” But historians have tended to imagine that slave trading was men’s work, and that white Southern women were insulated from the auction houses and markets where human beings were bought and sold. Jones-Rogers argues persuasively that white Southern women were active as hirers and buyers and sellers of slaves, and that plantation households were extensions of the market. Again, she is able to cross-reference firsthand accounts by former slaves with other sorts of sources, such as slave traders’ account books and bills of sale. Among these sources are thousands of previously overlooked advertisements in Southern newspapers for enslaved wet nurses to feed white infants. White women presided over this marketplace, one that often separated black women from their own children and even pressed into service women who had recently experienced the death of their newborn infants.
“They Were Her Property” tells the story of white women’s power and their complicity. “Southern households were not monolithically patriarchal,” Jones-Rogers contends, highlighting the grim savvy and self-assertion white women showed in acting as petitioners, litigants and entrepreneurs in pursuit of property and profit. Having demonstrated white women’s “immense economic stake in the continued enslavement of African Americans,” Jones-Rogers concludes her study by showing the lengths women went to in order to preserve slavery during the Civil War. They sought the capture of fugitive slaves who ran toward freedom behind Union lines; moved the enslaved away from the encroaching federal army, or held them in local jails or hid them in their homes to prevent their flight; and withheld the news of emancipation from them to prolong their captivity.
After the war, former mistresses “held fast to their sense of entitlement,” using coercive labor contracts to deprive freedpeople of proper compensation for their labor and to “re-create the conditions that had characterized slavery.” And they moved, as memoirists and authors, to romanticize the “old South” and the Confederacy’s “lost cause,” weaving fanciful pictures of slavery that “showed no brutality, no privation, no agony, no loss, no tears, no sweat, no blood.” In holding slave-owning women to account, Jones-Rogers has provided a brilliant, innovative analysis of American slavery, one that sets a new standard for scholarship on the subject.
By Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers
Yale. 296 pp. $30