Review of They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers
They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South
by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers
Back in the summer, I participated in a book club for educators where we read White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color. Ruby Hamad cited this book once or twice, and I was intrigued. Hamad wanted to make the point that white women benefit from both patriarchy and white supremacy, that in colonial situations like this they will uphold the existing racist structure rather than work against racism because it benefits them to do so. (Ijeoma Oluo touches on this in the context of women's suffrage in Mediocre.) Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ book here delivers a more thorough treatment of this subject in the specific period of nineteenth-century America.
Jones-Rogers specifically wants to challenge some prevailing views among previous historians that constructed white women's relationship to slavery through sociological assumptions about women's suitability for the business of owning people. These historians, Jones-Rogers contends, often interpreted absences from the historical record—for example, when it comes to the transactions of selling and buying people—as evidence of the absence of women as independent slave owners. She uses oral testimony from former enslaved people to reconstruct a fuller picture of domestic goings-on that contradicts this view of white slave-owning women: not only were they keenly aware of the economic aspect of slavery, but they fought fiercely, in the courts and at home, to protect their interests.
On the legal front, Jones-Rogers challenges the notion that white slave-owning women just gave up all their interest in their slaves the moment they married. On the contrary, numerous legal records demonstrate the lengths to which these women would go to ensure that their slaves remained under their control as opposed to their husband’s. Similarly, although these women would often delegate the buying and selling of their slaves to their husbands, they also took care of that themselves or directly hired third-party agents. Jones-Rogers also points out that the written historical record often misses the informal arrangements that white slave-owning women would make to hire out enslaved people to other women, either for routine domestic labour or as a trial before purchase.
In all of these ways, Jones-Rogers contends that these women were complicit in enslavement, active participants as opposed to merely disinterested witnesses to a male-dominated phenomenon. White women in the American South often owned slaves, either ones they inherited from family or were given at marriage time, or ones that they bought, sometimes themselves. As Jones-Rogers traces all of these paths, she also reconstructs a very full picture of enslavement in the American South, from the nature of labour on a plantation to slave markets. I think I’m not alone in confessing that my understanding of slavery is so removed from this time period that I don’t really know what life was like during this period. The idea that enslavement was just a given, and part of how society functioned, is as alien to me as our reliance on wireless technology and electricity would be to these women. Most popular media focuses on the overt horror of enslavement, on using slavery as a form of shock entertainment—and while there are lessons to be derived from that, I appreciate that Jones-Rogers takes a tack that, while drier, is also incredibly eye-opening.
The book closes with the end of the American Civil War and Reconstruction. I learned a lot about this period from The Impeachers, including the delightful tidbit that a lot of slave owners actively concealed emancipation from their slaves. So when Jones-Rogers discusses how many white slave-owning women did everything they could to hold on to enslaved people on their land, either through deceit or simply trying to hire them back as labourers, I was not surprised. But as with the rest of the book, she provides detailed and specific accounts that really drive home the attitudes and possible motivations of these people.
Last summer I read The History of White People. It is a macroscopic view of the origins of whiteness, and from there racism and white supremacy. They Where Her Property is a much more focused book, taking a small slice of whiteness and putting it under a microscope for us to examine very closely. In both cases, however, the conclusion can’t be any clearer: anti-Black racism (with enslavement as a particularly acute example) is correlated with the economic engine of capitalism. White women in the American South backed slavery and owned slaves because it was economically beneficial to do so. Yes, you had a minority who truly viewed Black people as mentally inferior. But many of these white women understood that Black people were just as human and capable as they were, yet they willingly erased that humanity for the sake of economic gain.
Why did I, a Canadian in the twenty-first century, bother reading a book about white American slave-owning women in the nineteenth? Jones-Rogers ends the book by labelling white women as “co-conspirators” in slavery. Well, we might not have slavery in a legal sense here in Canada in 2021, but, as Hamad demonstrates in White Tears/Brown Scars, white women are still co-conspirators when it comes to upholding whiteness and white supremacy. I wanted to understand this in an historical context and see the line from white slave-owning women then to white feminists now. For it is common for white feminists to move to innocence by falling back on a manufactured universal sorority: “all women” struggle against patriarchy. This is an amnesiacal reading of history, a white supremacist reading of history, that deliberately erases the harm white women have done in service to patriarchy because they were promised a form of power (in this case, ownership and control over enslaved people for labour and profit) in return. Not only do I want to challenge my fellow white women when they exhibit white fragility or privilege, but I also want to challenge these kinds of assertions and do so in a knowledgeable way.
As a more academic volume, They Were Her Property won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, so I can’t give a blanket recommendation. But if, like me, you enjoy deep dives into these pockets of history, then I suggest you check out this book!
My next goal is to learn more about the history of anti-Blackness in Canada, including slavery while it was legal in British North America, along with Canada’s complicity in upholding enslavement in the United States following that! Book recommendations to this end are welcome.