Gender and slavery essay


The Division Of The Nineteenth Century

Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. This volume is a set of twelve essays on the subject of women and global slave systems, edited by three distinguished scholars: Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers, and Joseph C.

Miller, whose main goal is to offer differences across enslaved experiences and centralize gender as an analytical tool. In many respects, this volume offsets the attention asymmetrically paid to the experiences of enslaved men. Most of its essays focus on the desire "to emphasize enslaved women's economic values as workers and to include their physical presence in every other way, including forced sex as work" p.

According to the editors, "analysis of 'slaves' simply as labor, proprietarily and dominated, cannot reveal the gendered struggles within slavery any more than it can reveal the sexual and reproductive strategies of enslaved women to survive within slavery" p. In all, the essays in Women and Slavery consider sex as a "powerful tool, emotionally as well as physically" p. Contributing to various fields of study, including women's and gender studies, as well as racial problems in the Americas, these essays nuance the conditions, motivations, and experiences of enslaved women.

The contents of the book, separated into five parts, show that gender analysis is not limited to the study of sex, but also covers the influence of environmental and working conditions on enslaved women's reproduction and infertility. The authors become conversant with "detecting the experiences of enslavement distinctive to women, particularly as bearers of children whom they loved and protected and whom their masters often denied" p. This orientation underscores everyday conflicts that arise from perusing a gendered analysis. Several of the essays demonstrate how a focus on gender expands the range of "effective" responses to the horrors of modern global slavery.

Gender analysis spotlights individual opportunities that develop from sexual relations, which include reimagining kinship systems as avenues for emancipation. The essays essentially reorganize and complicate the pain, the taboo, and the unspeakable tenets of modern slavery for women in ways that emphasize human reciprocity and connectivity. The book's part 1 contains two chapters, the first of which, "Slave Women and Reproduction in Jamaica, ca. He demonstrates that scholarship on slavery has often shown low reproductive rates in enslaved populations as overt political resistance.

He emphasizes slave agency, but [End Page 87] with a focus on culture and in particular "the lethal effects of slavery itself" p. Above all, he explores the justifications of low fertility, such as Anglo myths about slave sexuality, African taboos about intercourse while nursing infants p.

The Original Riot Grrrls By Elizabeth Cady Stanton

It unveils a mystery about reproductive rates and sugar slavery in Louisiana. Follett discusses "the specific physiological mechanisms affecting the slave woman subject to the harsh regimen of sugar" p. In many cases, European and Indian conflicts over marriage reshaped gender roles of Native men and women. From the colonial southeast, across the continent, and in the southwest, marriage among Native Americans was a central instrument in brokering and fostering intercultural alliances.

On imperial frontiers, for instance, intermarriage between European men and Indigenous women cemented diplomatic and economic alliances between Indigenous communities and European traders. Like their male counterparts, women indigenous to North America who married Europeans held a unique status, simultaneously within and outside the European legal systems. In a later period, some European men took advantage of this extralegality to dissolve these relationships when it suited them, something that would have been nearly impossible in marriages among whites. Marital unions of enslaved men and women in British North America proceeded according to custom and generally carried no legal protections.

However, in other European jurisdictions, marriages between slaves carried legal recognition. In 17th-century New Amsterdam, for instance, a group of enslaved men petitioned their owner, the Dutch West India Company, for their freedom and that of their wives. Their request was granted, but it came with significant qualifications and did not reflect the status of all New Netherland slaves.

In addition, some enslaved women in New Netherland appear to have been successful in their requests for free status because of the value that whites placed on their domestic labor. In French and Latin America, slaves were often granted a limited legal personality with regard to marriage.


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While practices varied, several types of legally recognized marital arrangements seem to have been possible within and across the status of enslaved and free; occasionally, they were racially exogamous as well. Moreover, the legal recognition of marriages among slaves and between enslaved and free persons had the backing of ecclesiastical courts and the Catholic Church: depending upon jurisdiction, enslaved people could successfully sue masters who threatened to separate couples or families, for cruelty, and as well as to protect their property rights.

Evidence from Latin America and French and Spanish Louisiana testifies to some official recognition of unions between slaves as well as between enslaved and free blacks, and, occasionally, between whites and blacks. When courts—usually ecclesiastical jurisdictions—ruled in favor of enslaved couples over masters, they upheld the legal primacy of marriage over slavery. In addition, in some jurisdictions marriage provided an avenue out of slavery.

Despite its ban on interracial marriage, an early version of the Code Noir stipulated that concubines bearing children to unmarried free men would gain their freedom if the couple married. Although a later revision of the Code eliminated the legality of sex across the color line, interracial unions occurred, and some were sanctioned.

Moreover, in comparison to English jurisdictions, the manumission policies under both the French and Spanish regimes were more liberal and defined for ex-slaves and free people of color. This accounted for half of all manumissions after the assumption of New Orleans. The conditions and legal regimes in Spanish settlements created a society in which racially mixed unions were tolerated and in which free blacks, and particularly the women who predominated among that population, enjoyed the possibilities of legal, social, and economic standing.

Despite French and Spanish hostility towards free blacks, the imperial powers left unscathed many of their rights as subjects. The situation across colonial British America could not have been more different. Colonial statutes almost always proscribed marriage and sex between Europeans and African- or Indian-descended people, often under penalty of banishment. Extralegal, if locally recognized, unions seem to have predominated in regions such as the Chesapeake as well as colonial Louisiana and Florida and resulted from various causes, among them uneven sex ratios, the initial legal indeterminacy between slavery and servitude, religious attitudes, economic and political instability, and the mixing of Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans.

If free African- and Indian-descended women were able to marry under these terms, they could not expect that marriage would guarantee the protections and disabilities of coverture as their European counterparts did.

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Women, Race, and the Law in Early America - Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History

Marriages between two enslaved spouses were denied legal protection altogether in British North America. Throughout the early modern Americas, political authorities tailored legal regimes, including the legalities of marriage, to reflect both imperial inheritance and the realities of New World settlements. Free black men in late colonial and revolutionary New England, for example, sought to exploit these competing tensions to their advantage. These legal strategies employed by plaintiffs set coverture against slavery and used the legal subordination of wives to husba claims that met with some success in the lower courts.

Coverture positioned wives and husbands differently in marriage, of course. In lateth-century New England, for instance, the rules of coverture were used to limit the rights of enslaved and free women. In mixed-status marriages in which wives were free and husbands were enslaved, however, women could not consistently claim rights as heads of households and were forced to balance their rights as heads of households with their subordination as wives.

Women, Race, and the Law in Early America

Free women of color would need to carefully navigate the competing aims of masters, local courts, and statute law in order to keep their families intact. They would need to develop their skills as litigators and their legal acumen if they were to survive the shifting legalities of marriage and race occurring all around them. Although the association between women and the crime of witchcraft looms large in the contemporary imagination of early North America, women were far more likely to be accused of slander or defamation, sexual crimes, or running away than of felony witchcraft.

In all of these cases, the crimes and their punishments intersected with and varied according to race and status under the law.

Where women were the targets of defamation, for instance, the offending words typically cast aspersions on their sexual reputations and could also extend to accusations of interracial liaisons. For women, gossip was a way not only to judge others but also to enforce collective values. Slander was a major mechanism for women to exercise power in early modern America, a classic weapon of the weak; women had few other means to attack their enemies.

Fornication outside marriage and bastardy, or out-of-wedlock pregnancy, predominated as crimes for which free women were prosecuted in early North America. This was one of the few official functions of women before the colonial courts, one that recognized their legal expertise. Prosecutions for fornication and bastardy occurred in the North American colonies throughout the colonial period.

Some urban centers, such as Philadelphia and New Orleans, exhibited a relative tolerance for a range of sexual behaviors outside of marriage and an acceptance for unofficial marital practices; both of these spanned across class and race. In the former, a double standard—or the drive to hold women alone accountable for sexual infractions, rather than alongside their partners—emerged by the 18th century.

Extramarital sex was punished with whippings or fines, even when the offending couple married, and, particularly in the early years of settlement, required public penance as well. Where servants were numerous, such as in the Chesapeake, lawmakers evidenced a concerted drive to prosecute their sexual crimes. Here, too, men were prosecuted alongside women; while the latter bore the brunt of punishments, the courts were interested in determining paternal identity in order to secure support for the child.

Other Subject Areas

Servant women who bore children out of wedlock in the time of their servitude were saddled with a year or two of extra service in order to pay for their misdeeds. Statutes in particular indicted the character of servant women who bore children out of wedlock. Authorities also enacted particular punishments for white women who engaged in interracial sex, selling them into long-term labor contracts. Prosecutions of sex crimes before the courts were shaped by racial considerations from nearly the beginning of settlement, and by the early 18th century some British colonial jurisdictions had written race-specific statutes punishing bastardy.

In Virginia, mixed-race offspring of white women and men of color were sentenced to thirty years of service; similarly, the out-of-wedlock offspring of free women of color who had been servants in Virginia, for instance, were often bound over for similarly lengthy terms of service, typically thirty to thirty-one years. In the upper south, these laws effectively shaped the household polity for free blacks, creating a bound system of mixed-race, if nominally free, laborers.

Many free mixed-race children became servants for at least the first three decades of their lives. As had been the case in England since the enactment of the 16th-century Statute of Artificers, it was perfectly acceptable to compel free individuals, if they were poor, to labor. Keeping family members together was less important to the law than forcing the poor to work. Unlike their free counterparts, enslaved women could not legally be construed to be mothers, because the legal status of slavery for the most part negated prosecutions for fornication and bastardy.

In another point of contrast, enslaved women were subjected to plantation justice as well as the criminal justice system that lawmakers erected specifically for slaves. When they stood before the court as criminal defendants, African and Indian slaves and servants were more likely to be convicted than their European counterparts.

Enslaved women were subjected to all manner of private punishments meted out by their masters or mistresses or, if tried in the separate slave courts established in Virginia and other slave colonies, they were convicted in a summary justice system and endured far more severe punishments than their free and European counterparts. Some evidence from after the period of the American Revolution suggests that local communities mitigated these punishments or more actively sought redress for enslaved women who had been convicted of crimes.

In these cases, the abstraction of the law could be undercut by the concrete knowledge of communities, and cases, even those involving slaves, could hinge on local knowledge. Historians of early American women have argued for some time that the Revolution did not substantially alter the legal status of free women.

The Revolution did not challenge coverture or alter the law of domestic relations, and, in fact, female subordination may have even been strengthened in the landscape of the early Republic. Legal changes in the wake of the Revolution did, however, liberalize complete divorce in the United States. While colonial statutes had allowed partial divorces in the form of legal separations a mensa et thoro , only a few jurisdictions had offered absolute divorce a vincula either through the courts, as in Connecticut, or through private legislative act.


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Making divorce, albeit on the premise that one party was at fault, more widely available carried fairly radical implications for marriages involving free women. The Revolution did, however, alter the landscape of slavery in the new United States. Northern states, where slavery was never as directly central to the labor system as it was in the south, began enacting gradual emancipation statutes in the wake of the American Revolution.

Although in the southern colonies the earliest codes defining racial slavery were elaborated throughout the colonial period and remained in place through the Civil War, a wave of manumissions in the upper south followed in the wake of the American Revolution, when legislators briefly liberalized emancipation statutes. In the north, free women of color became involved in antislavery work; in the south, they became active petitioners and litigants in court, seeking to maintain or secure the freedom of themselves and their families.

Yet, while slavery may have been dismantled or compromised in some jurisdictions, that did not quell racism. In contrast, the U. Manumissions were restricted to those above the age of thirty, and newly freed individuals were ordered to leave the territory. Marriages across status between enslaved and free people were outlawed, as were interracial unions. The lines of legitimate inheritance, previously much more expansive in Louisiana, were changed to strictly follow marriages. In addition, while Pennsylvania repealed its ban on interracial marriage in , existing and new statutory laws against interracial marriage and sex were strengthened and spread through much of the new United States.

Some Indian nations also enacted prohibitions against intermarriage with African Americans.

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