History: Women during Slavery

Slavery during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was one of the most horrific episodes in history.  As expansion began, a new topic of importance began to be discussed in the United States.  The question was whether or not America would be a pro slavery or antislavery nation.  The northern part of the country was filled with antislavery forces.  These forces included abolitionists and Free Soil advocates.  On the other hand, the southern parts of the country were dominated by Southern planters who wanted a future for themselves, and depended on slaves to get the field and house work done.  For nearly three decades before the Civil War even began, there was strain in the country over the issue of slavery: “By 1830, there were more than 2 million slaves in the United States, worth over a billion dollars” (Map: From Coast to Coast).  At the same time, however, the abolitionists in the country gained energy.  Many freed men and women slaves began telling their horrific tales of slavery at anti-slavery gatherings.  Shortly after the election of President Lincoln in 1860, the Civil War erupted.  Five years after the war ended, African-American slaves “emerged from their 250 years of bondage into their freedom as citizens of the United States of America” (Map: From Coast to Coast).  Women slaves in particular, had an increasingly difficult time surviving.  Females were expected to do the same amount of work that men had to, they had to care for their children as well as their master’s children, and they had to survive unthinkable types of torture. 
          Before the slaves were given what they rightfully deserved, their freedom, they had to suffer excruciating punishment.  A very large number of slaves usually worked on cotton plantations.  However, slaves also did skilled and unskilled work.  The skilled work included “the heavy physical labor of clearing the land and tending the crops as well as building houses and ironsmithing” (Map: From Coast to Coast).  Household slaves, who were sometimes but not always women, performed tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and tending the master’s children.  Not only was the workload outrageous, but unsanitary living conditions made it even harder to get by.  The following quotation proves just how dreadful conditions were:
                            In the swampy, coastal rice regions of South Carolina and Georgia, the prevalence of malaria led to high rates of child mortality. Slave women had to endure sexual                                         exploitation, often bearing the children of their masters and overseers. Slaves were disciplined by whipping, imprisonment, torture, and mutilation -- sometimes leading to                                 death -- and being sold off (Antebellum Slavery). 
Amazingly enough, however, the horrifying conditions caused slaves to come together and form strong communities.  These “families” supported each other the best they knew how.  Although the slaves knew that at any time their community and family could be split up, they continued to keep their values and prayers alive.  
          The abolitionists did everything possible to try to get rid of slavery.  Women played a very important role in the abolitionist movement.  Not only did they break new ground for women in various popular movements, like Harriet Jacobs and Lydia Marie Childs, but also for African-Americans as well.  One very prominent female African-American abolitionist was Maria Stewart.  In 1831, Maria Stewart began to:
                            write essays and make speeches against slavery, promoting educational and economic self-sufficiency for blacks. The first black woman, or woman of any color, to speak on                             political issues in public, Stewart gave her last public speech in 1833 before retiring to work only in women's organizations (Abolitionism). 
Stewart paved the way for other significant African-American women.  Those women included Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, to name a few.  In order to fully understand what the abolitionists were fighting for, it is important to first understand how hard slaves, especially women slaves, had it. 
          By 1830 slavery was entirely located in the South.  The concept of slavery was the same everywhere; slaves were considered property.  The slaves lived in very close proximity to each other; their diets were horrible, and their work load was great.  African-American women were treated especially brutally.  One source goes on to describe their plight:
                            African American women had to endure the threat and the practice of sexual exploitation. There were no safeguards to protect them from being sexually stalked, harassed, or                             raped, or to be used as long-term concubines by masters and overseers. The abuse was widespread, as the men with authority took advantage of their situation. Even if a                                 woman seemed agreeable to the situation, in reality she had no choice. Slave men, for their part, were often powerless to protect the women they loved (Conditions). 
          Many people believed that slavery completely destroyed the family and the home.  Harriet Beecher Stowe felt the same way.  According to Jennifer Fleischner, Stowe argued that “slavery dismembers families, slave and free, and it remains for America’s mothers to put an end to the institution that disrupts motherhood and destroys homes” (54).  Fleischner is referring to Stowe’s work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Readers must keep in mind that Stowe had to appeal to all readers.  As author Sterling Brown points out: “if Stowe characterized the slaves as being brutalized…she would have alienated her readers, whose preferences were for idealized heroes” (36).  Therefore, Stowe had to figure out a way to write her story so that all people would read it.  One main group she chose to focus on was the mothers of America.  Regardless of color, a mother could sympathize with another mother’s pain and anguish.  By trying to appeal to mothers across the country, Stowe hoped more strength would be added to the abolitionist movement. 
          In 1861, Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  Like Stowe, Jacobs also discussed throughout her novel just how difficult being a mother was during the era.  At various points throughout the novel, Harriet Jacobs particularly described her sustained efforts to protect her children.  Slave mothers knew that at any moment their children could be sold into slavery, and as a result, mothers were constantly on the defensive.  Not only were mothers on the defensive but they would do whatever it took to ensure their children’s safety.  Jacobs broke many “codes” to ensure safety for her children.  For example, she had sex with Mr. Sands, a white man, knowing all along that when she had her children, he would be a good father to them.  Moreover, if her owner ever tried to sell her or her children, Sands would buy them and keep them safe.  Jacobs knew that she was going against the norm; however, she also knew that her children’s safety was more important.  Therefore, she did what she had to do to make sure that her children would be properly cared for. 
          Another book entitled Mistresses and Slaves, written somewhere between 1830 and 1880, describes just what women slaves had to do.  Author Marli F. Weiner writes that between the ages of five and seven “girls were supposed to mind younger children…sometimes they helped their mothers or the plantation granny assigned to supervise children whose parents were in the fields” (8).  Therefore, the work of a female slave started as early as five years old.  This proves that regardless of how young one was, as long as one was still a slave, one would work. 
          A vast majority of women spent most of their working lives in the fields, however Weiner explains that “unless they were late in pregnancy, had just given birth, or had many children, they were expected to work as hard, as long, and under the same conditions as men” (12).  Not only did women have more chores to do, but when they worked in the field they were expected to be just as good as men.  Female slaves did not only work in the fields, however.  As female slaves grew up they would begin to take care of the domestic production work.  This work included such necessary, yet tedious tasks, as preserving food, sewing, and spinning.  There were female house slaves who worked as cooks, mothers, nurses, and maids.  If one thinks about the period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is obvious that technology was not developed.  Therefore, the tasks women slaves had to perform were very time-consuming.  For example, washing and ironing might take much more time because all articles were usually washed by hand, unlike today, for example, where clothes can be thrown into a machine and be clean in a half hour. 
          The tasks slave women had to complete were made even more difficult “by the varying and sometimes arbitrary standards applied to them.  A dinner cooked successfully or a shirt starched properly on one occasion might not be considered satisfactory the next time” (Weiner 13).  It can easily be concluded that female slaves had many tasks and duties to perform on a daily basis.  Along with doing housework, fieldwork, being a mother, and protecting her children and family, a female slave had to worry about herself.  If a slave made a mistake or made his/her slave owner mad at any point in time, his/her physical well being was at stake. 
          The harsh punishment that female slaves were forced to endure is shocking and disgusting, to say the least.  Six Women’s Slave Narratives is a compilation of troubling stories from female slaves.  Mattie J. Jackson wrote a true story detailing her experience of her eighteen years of slavery.  In her story she describes just how miniscule the reasons female slaves were punished for.  For example:
                            On one occasion Mr. Lewis searched my mother’s room and found a picture of President Lincoln, cut from a newspaper, hanging in her room.  He asked her what she was                                 doing with…the picture.  She replied it was there because she liked it.  He then knocked her down three times, and sent her to the trader’s yard for a month as punishment                             (14).
It is obvious that the reason for Jackson’s mother’s punishment is absolutely ridiculous.  The slave owner does not like the fact that the mother has a picture of Lincoln hanging over her bed.  Since Lincoln symbolized freedom for most slaves, the slave owner obviously felt threatened by the fact that his picture hung in the home.  However, the quotation proves that a slave could be bruised and battered for any possible reason.  Ms. Jackson goes on to describe the horrible punishments inflicted by Mr. Lewis, her mother’s old slave owner.  In one such incident, Jackson talked about how Mr. Lewis would fasten his women and men victims to a long beam, with both hands and feet tied.  She then goes on to describe how he would “inflict from fifty to three hundred lashes, laying their flesh entirely open, then bathe their quivering wounds with brine.” (37).  As
if the lashings were not painful enough, slave owners would make the pain even worse by inflicting the wounds with other painful substances, like salt.  Women had to be a lot more than just physically strong to survive this torture. 
          The necessity for all people, young and old, to understand the horrors of slavery is crucial.  Female slaves were brutalized and worked to the bone for their whole entire lives.  Their work as slaves began when they were as young as five years old and did not end until one of two situations arose.  One was the fact that slavery ended and the women were finally able to be free.  Another, much worse and upsetting situation was death.  Often times female slaves would die because of the harsh punishment they had to undergo.  Many people should be able to understand that women who lived during the time of slavery were strong, resilient, and remarkable.  As previously mentioned, women were expected to do just as much work as men had to do.  No mercy was ever given to a female slave, and this should be enough to prove just how physically and mentally powerful a female was.  As a result of slavery and how horribly females were treated, many abolitionist movements were started.  Many reformations arose as a result of abolitionist movements.  Through research one can see that
                            “Since more direct participation in the public arena was fraught with difficulties and danger, many women assisted the movement by boycotting slave-produced goods and                                   organizing fairs and food sales to raise money for the cause” (Abolitionism). 
Consequently, many people began to open their eyes to see slavery for what it really was.  Since this was the case, it can be concluded that as a result of the plight of female slaves, more abolitionist groups were formed, and therefore, more people were awakened to the atrocities of slavery.  The women who lived during the era of slavery were amazing.  Without their courageous efforts many women would never know how to be strong and independent.  A lot of praise and credit should be given to African-American slave women.

Female Slave caring for Master's Child                   Two Women Slaves Working in the Field                                           Image of a Slave's Home                                                         Female Slave Praying in Chains

Works Cited:

"Abolitionism." Africans in America. 1999. WGBH Educational Foundation. 10 Nov. 2004. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4narr2.html>.

"Antebellum Slavery." Africans in America. 1999. WGBH Educational Foundation. 10 Nov. 2004. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4narr1.html>.

Brown, Sterling.  The Negro in American Fiction. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1937.

"Conditions of Antebellum Slavery." Africans in America. 1999. WGBH Educational Foundation. 10 Nov. 2004. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2956.html>.

Fleischner, Jennifer. Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family, and Identity in Women's Slave Narratives. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Jackson, Mattie J.  “The Story of Mattie J. Jackson (1866).  In Six Women's Slave Narratives. Ed. L.S. Thompson. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

"Map: From Coast to Coast." Africans in America. 1999. WGBH Educational Foundation. 10 Nov. 2004. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/map4.html>.

Weiner, Marli F. Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830-80. Chicago: Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1998.