Monday, November 4, 2019

Just Finished Reading - They Were Her Property

I've been rather tardy in sharing my thoughts on some the books I've recently read. However, one of the most impressive of those selections is, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie Jones-Rogers. In it, Jones-Rogers argues that Southern women were far greater direct participants in the "peculiar institution" than previously thought.

The system of coverture, which granted husbands rights to any property that wives brought into a marriage, has led some historians to overlook the not uncommon practice of parents willing daughters property for their "sole and separate" benefit and use. Parents of daughters knew that husbands too often squandered significant estates by mismanagement and bad habits like profligate buying/spending, gambling, and drinking. The parents wanted to provide whatever legal measures possible to protect the financial futures of their daughters and grandchildren. And since daughters many times received enslaved property rather than real estate property, the men, women, and children who passed to daughters were their primary sources of wealth. Jones-Rogers uncovers a significant amount of evidence through a multitude of different sources to show that not only did southern women in these situations view slaves as their "sole and separate" property, they often managed them differently than those that belonged to their husbands.

Many of the accounts that the author uses as evidence for these coverture-thwarting instances come from the WPA Slave Narratives of the 1930s. Sadly many of the slave narratives vividly show that within the slave regime, women could be just as harsh taskmasters of as any males.

Women also participated willingly in the slave trade, not so much as organized traders (which was overwhelming viewed as a male sphere), but Southern women pragmatically understood the system of buying and selling slaves as one that could enhance their wealth if managed properly. The same went for the renting/leasing of their human property. One facet of buying and renting that Jones-Rogers examines closely in a chapter is that of wet nursing. This situation, usually left to women due to its maternal nature, created situations in which white women controlled the motherhood of their enslaved women. White women who chose not to nurse their own children, or who were unable to produce milk, found wet nurses among the enslaved women of their communities, if not already among her own property. Obviously, little consideration or choice was given to the enslaved women who became additional commodities in these situations.

Jones-Rogers continues the examination of Southern women as slaveholder to the Civil War and emancipation. She persuasively explains how antebellum systems perpetuated Jim Crow realities in the decades after the war. From the book's epilogue the author states: "Former slave-owning women's deeper and more complex investments in slavery help explain why, in the years following the Civil War, they helped construct the South's system of racial segregation, a system premised, as was slavery, upon white supremacy and black oppression. Understanding the the direct economic investments white women made in slavery and their stake in its perpetuation, and recognizing the ways they benefited from their whiteness, helps us understand why they and many of their female descendants elected to uphold a white-supremacist order after slavery ended."

Engagingly written, They Were Her Property is a book that challenges us to think differently about the complexity of slavery and how interwoven it was into the white South's economy and society. I highly recommend it.

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