Women in Slavery and the Fight for Social Freedoms

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Women in Slavery

and the Fight for Social Freedoms

by Sophie Wackenhut

Although enslaved men and women are generally categorized under the main heading of slaves, the treatment of the two sexes under slavery differs greatly. The separation between men and women by slave owners refers to the patterns of work. Enslaved women usually had a double task as a slave and as a wife and mother. As a result, women often worked much harder than men. The physical abuse bestowed on the enslaved persons was generally not gender separated. Whether a man or a woman, a slave received equal amounts of physical abuse such as beatings. However, women also suffered from the physical violation of their bodies. Many slave women were sexually exploited during their years in bondage. The fight for social freedoms on the part of the slaves required much effort. While striving for freedom, first hand accounts by the slaves, of their struggle, were very effective. Although at first whites, especially during the Revolutionary War, held a double standard of freedom for themselves and for slaves, they later participated in the abolition movement. However, once slaves achieved freedom, they were still not equal to whites. Thus, the fight for equal rights started. The women’s movement grew out of the abolition movement as women realized that they too were being oppressed.

In 1851, at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, a tall black woman stood up among the white men and women. After hearing speeches continuously explaining that men were superior over women, Sojourner Truth walked to the podium. Like many former slaves she had joined in the fight to abolish slavery. However, her work as an abolitionist led to working on the women’s rights movement. Sojourner Truth used her experiences as an enslaved woman, generalized in her speech “Ain’t I a Woman,” to advance the crusade for the abolition of slavery as well as for women’s rights.

The man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody helps me any best place. And ain’t I a woman? (Ain’t I a Woman?)

Slavery, in general, was marked with the idea of separation, whether black and white, male and female, or object and person. Peter Kolchin writes, “ . . . slave relations were marked by a dualism inherent in slavery: slaves were at the same time both objects and subjects, humans property help for the purpose of enriching the masters and individuals with lives of their own” (111). Slave owners viewed themselves as inherently superior to the black race. Therefore, black men and women were subjugated to the tortures of bondage. However, enslaved women were treated differently than enslaved men. Since males were dominant over women in white society, black women were oppressed in their society for the same reasons. Deborah Gray White states: “Black in a white society, slave in a free society, women in a society ruled by men, female slaves had the least formal power and were perhaps the most vulnerable group of antebellum Americans” (15). Men considered women to be physically and mentally inferior. Many black women, though, proved that they were equal, if not superior to men throughout many aspects of slave life.

Look at me! Look at my arm. I have plowed, I have planted and I have gathered into barns. And no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman? (Ain’t I a Woman?)

Some plantation owners took the idea of the inferior social standing of white women and carried it over to slave women. Thus, black women in their minds could not do the same work as black men. “Much of the work slaves did and the regime they followed served to stratify slave society along sex lines” (White 119). The owner’s views were carried over by the male slaves, familiar with the same African customs, to create a male dominated society. Since gender “. . . provided a natural and easy way to divide the labor force” (White 121), white owners did so. However, both white slave owners and black male slaves underestimated the strength of the enslaved women. Bell Hooks writes: “The black male slave was primarily exploited as a laborer in the fields; the black female was exploited as a laborer in the fields, a worker in the domestic household, a breeder, and as an object of white male sexual assault.” (22). Few people, male and female, realized the importance of the role of slave women in society, both black and white.

I could work as much, and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? (Ain’t I a Woman?)

Working in the fields and in the main house, women proved themselves as good workers, in some ways equal to males. In many cases, women were given the same tasks as the men who were physically stronger. Richard H. Steckel writes:

. . . only three-quarters of adult males were ordinary laborers and . . . the other slaves were skilled craftsmen, such as blacksmiths and carpenters; semi-skilled workers, such as gardeners and coachmen; or managers. Semiskilled, and especially skilled, jobs were less available to women, 80 percent of whom labored in the fields. Most of the women not employed in fieldwork were servants, seamstresses, or nurses. (45)

Despite the smaller number of women who were skilled workers, they often surpassed the expectations of the owners and overseers. Enslaved women also had to balance their lives as wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends with their life as a slave. Thus their work load was much more time consuming. While men could return from the fields and rest, women had to cook, clean, and take care of the children. White states that women “. . . sometimes worked long after their return from the fields, and long after the men had retired” (122). None of the women’s duties to the slave owners or to their family could be left undone. Slave women had to balance all aspects of their lives in order to please others.

Slave-owners expected that slaves would perform their jobs accurately, quickly, and without any resistance. If the assigned jobs were not finished, owners and overseers held the right to punish the slaves. Slaves in general were brutally punished, and owners and overseers made no distinctions between males or females when beating their slaves. Charles Joyner writes: “Punishment seems to have been administered most commonly for failure to finish tasks [but] whippings were also administered for offenses such as theft, illicit slave meetings, being off the plantation without a ticket or pass, and attempting to run away” (53). Any type of wrongdoings by the slaves could be punishable by physical abuse. Since women were not distinguished from males, many had to learn to receive punishments no matter what they had done wrong.

I have borne children and seen most of them sold into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman (Ain’t I a Woman?)

Slavery, though often thought of only as a source of domination and power on the part of whites, was also a source of great wealth for many owners. Claire Robertson writes: “Slavery was, above all, an economic system which displayed many variations and changes in order to maximize profit in a context of changing economic systems” (11). The economics of slavery often affected the daily lives of slaves on the plantations. One manner in which owners discovered a monetary source was through slave children. Instead of buying more and more slaves, owners discovered that the slaves themselves could produce them.

Since marriage was not recognized legally, children between slave men and women were considered illegitimate. Very often, though, the children found on the plantations were born from female slaves and their white owners. Kolchin writes, “. . . no slave woman was safe from sexual advances.” (124). Whether the advances were from slave owners, overseers, poor white males, or slave traders, black women were seen as sexual objects. Although some men did not act upon the sexual urges, others, especially owners, felt their supremacy gave them the right to rape the slaves. “Mass sexual exploitation of enslaved black women was a direct consequence of the anti-woman sexual politics of colonial patriarchal America. Since the black woman was not protected by law or public opinion, she was an easy target” (Hooks 42-43). This does not mean, of course, that white males were the only people raping women. There are some incidents of black males raping females, both black and white. However, the majority of black women received sexual advances from white males. Hooks describes the social ideas that dictated the conditions of rape:

As far back as slavery, white people established a social hierarchy based on race and sex that ranked white men first, white women second, though sometimes equal to black men, who are ranked third, and black women last. What this means in terms of the sexual politics of rape is that if a white woman is raped by a black man, it seems more important, more significant than if thousands of black women are raped by one white man. (52-53)

The lack of laws concerning the rape of female slaves contributed to the frequency of forced sexual activity. However, rape was not the only source of sexual exploitation inflicted upon female slaves by their masters.

If children were not created through the sexual relations of slave and master, then they were created through relations between slaves. In some instance, owners would allow marriage between slaves in hopes that they would procreate. However, there are instances of owners forcing two slaves to have sex for the sole purpose of creating children, and thus, greater revenue. On this subject Wilma King writes:

The extent of breeding or the systematic and licentious use of slaves solely to reproduce children remains virtually undocumented, although there are suggestions that it occurred. A slave child was property; its birth added value to a slave-owner’s coffers regardless of the conditions under which it was conceived.

Rose, a former slave born in Bell County, Texas, told federal interviewers that her owner forced her to live with Rufus “ ‘gainst” her “wants.” Describing herself as just an “igno’mus chile,” Rose related that she was unaware of her owner’s intentions, believing she was only to tend de cabin for Rufus,” who insisted upon sleeping with her. The sixteen-year-old girl’s protests to her mistress brought her no relief. Instead she learned that she and Rufus were to bring forth “portly chillen.” (159)

The children created through these forced relationships grew up into slaves that would either produce work, and therefore money, for the owners, or slaves that could be sold for money. White states: “Once slaveholders realized that the reproductive function of the female slave could yield a profit, the manipulation of procreative sexual relations became an integral part of sexual exploitation of female slaves” (68). This, of course, was not an occurrence on every plantation. However often it occurred, owners played a particularly larger role in the sexual life of female slaves.

If owners did not control women through rape or forced relations, they controlled women through forced separation of families. Owners would allow marriage between slaves, to increase the slave population through children. The more children the families would produce, the more profit the owners could make. Since there was no family structure, though, owners could, and would, sell individual members. This forced separation would disrupt the families. Robertson states: “Among the chief culprits reducing the stability of slave marriages was forced separation. Sale, inheritance of slaves, and the mobility of slave-owners broke up many families” (13). Many times slaves were sold to another plantation as punishment. The possibility of being sold was a constant reminder for the slaves to do as they were told. Masters not only manipulated their way into family life by deciding when and whom to send to other plantations, but also controlled family life by deciding matters that should be left to the families, for example naming children. “Next to punishment, interference in the family lives of slaves stood as the starkest reminder of their dependent status. Legally, slave families were nonexistent: no Southern state recognized marriage between slave men and women, and legal authority over slave children rested with their masters” (Kolchin 122). The owner’s presence, however, did not affect the authority of the parents in slave families. Although the children knew they had to respect the authority of the masters, they also knew they had to obey their mothers and fathers.

That little man in black there! He says women can’t have as much rights as men. ‘Cause Christ wasn’t a women. Where did Christ come from? Where did Christ come from? From God and a Woman! Man had nothing to do with him! (Ain’t I a Woman?)

At the Women’s Rights Convention, Sojourner Truth addressed the crowd. Her thought provoking speech drew from her experiences as a former slave and as a woman. As White states, “…black women suffer[ed] a double oppression: that shared by all African-Americans and that shared by most women” (23). Thus, Truth worked on the crusade for women’s rights as well as abolition.

First Hand Accounts by Former Slaves

As more blacks joined the fight against slavery, a greater impact was made on society. Their first hand accounts contributed greatly to their fight for freedom. James Brewer Stewart states: “By stressing the slave’s humanity, their cultural vitality, and their accomplishments, slave narratives thus confuted prevailing racial myths” (139). Therefore, written accounts of slavery were an important aspect of the abolitionist movement. Although slaves had contributed to the abolition movement through slave narratives and anti-slavery propaganda, the most effective form of rousing public opinion was through speeches. “By the 1840s Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Samuel R. Ward, Henry Bibb, Lunsford Lane, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and many others spoke to antislavery audiences all over the North. Their activities probably constituted the Negroes’ most important contribution to the abolitionist movement” (Meier and Rudwick 145). People, both black and white, came to hear the former slaves speak. While listening to the speeches, they were receiving first hand accounts that made the information and incidents they heard much more powerful. Meier and Rudwick continue: “In the most personal terms, they [the former slaves] told exactly what slavery meant to them, and, speaking of what they had seen and experienced, they were deeply convincing” (145). As greater numbers of people heard these speeches, they were more inclined to help in the movement. When whites joined the anti-slavery effort, more attention was given to the cruelties the slaves underwent while in bondage.

Double Standard: The Views of Whites on Freedom and Slavery

Slavery became a serious issue during the Revolutionary War. Kolchin declares, “. . . the irony of fighting a war for liberty at the same time that they held one-third of their own population as slaves was not lost upon them [Americans]” (76). Even after colonial Americans won their freedom, the double standard continued. Kolchin states that, “ . . . Southerners in the antebellum period were able to portray themselves as both ardent defenders of slavery (that is, of blacks) and equally ardent proponents of liberty (that is, their own)” (91). It was not until abolitionism grew, through the work of blacks, that whites became inclined to help.

Help from the White Community

One way in which the whites aided the movement was appealing to the population in the same manner as many blacks, through written and oral propaganda. Whites also helped by hosting and protecting runaways. Stewart writes, however, that “While prominent whites like Levi Coffin, Samuel J. May, and Gerrit Smith did provide temporary protection for an occasional runaway, it remained largely to the blacks to protect escapees from federal marshals” (135). This fact holds true for almost any aspect of the abolitionist movement. After the Civil War, when slavery was finally abolished, the black race still had to fight for many of the freedoms already granted to whites.

Fighting for Equal Rights

Athough blacks were granted freedom from slavery, former slaves still had to fight for equal rights. Thus, the abolitionist movement turned into an equal rights movement for blacks in society. Kolchin states that “. . . free blacks, especially those who asserted their equal rights, proved far more threatening than slaves to whites who asserted their equal rights, proved far more threatening than slaves to whites who took racial inferiority for granted” (235). Jean Fagan Yellin agrees with this statement. She writes, “. . . former slaves present[ed] themselves not as powerless, but as powerful; not as passive, but as active” (79). Even though former slaves had the power to make members of white society feel threatened, they still could not achieve racial equality. Laws, especially regarding voting, were passed to keep blacks in an inferior position. “Less complex laws provided for racial segregation of virtually every aspect of public life, from schools and transportation facilities to theaters, restaurants, hotels, parks, beaches, hospitals, cemeteries, waiting rooms, and drinking fountains” (Kolchin 236).

Even though white owners no longer controlled blacks through slavery, white society controlled many aspects of black society through these laws. The confrontation between blacks who wanted equal rights, and whites who would not give them these rights, continued. Leland Ferguson states that in 1962, almost one hundred years after the end of the Civil War, “. . . black leaders led marches and made speeches quoting from both the Bible and the Constitution” (123). Civil rights leaders, using some of the same techniques that their ancestors used in striving for freedom, fought for equal rights. In many ways, the fight for women’s rights paralleled the fight for the end of slavery, and for equal rights between blacks and whites.

The Women’s Movement

At the time of Sojourner Truth’s speech in Akron, Ohio, many people were willing to hear both aspects of this woman’s crusade. “It was 1851, just nine years before the Civil War debacle, and in the minds of many the infant feminist movement was linked to the threatening abolitionist crusade” (White 13). As abolitionism grew, white women realized that they too were being oppressed in the male dominated society. “Enslaved women were the cause. Their presence had jolted free women, forcing them to examine the conditions of slaves in relation to their own situation, to take seriously the double inquiry, Am I not a Woman and a Sister?” (Yellin 77). This slogan helped unite women to fight for their rights. In the process, they also helped enslaved women in their double fight. The “sisterhood” of all women, black and white, caused many white women to join the abolitionist movement, as well as the women’s rights movement. Feminism grew rapidly. In fact, as Carleton Mabee and Susan Mabee state, “During the 1850s and 1860s, women made progress in securing some rights, such as to enter occupations, inherit property on their own, and share in controlling their own children, but scarcely in the right to vote” (175). The major changes in the social conditions of black slaves and white women were addressed much later.

Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech greatly affected the attendees of the conference in Ohio, and the American public. It encouraged women to join the feminist movement and for all people, men and women, white and black, to join the abolitionist movement. Arthur Huff Fauset believes that “. . . in a few terse sentences this illiterate black woman [Truth] had demolished myths which down through the ages [had] created vicious meanderings in the stream-consciousness of man, impeding his progress: the inferiority of woman and the superiority of certain races” (133-34). White agrees with Faust. She writes, “. . . Truth proceeded to draw on her own slave experience to demonstrate how slavery and racism made a mockery of the logic upon which sex discrimination was based” (14). Truth’s speech was so powerful that it revolutionized the social movements of the mid-nineteenth century. As an enslaved African-American, blacks related to her experiences and whites were sorrowful for her sufferings. Therefore, she provided through first-hand accounts of her life as a slave, more information to help with the abolitionist movement. As a woman, she aroused the feelings of white women, who were being suppressed by white males, to take a stand and demand the rights that were rightfully theirs.

The information the public now has on slavery is very often a person’s interpretation of documents or objects. Diary entries written by members of the white family, or day-to-day accounts written by the masters and overseers, offer insights into the lives of enslaved African-Americans. However, these are second-hand documents. Very rarely, except in slave narratives, recorded speeches, and interviews, does the public receive first-hand information about slave life. For this reason, the importance of first-hand documents increases. Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech describes the rigors of life as an enslaved woman. In just a few sentences, she creates an image of a world unknown to many, one in which women work just as hard as men, women are beaten, women are raped, and women are separated from their families. Truth’s views as an African-American, and as a woman, helped guide the way for abolitionism and women’s rights. Her speech showed Americans the way in which their society treated others, and urged them to work to make changes for the betterment of this society.

Works Cited

Ain’t I a Woman?

1998 Ain’t I a Woman? [http://www.digitalsojourn.org/speech.html]

Fauset, Arthur Huff

1971 Sojourner Truth, God’s Faithful Pilgrim. Russell & Russell, New York.

Ferguson, Leland

1992 Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800. Ed. Robin

A. Gould. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.
Hooks, Bell

1981 Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. South End Press, Boston.

Joyner, Charles

1985 Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. University of Illinois Press, Chicago.

King, Wilma

1996 “Suffer With Them Till Death” Slave Women and Their Children in Nineteenth-Century America. In More than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas, edited by David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine, pp. 147-168. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Kolchin, Peter

1993 American Slavery 1619-1877. Hill and Wang, New York.

Mabee, Carleton and Susan Mabbee

1993 Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York University Press, New York.

Meier, August and Elliott Rudwixk

1976 From Plantation to Ghetto. Hill and Wang, New York.

Robertson, Claire

1996 Africa into the Americas? Slavery and Women, the Family, and the Gender Division of Labor. In More than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas, edited by David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine, pp. 3-40. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Stekel, Richard H.

1996 Women, Work, and Health under Plantation Slavery in the United States. In More than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas, edited by David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine, pp. 43-60. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Stewart, James Brewer

1976 Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. Hill and Wang, New York.

White, Deborah Gray

1985 Ar’n’t I A Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

Yellin, Jean Fagan

1989 Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture. Yale University Press, New Haven.

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