This book by historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers makes a case that white women were not just passive participants in slavery but were active and prominent “co-conspirators”. By studying the voices of formerly enslaved people in archives and other records such as sales receipts, newspaper notices and account books, the author documents how white women bought and sold, controlled and disciplined enslaved people during the slave era.
In sketching out the role of white women as slave owners, Jones-Rogers relies heavily upon a vast archive of interviews of formerly enslaved people conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), which was an initiative under the Works Progress Administration set up by the Roosevelt Administration to provide work for unemployed writers during the Great Depression. These sources have been used widely in researching the lives of slaves in the South, but Jones-Rogers utilises them to great effectiveness to tease out their perspectives on how white women were complicit in their subjugation. In this way, she indirectly demonstrates how the cruelties of white women were often hiding in plain sight.
By focusing on female slave owners, Jones-Rogers also brings much needed scrutiny to long established claims about gender roles and slave ownership and management. White women exercised and defended their right to own slaves at a time when women had yet to get the right to vote. Formerly enslaved people recalled that their mistresses even insisted that their husbands were not permitted to discipline slaves that personally belonged to them. Contrary to being perceived as naïve or not knowing their place, white women were treated by judges in ownership disputes without consideration of their gender.
In what is probably her most detailed chapter, Jones-Rogers explores the exploitation of slaves for maternal wet nursing duties by white women. Contrary to earlier works that placed white men in control of the wet nurse industry, she finds that white women were instrumental in creating and sustaining the market for enslaved wet nurses. Enslaved people recounted how some of them were subjected to sexual violence so they would give birth to their own babies and be able to breastfeed their mistress’ baby.
They Were Her Property does not deeply explore earlier works on slavery and white women, but rather seeks to fill a key gap in the historiography of the American South. In fact, Jones-Rogers admits that even the extensive sources she relies upon may not reveal the full extent of white women’s involvement in slavery. However, her work does effectively dismantle the notion of the disempowered and passive plantation mistress in Anne Firor Scott’s The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics: 1830-1930 (1970).
They Were Her Property is an excellent foundation upon which further research on white women and slavery can be built in a way that prioritises the voices of the enslaved.
Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★★