Her Property: White Women as Slave Mistresses in the Antebellum South

Author: Pavani Athukorala

Sub-editor: Molly Lidgerwood

Editor: Julia Richards

Content Warnings: slavery, racism, and sexual abuse

That the Antebellum Southern belle, long-mythologised as a wisp of delicate submission and refined piety, could bear witness and contribute to the barbarities of slavery seems unfathomable. Many scholars have, in fact, been loath to consider it. This essay, however, adopts a position favoured by more recent works in arguing that white women were slave mistresses in fullest sense of the word, whose relationships to enslaved persons were primarily ones of power and property, where their own privileged statuses depended upon the other’s oppression. Firstly, I summarise prior scholarship and outline how this essay departs from their methodology. I then focus on mistresses’ economic involvement in slavery, deconstructing the notion of slave ownership and mastery as masculine or patriarchal. I then outline the gendered ways in which white women exploited enslaved bodies, both for reproductive labour and sexual purposes. Finally, I consider the reasons why mistresses upheld a system that contributed to their own oppression, but also why many contemporary scholars have difficulty believing they did.

When not entirely ignoring their role within the ‘peculiar institution,’ twentieth-century scholars generally depicted white mistresses as benevolent ‘closet-abolitionist’ figures whose oppression under the Southern patriarchy they often equated with the sufferings of (particularly female) slaves. Marli F. Weiner argues that Southern paternalism tasked white women with providing slaves both material and moral ‘care and guidance’ (that is, attending to enslaved people’s bodily needs and spiritual health), a responsibility most took seriously. She concludes that this resulted in some mistresses empathising with their slaves in ‘radical’ ways, humanising an inhuman institution. Vera Lynn Kennedy similarly argues that ‘shared female experiences’ such as childbirth and motherhood brought mistresses and slaves together with ‘subversive, even radical implications.’ Even more recent scholars who are more cognizant of white women’s complicity in slavery espoused similar rhetoric. For example, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese admits that mistresses were often ‘more crudely racist’ than masters and shared little sisterly solidarity with female slaves. Immediately however, she undercuts this by rhapsodising about the ‘genuine personal concern and grief’ mistresses felt for slaves in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to depict them complexly. Mistresses’ personal writings (which the aforementioned scholars use extensively and almost exclusively) do reveal that many considered their relationships with slaves as mutually loyal and affectionate. But as bell hooks writes, allowing privileged persons like slaveholding women to interpret ‘the reality of…a less powerful, exploited and oppressed group’ such as their slaves is problematic for obvious reasons. If one instead uses evidence from slave narratives and the testimonies of former slaves, mistresses emerge (in striking contrast to their self-characterisations) as calculating, authoritative and occasionally tyrannical figures. For these reasons, I too prioritise sources that allow the enslaved to define their own realities, against which I critically compare mistresses’ claims.

Firstly, as Glymph notes, the false dichotomy some scholars create between the ‘masculine’ public world of auctions and ‘feminized’ or sheltered plantations conceals the extent of white women’s economic involvement in slavery.  In reality, no such firm distinction existed. As Low Country slave codes demonstrate, female mastery was specifically inscribed into the colonies’ legislature from their earliest days. One 1701 South Carolina law stated that slaves castrated for fleeing their ‘master, mistress or owner’ would be further mutilated for repeat escapes, while another from 1740 warned owners failing to provide slaves ‘under his or her charge, sufficient cloathing, covering or food’ they would be held legally responsible. Georgia’s laws threatened to fine the ‘Master, Mistress, overseer’ of any slave who was hired without an approved ticket. Clauses detailing other civic responsibilities of slaveholders, including contributing the colony’s militia and sending slaves to build public works, used similarly gender-neutral language, specifically taking into account female owners. Female slave ownership existed and was acknowledged; in fact, because so many male heads of households died prematurely amidst the instability of colonial life, some women gained ‘unprecedented economic autonomy’ through it. These women independently managed large plantations, and freely bought, sold, bequeathed and hired slaves, which gave them the financial status to play important public roles within their communities. Well-aware that the Southern patriarchy was generally hostile to female autonomy, such single slaveholding women protected their precarious privilege by replicating the same racist hierarchies that enabled Southern slavery.

Nevertheless, as Stephanie Jones-Rogers emphasises, slave mastery was not limited to the unmarried. Wealthy women entered marriage with slaves gifted to them by parents, and though legally, wives’ persons and property, enslaved or otherwise, belonged to their husbands, the reality was more nuanced. Some mistresses distinguished between their own and husbands’ slaves; former slave Silas Glenn remembered his mistress being ‘good to the slaves that come into her from her daddy’ but ‘mean’ to those from her husband’s side. Many firmly resisted their husbands’ attempts at managing, disciplining, or selling their enslaved property. White women who had grown up commanding slaves gained an internalised understanding of themselves as slaveholders (replete with the associated rights and responsibilities) and did not hesitate to assert this sense of independent ownership within their marriages. Some, such as Mrs. Annie Poore who sold slaves for ‘big prices’ after she ‘done trained them’ in specialised skills like cooking and carpentry, were acute businesswomen: true ‘mistresses of the market.’ Such women studied slave prices, exploited market fluctuations, and (contrary to popular belief) personally attended auctions, or hired male representatives to conduct such  business on their behalf. In sum, both single and married slaveholding women gained economic power and personal agency within a repressive patriarchal system through the ownership and oppression of enslaved persons, whom they considered, first and foremost, as their property.

Secondly, while sources do not suggest that witnessing the sexual abuse of female slaves turned mistresses into sympathetic allies, it was actually quite the contrary. Powerless to stop men’s transgressions and suffocated by the hypocritical ideals of female purity thrust upon them, most turned a complicit blind eye or further abused the victims. Diarist and slave mistress Mary Boykin Chestnut, for instance, could call slavery a ‘wrong and an inequity’ for the sexual disorder it produced and characterise female slaves as ‘prostitutes’ in the same sentence. Mistresses such as Boykin Chestnut self-pityingly casted themselves as the sole victims of white men’s actions while extending little sympathy towards the enslaved victims. Instead, many reproduced racist stereotypes of Black women as animalistic, hypersexual, and complicit in their own abuse. Boykin Chestnut felt ‘faint, seasick’ witnessing a mulatto woman being sold for sexual purposes but described the woman as lasciviously ‘ogling the bidders’ with an ‘expanded grin of excitement.’ Others, especially on smaller plantations where mistresses were constantly confronted with evidence of their husbands’ infidelity, took their anger out on victims. In his famed autobiographical narrative, Solomon Northup remembers witnessing an enslaved woman named Patsey being ‘literally flayed’ due to her mistress’ jealousy. The mistress often persuaded her husband or other slaves to whip Patsey out of spite, and even attempted to bribe Northup to murder her. As Natalie Zacek notes, though some have framed such erratic, emotionally motivated violence as somehow less severe than the systematic abuse often associated with masters, its unpredictable nature likely terrorised and traumatised slaves. Thus, most mistresses’ reactions to sexual abuse ultimately perpetuated the larger culture of racialized violence inherent to Southern slavery.

Moreover, mistresses themselves exploited enslaved bodies in various ways. Emily West and Rosie J. Knight use the thriving market for enslaved wet nurses to highlight how mistresses manipulated and commodified enslaved women’s mothering to serve their own needs. Mistresses’ reasons for employing wet nurses ranged from illness to vanity—the fear that feeding would make their ‘breast fall,’ and become less aesthetically pleasing. Unlike slaves, mistresses had the privilege of choice in the matter, and their decisions determined the nature of enslaved women’s mothering. Harriet Jacobs, for example, remembers her mother being ‘weaned at three months old, [so] that the babe of the mistress might obtain sufficient food.’ Thus, mistresses placed their own desires and their children’s nutritional needs above enslaved women’s bodily autonomy, a uniquely gendered form of maternal violence. Moreover, while many fretted in personal writings about their own nursing-related worries, not one reflected on the physical or emotional toll of forcing an enslaved mother to set aside her child for theirs. Mistresses also continually interfered in enslaved women’s parenting. Some supervised pregnancies, ministering home remedies, designating certain slaves to act as midwives, and occasionally deciding where births would occur. While this could be considered benevolent assistance, we cannot know how enslaved women felt about such intrusions into their bodies and intimate experiences. Neither was their interest in slaves’ reproduction wholly altruistic; a healthy child was a valuable commodity who could later be separated from their family and sold for profit.  In sum, as Jones-Rogers argues, shared female experiences like motherhood did not cause mistresses to ‘radically’ transcend societal norms. These instead became arenas where mistresses reconstructed racialized hierarchies to enforce their own privilege and power.

Thirdly, some white women also participated in the sexual abuse of male slaves. According to Thomas Balcerski, the conditions that fostered abuse between white men and enslaved women—the availability of enslaved bodies, sex as a means of maintaining hierarchies of race and power—also led to similar contact between mistresses and enslaved men. He notes that contemporary observers remarked quite offhandedly about this, for example Harriet Jacobs, who claims that seeing how female slaves were ‘subject to their father’s authority in all things’, some mistresses learned to ‘exercise the same authority.’ Jacobs remembers a woman who chose the ‘most brutalized’ slave on her plantation as a partner, knowing she could most completely exercise her power over him, and evade the risk of capture. Admittedly, such relationships were a minority, but this example displays how white women understood, strategically used and often re-enacted the hierarchies of race, sex and power around them. Importantly, sexualised abuse did not necessarily entail rape; Morgan comments that even daily encounters possessed a perversely ‘sexual dimension’ in the South because some enslaved people were forced to wear ‘little or no clothing.’ The display of particularly Black male bodies in the presence of upper-class white women drew startled remarks from Northern observers, like one William Harding, who noted seeing enslaved men wearing only a ‘loose shirt, descending half way down their thighs’ waiting on ladies who did not express any ‘apparent embarrassment.’ Other violations of privacy included mistresses beating unclothed slaves (much in the same way masters did), or ordering them to massage or perform other intimate ministrations on their bodies. Some white women secured silence afterwards by threatening to accuse enslaved men of having raped them if they revealed anything, indicating that like their menfolk, they recognised and manipulated social stereotypes associating blackness with sexual aggression. Taken together, such examples exhibit how white women gained a certain transgressive power in a society that denied them sexual agency through the domination and violation of enslaved bodies.

In conclusion, while mistresses could and did treat their human property with basic decency (a bare minimum that has often been extolled as uniquely benevolent), they also held the power of life and death over their slaves. Slavery was not just a passive reality for white women, but a system based on power structures they actively upheld. Mistresses profited from the trade of enslaved people. They suffered minimal or no repercussions for inflicting sometimes unspeakable violence upon them in response to personal whims and jealousies. Some exploited enslaved women’s maternal labour to ease their own mothering, and others subjected enslaved men’s bodies to sexual violence. Of course, mistresses were also capable of genuine benevolence. Yet to focus on individual kindnesses over the systemic cruelty and exploitation that white women participated in, to insinuate that benevolence was ‘representative’ of white Antebellum womanhood as a whole, and to forget that these ‘kindnesses’ occurred within a power dynamic where one party was the property of the other, is to perpetuate the same stereotypes that kept slavery alive.

Image Credits:

Jean-Baptiste Debret, Une Dame d´une Fortune Ordinaire dans son Intérieur au Milieu de ses Habitudes Journalières, c. 1823, painting, 16 x 13 cm, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Une_Dame_d%C2%B4une_Fortune_Ordinaire_dans_son_Int%C3%A9rieur_au_Milieu_de_ses_Habitudes_Journali%C3%A8res,_by_Jean-Baptiste_Debret_1823.jpg.

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