In They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers does what many historians before her have failed to do and focuses primarily on the role of white women as slave owners, slave traders, and people who benefited from the enslavement of Black people to the extent that they would do everything in their power to maintain control over those they saw as mere property.
These women were raised with an understanding of their position in society and, from a young age, were known to assert their dominance over the enslaved.
Whilst, more often than not, it is white men who are depicted meting out punishment in an attempt to coerce and control, the reality is that white women could be just as cruel, if not more so. In a society that gave a woman’s husband control of any wealth she brought into her marriage with the exception of any enslaved people she legally owned, slave ownership gave these women the financial independence that would have otherwise been denied them, and they went to great lengths to thwart any attempt to deny them this.
As is to be expected considering the subject matter, some chapters in this book made for incredibly heavy reading, particularly as a Black woman. The chapter ‘Wet Nurse for Sale or Hire’, for example, looked at the ways enslaved women were bought, or hired out, to serve as wet nurses for the babies of white women, which often meant that they were forced to abandon their own babies, or nurse another woman’s child while grieving the loss of their own.
In this chapter, Jones-Rogers draws attention to the way white slave owners not only failed to acknowledge the associated physical and psychological violence, but actually claimed that these Black mothers didn’t possess the same attachment to their children as their European counterparts. Worse still, common discourse at the time considered Black women’s grief ‘pathological’ and white people’s expression of grief as ‘healthy’, and white Southerners also coined specific terminology to describe the emotions of the enslaved: if an enslaved wet nurse was grieving due to the loss or separation from her child, she could be described as having “the sulks”. Not only did this decrease her value at auction, with slave traders and owners often specifically requesting wet nurses “free from the sulks”, this language clearly diminishes the depths of the enslaved Black woman’s despair.
There is much to be said about just how damaging these ideas would have been at the time, however, if we consider current disparities in the treatment of mental and physical health conditions in Black and white women, it is clear that these ideas, and others like it, continue to impact Black women today.
Towards the end of the book, Jones-Rogers comments on the importance of acknowledging the role white women played in the slave trade, and how much they really stood to gain from the enslavement of African Americans, in order to better understand why they and, importantly, their female descendants, participated so actively in white-supremacist movements and strived to maintain a white-supremacist order.
Jones-Rogers turns any notion of white women as innocent bystanders on its head and, using a range of primary source materials, illustrates how white women were not mere observers helplessly following their male guardians (as their absence from the history books would have you believe) but were, in a actual fact, active participants in the slave trade.
White women had as much to gain from the enslavement of Black people as white men and they behaved accordingly.
Whilst it was by no means an easy read, They Were Her Property is an important, extensively researched, and excellently written work of historical non-fiction, offering a perspective that is usually ignored but has contributed significantly to our current racial climate.