Sexism in Slavery: The Significance of Laboring Women

It seems contradictory that a person could simultaneously be treated as both completely worthless and completely inexpendable. Despite the paradoxical nature of this statement, it perfectly describes the plight of black women in early American slavery. Female slaves, though legally regarded as property, were vitally needed for not only their physical labor, but their biological capability to reproduce. Women were a highly exploited group of people that, while they were given no rights, identities, or sympathy, formed the foundation of the institution of New World slavery itself. The book Laboring Women by Jennifer L. Morgan details the specific struggles that a woman, and a woman alone, would have to face during her life as a slave. While some historical accounts tend to lump males and females together when discussing slavery, Morgan goes into detail about how the female slave experience specifically affected and defined the institution of slavery. Her argument shows that a deeper understanding of the female slave experience, specifically concerning their reproductive potential, can lend a hand to understanding the culture and psychology of a slave-owning society as a whole.

In Laboring Women, Morgan makes a point to challenge existing historical analyses of southern slavery by arguing that reproduction and motherhood in slavery was not only evidence of the exploitation of female slaves, but in fact central to understanding society at the time. Morgan calls her research a “study of… the impact of slavery on women’s lives and the impact of women on the development of slavery”. The author’s study starts from the very beginning of the life experience of a female slave, from before she even arrived in America. It begins with an evaluation of how an African woman was perceived. The overtly sexual descriptions of African women by European travelers set up the expectations of a black female in slavery. A black woman challenged the standards of conventional beauty and “embodied a deep threat to patriarchy” that invoked white men with a need to control her. Not only were they desired as laborers, but as sexual beings and objects of pleasure who, conveniently, had the biological ability to produce more free labor as a result of sex. This was based on a white man’s privilege of seeing a slave as lesser than himself. Being a woman in a society dominated by wealthy white men was a challenge enough- the objectification of enslaved women in particular was a direct result of the disregard for the physical and mental health of African Americans. In other words, slaveowners did not care if bearing child after child negatively affected the slave woman’s body. She was an object and a piece of property- a slave owner would do with a slave whatever he desired with no regard to humanity. The research of Jennifer L. Morgan attempts to explain how womanhood and white supremacy need to be studied in conjunction for a better understanding of racial division.

A piece of information that tends to go undervalued in discussions of slavery is the extent to which slave owners needed and depended upon the labor of their slaves, particularly the women, as they were not only involved in hard labor but worked as nurses, caretakers, and housekeepers. Morgan fiercely argues that the entire framework of slavery lies upon the slave owner’s dehumanization of their female slaves and the way they exploited them to reap all their benefits, both physical and ideological. Though it is important to recognize how crucial the reproductive system was to the institution of slavery, the author also implies that women are simply forces to be reckoned with, which explains why they were forcibly locked in a cycle of bondage by upper class males- to control them and to maintain power. Slave women, with their previously mentioned threat to the strength of the patriarchy, were victims of so much physical and sexual violence and yet expected to provide not only children, but care for those children, as well as the white children of some slaveowners.

So much power and potential resided in the hands of slave women that Morgan makes sure to end her investigation with remarks on the ways women fought back against their male oppressors. One of these ways was referred to as a “gynecological revolt”, in which women purposefully “withheld reproductive capabilities”. Reproduction as a resistive force was a specific way that women, and exclusively women, could act in spite of their owners. Similarly, a slave women may run away and symbolically take her children with her, stealing from her owner not only her own labor, but the labor her children could have potentially provided a slaveowner. As emotionally and physically draining as it was to be a slave woman, they still harbored a fierce maternal love for their offspring, and the “intensity of their desire to protect themselves and their children is self-evident” through the specific testaments Morgan utilizes in her research as she provides accounts of women who ran from their plantations and sought refuge in the North for themselves and their children.

Throughout her account, Morgan makes it apparent over and over again that studying sex as part of the core of slavery, rather than a separate element, fills gaps in historical analyses of slavery as a whole. Morgan wrote a compelling investigation; after all, a book about the experiences of a woman is, arguably, most accurately told by a woman, and the feminist drive of the book made it validating to read. Yet these features can also prompt the reader to reflect on the modern experiences of women, especially women of color and women who live today under the most inhumane conditions, such as women caught in the world of sex trafficking. Even today, we still have far to go.