Eric V. Snow



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Kemble on a Stricter Sexual Division of Labor's Advantages
Throughout the South, slaveowners expected black women to work in the fields. When noting that men and women had to perform the same size of task assignments before the current overseer arrived to manage her husband's estates, Kemble sarcastically commented: "This was a noble admission of female equality, was it not?" She approved of his reduction in the amount of work allotted to the women as compared to the men, but she still disliked mothers with five or ten children having to do as much work as women with none. Kemble felt having to do both housework as well as regular field labor was an aching burden. Although blaming the "filthy, wretched" condition of the children and "negligent, ignorant, wretched" mothers upon slavery in general, she maintained a sharper sexual division of labor would be necessary to change their plight:
It is hopeless to attempt to reform their habits or improve their condition while the women are condemned to field labor; nor is it possible to overestimate the bad moral effect of the system as regards the women entailing this enforced separation from their children, and neglect of all the cares and duties of mother, nurse, and even housewife, which are all merged in the mere physical toil of a human hoeing machine.
Then she explains the case of Ned, the engineer/mechanic who tended to the engines in the rice-island plantation's steam mill for shelling rice. His wife’s health had largely been ruined by a combination of heavy field work and child bearing. As a result, she now spent most of her time in the estate's miserable "hospital." What this woman endured Kemble compared to the lifestyle and standard of living that a Northern artisan’s wife had. Such a free man would earn enough so his wife would only have to do housework. If his wife became an invalid, he likely would be able to hire or get some outside help for her.329 Kemble clearly believed both freedom and a sharper division of labor between the sexes would have benefited the slave women.
Kemble's attitudes on a woman's role in the world of work require some closer examination. Although she was an actress by profession and certainly not personally strict practitioner of the Victorian ideology of the separate spheres herself, then-contemporary middle class sensibilities on the subject still strongly influenced her. She also had at this writing two very young children of her own; the burden of caring for them would have encouraged her to want her husband’s financial support. She surely projected her own personal situation onto the slave mothers who had far more children than she had, yet also had to work long days for very little return outside the home. She found the thoughts of having to do the same herself simply appalling. After all, the jobs most of these slave women had hardly promoted what today might be called "self-actualization," even if they had been paid wages for them. Most people would find becoming a "human hoeing machine" to be intrinsically unappealing. She, as a middle class woman, could benefit from the positive side of the separate spheres, at least while being burdened with young children and not practicing her profession. Dill notes that middle class women who placed a premium on family stability could benefit from it--which women with young children are especially apt to find worth the trade-offs required:
Notwithstanding the personal constraints placed on women's development, the notion of separate spheres promoted the growth and stability of family life among the white middle class and became the basis for the working-class men's efforts to achieve a family wage, so that they could keep their wives at home. Also, women gained a distinct sphere of authority and expertise that yielded them special recognition.330
Besides the reality that female field hand slaves “enjoyed” a basic sexual equality that resulted from a system of coercion and exploitation, Kemble's own personal situation as a mother caring for young children likely inspired her to take an insistent stand against having women work long hours while their older pre-teen children lounged about in idleness.
Jobs Female Slaves Had
Slave women routinely performed tasks in the field that white women either never did, or only did when their husbands were dead or absent for a long time. Olmsted witnessed a scene where slave women spread manure from baskets carried on their heads, with one filling her apron with it before moving it. The ability of some slave women who plowed using double teams particularly impressed him. Although he "watched with some interest for any indication that their sex unfitted them for the occupation," he found "they twitched their ploughs around on the head-land, jerk[ed] their reins, and yell[ed] to their mules, with apparent ease, energy, and rapidity." Mrs. Ellis, a slave who escaped from Delaware, testified: "I did a great deal of heavy out-door work,--such as driving team, hauling manure, etc." Northrup described four "large and stout" lumberwomen who were "excellent choppers" and "were equal to any man" at piling logs. In his area of Louisiana, women would "plough, drag, drive team, clear wild lands, work on the highway, and so forth." Furthermore, "some planters, owning large cotton and sugar plantations, have none other than the labor of slave women." Although the tendency was to have women hoe and men plow, "the exceptions to [this] rule were so numerous as to make a mockery of it." So slave women often did heavy work like the men, even if proportionately fewer did such tasks or as much of them when they were pregnant or soon after giving birth.331
To get a more specific picture of which jobs slaveowners assigned to men, women, or both, Barrow's diary repays analysis. Since he owned and managed a large plantation, his operations featured more specialization than small farms with just a handful of slaves would have. In order to keep some slaves busy on days when it rained or other conditions idled them, he had the women spin cotton. This was one of his most common diary notations besides mentions about the weather, certain specific field operations, and notes concerning his crops' conditions.332 In an occupation that (earlier) in the eighteenth-century America symbolized femininity (i.e., “spinsters,”) Barrow chose never to place men at work at it, suffering them to be sometimes idle instead of (in the name of filling his wallet) making the men also do it.333 On one day of very heavy rain, May 5, 1845, he wrote with obvious annoyance: "Women spinning--Men doing nothing."334 He also gave women tasks that were unfeminine by early Victorian standards besides what they did in regular field work by hoeing or picking cotton. He made them haul hay, build fences, roll logs, clear land, even work on the dam.335 At some of these tasks men helped or did at other times, such as when all hands rolled logs or a "few men" assisted the women. Besides regular field work, the men’s odd jobs included working on the roads, getting timber, chopping and sawing wood, repairing chimneys, getting rails, and pressing cotton into bales to prepare it for shipment.336 The scattered tasks Barrow assigned to slaves of both genders included making fences, clearing land (although this tended to be a male task), and "trashing cotton," which involved removing extraneous matter out of picked cotton.337 The "sucklers," meaning nursing mothers formed into a gang for various odd jobs, performed such light tasks as planting peas, trashing cotton, replanting corn, and spinning cotton.338 Although for regular tasks such as hoeing or picking cotton Barrow assigned both sexes to them, he definitely still drew some lines between men and women for various odd jobs.
Since enslaved men and women often did similar jobs, how did this tendency affect their marriage relationships? As noted above, the institution of slavery seriously weakened the husband's role. Unlike men in the surrounding free society characterized by patriarchal practices, the slave husband had little ability to control his wife through owning some part of the means of production or through being the main wage worker in his family, placing his wife in an economically-dependent position. His wife worked directly for her master or mistress, receiving a certain standard ration for herself and her children regardless of whether or not her husband lived on the same plantation or farm as she did. She received the same ration for herself regardless of whether she was unmarried, divorced, or widowed. Financial necessity and the burdens of pregnancy and bearing children simply were not important factors in driving slave women into the arms of their husbands, keeping them together as marital "glue." A relatively equal sexual division of labor caused men to treat their wives more like equals, as a coworker in life under ideal circumstances. Even after he and his wife had escaped slavery, John Little took for granted the heavy labor his wife did besides him in Canada: "My wife worked right along with me: I did not realize it then, for we were raised slaves, the women accustomed to work, and undoubtedly the same spirit comes with us here." So together they chopped trees, logged trunks, and cleared the land generally in Ontario's wilderness. His wife gained self-respect from her abilities in doing such work: "I got to be quite hardy--quite used to water and bush-whacking; so that by the time I got to Canada, I could handle an axe, or hoe, or any thing. I felt proud to be able to do it--to help get cleared up, so that we could have a home, and plenty to live on." Clearly, even after the Littles gained freedom, the habits gained from slavery’s weak sexual division of labor promoted equality within their relationship. This freed couple’s comments support White's speculation: "Since neither slave men nor women had access to, or control over, the products of their labor, parity in the field may have encouraged equalitarianism in the slave quarters."339
Exceptions to the Slaves’ Weak Division of Labor
The picture drawn above of a weak sexual division of labor among American slaves drawn above needs some important qualifications. Although the field hands and domestic servants had fairly equal numbers of men and women among both, the ranks of drivers and artisans were almost exclusively filled by men.340 Slave women also did most of their own housework, in part because of "marrying abroad.” This widespread practice put the husband and wife on different farms or plantations because they had different owners. The husband ended up often ended up treating where he worked during the day or week as a virtual barracks, not as his true home. "Home" was where he visited his wife and children at night or on weekends. As a result, while their husbands were gone, the full burden of cooking, cleaning, washing, and feeding children by absolute necessity fell on their wives. Even when present, he may have done little housework--a phenomenon familiar to many contemporary women enduring their own "second shift" of housework. Because of their long work days, slave mothers often gave little attention to housework or child rearing. Booker T. Washington recalled that his mother normally had little time to help her children during the day: "She snatched a few moments for our care in the early morning before her work began, and at night after the day's work was done." Also because of the burdens of pregnancy, the recovery process after delivery, and the need to nurse their children, slave women may, for some short given period, have been given different, lighter tasks or even excluded from work altogether. Planter Barrow's gang of "sucklers" reflected this practice. On Kemble’s husband's rice-island estate, a number of the slave women petitioned to have the time they could avoid hoeing the fields after birth increased from three weeks to four. Mary, one of these slaves, mentioned Kemble's babies and her "carefully tended, delicately nursed, and tenderly watched confinement and convalescence" while entreating her to have less exhausting labor assigned to them the month after giving birth. Although evidently their petitions for increased maternity leave went nowhere, they still demonstrate the practice’s reality. Inevitably it placed women in a different labor role from their husbands at least briefly. Of course, as White and Johnson note, not all masters lessened the burdens of pregnant women. Some women did gain positions of prestige, in jobs largely or exclusively limited to their gender, such as midwife, skilled seamstress, cook, and/or "mammy" in domestic service.341 So although the sexual division of labor was generally weak among the slaves because most were field hands or (unspecialized) domestic servants, a much sharper specialization characterized the higher echelon jobs, and the special female burdens arising from reproduction caused at least some temporary distinctions to appear among average slaves.
Plantation Day Care Revisited
Rudimental day care and, sometimes, communal cooking socialized functions on plantations that slave families otherwise would have done individually. As a result, their owners boosted the labor force participation rate from a free average of about one-third to about two-thirds through (especially) forcing women and older children into the fields.342 By having one or more old women look after the children who really took care of the babies and toddlers during work hours, the master class greatly narrowed the differences between the work of women and men.343 These children carried the babies to their mothers to nurse them, when they did not get them on their own.344 Olmsted knew one fairly enlightened master in Louisiana who gave nursing mothers two hours with their babies at noon, and let them get off work one hour earlier in the evening. These mothers carried a heavy load in toiling all day then getting their children afterwards. Once a slave on a cotton sea-island estate, freedman Benjamin De Leslie described the burden this way of life imposed on his mother: "Us chillun [were] lef' wid er granny. Mammy'd come in at dark, bare feet wet wid de sweat whut run down all day. . . . Reckon folks terday don' know much 'bout wu'k."345 Masters greatly increased the hours of field work (or domestic service) and correspondingly reduced the amount of leisure time, education, and housework their female slaves would have had if they had been free. As a result, they got more work and thus agricultural production from the average slave through greatly weakening the sexual division of labor. But shipping out more cotton bales (or barrels of molasses) came at the cost of undermining the slave family's stability by reducing the importance of the father's role and by assigning childrearing to somewhat older children themselves in a communal setting, as discussed previously.
Force and exploitation were the foundation for the degraded equality of the sexes that generally prevailed under slavery. As Davis wrote: "The unbridled cruelty of this leveling process whereby the black woman was forced into equality with the black man requires further explanation. She shared in the deformed equality of equal oppression." After freedom came, black families soon adopted generally the whites' sexual division of labor.346 Some today might criticize their choices, but at least whites were not coercing them to choose otherwise. Certain non-quantifiable aspects of the quality of life for these families improved through such a decision, which allowed for more housework of a higher quality, parental supervision of children, and additional time for children or even adults to get an education. Fundamental decisions affecting the quality of life such as the sexual division of labor should be decided by those personally affected, not outsiders using force to bring about particular results for their own economic benefit.
The Sexual Division of Labor: English Agricultural Workers
A major difference between the sexual division of labor between American slaves and English farmworkers was the transformation of the latter's during the time period being surveyed (c. 1750-1875). By contrast, since driving women into the fields was well established even in colonial times, here little changed during the nineteenth century for the bondsmen. In the English case from the late eighteenth century on into the nineteenth, as male unemployment rose as due to enclosure and population growth, farm laboring women generally were pushed out of the labor force, at least in the southeastern arable areas of England. The parish of Selattyn in Shropshire returned a questionnaire for the 1834 Poor Law Report stating: "Women and Children are not now so much employed as formerly, because labouring men are so plentiful, and their labour so cheap." The parish authorities, facing a major problem in finding work even for married men, ranked employing women much lower since they could always be (conveniently) seen as homemakers primarily, having a built-in job ready made to keep them busy and out of trouble. By contrast, unemployed and underemployed men were considered much more dangerous and troublesome. They idled their time away in beerhouses and pubs, got drunk, had fights, and went poaching for game to feed their families. Their role in society when without wage work to do was much more anomalous and purposeless than that of women, whose ability to bear children to continue the species gave them more in-built meaning to their lives. Their inborn aggressive tendencies, since they led easily to various crimes, were made to order for increasing the petty sessions' docket size. So beyond any of the standard prejudices against women having certain jobs--attitudes which were significantly weaker in the late eighteenth century than in the Victorian period anyway as Snell explains--the local parish powers-that-be had their reasons for prioritizing the employment of men.347

Women's Work in Arable Areas at Harvest Time Increased Later in the Century
From the 1850s on, the number of women employed full time or for long periods in field labor apparently increased in arable areas during harvest or other seasonal peaks in the yearly agricultural cycle. They were hired more then because as the size of England's harvests grew, mechanization had not kept apace to help much in bringing the crops in.348 As many local labor markets tightened in the third quarter of the nineteenth century onwards as a general rural depopulation through migration occurred, women increasingly reentered the fields during harvest. Often their work was subsumed as part of the family economy, when the whole family, husband, wife, and children, harvested grain together under a piece-work agreement with a local farmer. Even the ancient practice of gleaning, which women and children had always dominated, continued long into the nineteenth century.349 Snell and Morgan’s differences in outlook on women's participation in the labor force lie in the former's emphasis on the 1700-1850 period and on the south where women had become increasingly scarce in the fields, while the latter deals with 1840-1900, and deals with England more generally.350
The 1867 Report on Women and Children in Agriculture reflects the changes Morgan brings to light. The Report paints a diverse picture of how much women were employed in field work. In some areas, none worked in the field, for others, they appeared sometimes, while in some places, they routinely worked.351 Women customarily labored in the fields where competition for workers was strong, such as the industrial north. In northern Northumberland, women, normally unmarried adults, were "bound" in what was called "bondage" (i.e., under contract). These women did heavy farm work for local farmers while still living at their parents' homes. One sample farm in this area had eight men, eight women, and three "lads" as the “regular staff.” In southern Northumberland, married women often worked, earning one pound a week.352 As Patrick noted, the gang system's perceived moral scandals and exploitation in the Fens largely sparked the writing of the 1867-68 Report. Under this system, gang masters employed women and children in groups to (especially) plant, weed, and harvest root crops because not enough laborers lived near by. Rounding up groups of ten to forty women and children from a nearby village, the gang masters led them to relatively distant farms to work. In the Humber-Wold area, the wives of steadily employed male laborers avoided field work, but the wives irregularly-employed "catch work" laborers and their children worked in order to make up for lost ground financially. Here women and children commonly harvested potatoes. In Yorkshire, farmers made tacit agreements with male laborers that, as a condition of employment, their wives and children also had to be placed in their service. These agreements failed to guarantee them steady employment, but they meant this "auxiliary labor" was not allowed to go shopping around for higher wages elsewhere nearby during the peak harvest and/or haymaking seasons. In the south, female workers were still scarce, at least as year-around laborers. Northampton reported only 190 female laborers out of a group of 8,975. Jeffries, who mainly based his perceptions of English agriculture on what he saw in 1870s Wiltshire, maintained that female field work had declined, especially for the winter months, even if a number still worked in the summer and spring.353 Clearly, many women still did field work in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, especially in northern England and during seasonal peaks.
The Female Dominance of Dairy Work Declines
Women had long dominated dairy work. Because of the demand for dairymaids, female laboring employment and their wages had fallen little in pastoral areas in the southwest of England during the 1780-1840 period, as Snell notes.354 Skilled, experienced dairymaids and the farmers' wives who supervised the maids and/or took on their work themselves brought in a cash income that helped pay the rent. A dairy farm’s mistress might supervise two to twenty maids, with each maid tending ten cows in turn, working from before dawn into the late evening. They also had a significant amount of independence from direct male supervision since their menfolk often knew little about the process of making cheese from milk. Indeed, a small farmer with the misfortune of having only sons and no daughters might be forced into raising livestock and abandoning dairying! But then, in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, men interested in improving methods and thus profitability invaded this female preserve. They saw dairywomen as archconservatives unconcerned with innovation and progress in their craft. Male managers and cheese factors, wishing to serve the market more efficiently by applying a scientific approach to dairying in general and cheesemaking in particular, gradually began to shed light on what had been largely a female mystery. As a result, women here increasingly lost control of their old domain. Many farmers' wives, such as one Jeffries describes, abandoned this line of work when alternatives presented themselves, because it required long hours and much hard work. Interestingly enough, the move by farmers' wives into the parlors and housework strictly considered happened before the Victorian ideology about the separate spheres held sway. Machinery assisted in this transition, which allowed farmers to use fewer dairymaids overall, and less skilled personnel to supervise the tasks involved. Hence, a largely female sanctuary within the agricultural work force fell increasingly under direct male domination in the nineteenth century, even though dairymaids were still hired as live-in farm servants by larger farmers when their own wives' and daughters' labor was insufficient, assuming their female family members had not abandoned dairying themselves.355
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