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The Massive, Overlooked Role of Female Slave Owners

March 12, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

Most Americans know that George Washington owned enslaved people at his Mount Vernon home. But fewer probably know that it was his wife, Martha, who dramatically increased the enslaved population there. When they wed in 1759, George may have owned around 18 people. Martha, one of the richest women in Virginia, owned 84.

The high number of people Martha Washington owned is unusual, but the fact that she owned them is not. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, a history professor at the University of California-Berkeley, is compiling data on just how many white women owned slaves in the U.S.; and in the parts of the 1850 and 1860 census data she’s studied so far, white women make up about 40 percents of all slave owners.

Slaveholding parents “typically gave their daughters more enslaved people than land,” says Jones-Rogers, whose book They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South came out in February 2019. “What this means is that their very identities as white southern women are tied to the actual or the possible ownership of other people.”

White women were active and violent participants in the slave market. They bought, sold, managed and sought the return of enslaved people, in whom they had a vested economic interest. Owning a large number of enslaved people made a woman a better marriage prospect. Once married, white women fought in courts to preserve their legal ownership over enslaved people (as opposed to their husband’s ownership), and often won. “For them, slavery was their freedom,” Jones-Rogers observes in her book.

They Were Her Property upends a lot of older scholarship. For example, previous scholars have argued that most southern white women didn’t buy, sell or inflict violence on enslaved people because this was considered improper for them. But Jones-Rogers argues that white women were actually trained to participate from a very young age.

An illustration of a slave auction, where both white men and women took part.

“Their exposure to the slave market is not something that begins in adulthood—it begins in their homes when they’re little girls, sometimes infants, when they’re given enslaved people as gifts,” she says. Citing interviews with formerly enslaved people that the Works Progress Administration—a New Deal agency—conducted in the 1930s, Jones-Rogers shows that part of white children’s training in plantation management involved beating enslaved people.

“It didn’t matter whether the child was large or small,” …read more


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