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Laboring Women

Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery

By Jennifer L. Morgan

Publication Year: 2004

When black women were brought from Africa to the New World as slave laborers, their value was determined by their ability to work as well as their potential to bear children, who by law would become the enslaved property of the mother's master. In Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, Jennifer L. Morgan examines for the first time how African women's labor in both senses became intertwined in the English colonies. Beginning with the ideological foundations of racial slavery in early modern Europe, Laboring Women traverses the Atlantic, exploring the social and cultural lives of women in West Africa, slaveowners' expectations for reproductive labor, and women's lives as workers and mothers under colonial slavery.

Challenging conventional wisdom, Morgan reveals how expectations regarding gender and reproduction were central to racial ideologies, the organization of slave labor, and the nature of slave community and resistance. Taking into consideration the heritage of Africans prior to enslavement and the cultural logic of values and practices recreated under the duress of slavery, she examines how women's gender identity was defined by their shared experiences as agricultural laborers and mothers, and shows how, given these distinctions, their situation differed considerably from that of enslaved men. Telling her story through the arc of African women's actual lives--from West Africa, to the experience of the Middle Passage, to life on the plantations--she offers a thoughtful look at the ways women's reproductive experience shaped their roles in communities and helped them resist some of the more egregious effects of slave life.

Presenting a highly original, theoretically grounded view of reproduction and labor as the twin pillars of female exploitation in slavery, Laboring Women is a distinctive contribution to the literature of slavery and the history of women.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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Note on Sources

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pp. xi-xii

The Barbados Department of Archives contains some 3,000 wills and inventories recorded in the second half of the seventeenth century. I examined all extant wills recorded between 1640 and 1685 and all inventories from the 1650s and 1660s. I examined all the extant wills (approximately 1,500) in the South Carolina Department of Archives and History for the ...

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pp. 1-11

Slaveowners in the early English colonies depended upon and exploited African women. They required women’s physical labors in order to reap the profits of the colonies and they required women’s symbolic value in order to make sense of racial slavery. Women were enslaved in large numbers, they performed critical hard labor, and they served an essential ...

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Chapter 1. ‘‘Some Could Suckle over Their Shoulder’’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology

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pp. 12-49

Prior to their entry onto the stage of New World conquests, women of African descent lived in bodies unmarked by what would emerge as Europe’s preoccupation with physiognomy—skin color, hair texture, and facial features presumed to be evidence of cultural deficiency. Not until the gaze of European travelers fell upon them would African women see themselves, ...

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Chapter 2. ‘‘The Number of Women Doeth Much Disparayes the Whole Cargoe’’: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and West African Gender Roles

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pp. 50-68

The images that set African women so firmly apart from their European counterparts would resonate in myriad ways on the shores of Western and West Central Africa. European traders originally enticed by gold soon turned their attention to human cargo, and over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries slave ships would cross the Atlantic ...

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Chapter 3. ‘‘The Breedings Shall Goe with Their Mothers’’: Gender and Evolving Practices of Slaveownership in the English American Colonies

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pp. 69-106

Slaveowners in the early American colonies did more than simply appropriate the labor of others for their own gain. They hammered together an evolving set of social and cultural norms pertaining to Africans and their descendents that set in motion generations of violence wrought on both their bodies and their sense of self. Gender furnished one of the ...

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Chapter 4. ‘‘Hannah and Hir Children’’: Reproduction and Creolization Among Enslaved Women

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pp. 107-143

Slaveowners spent years working through convoluted notions about reproduction and the women they enslaved. In so doing they enacted various degrees of intrusion and violence upon the bodies of women who had already endured both the Middle Passage and the destruction of their futures. Slaveowners’ behaviors reflect their immersion in occasionally ...

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Chapter 5. ‘‘Women’s Sweat’’: Gender and Agricultural Labor in the Atlantic World

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pp. 144-165

While enslaved women grappled with the new dimensions and implications of their reproductive lives, they undertook considerable and onerous agricultural work.1 The preceding two chapters have emphasized the connectedness of reproduction and enslavement by exploring the ways in which reproduction functioned foundationally in the development of ...

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Chapter 6. ‘‘Deluders and Seducers of Each Other’’: Gender and the Changing Nature of Resistance

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pp. 166-195

Women’s experience of racial slavery at the hands of English colonizers suggests that the language of resistance and accommodation is always already insufficient. The dichotomies that emerge are uncomfortable. Women who became mothers enriched their captors’ estates while simultaneously creating the communities that would foster profoundly...

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pp. 196-202

The women whose lives inform this study deserve and demand our attention. They deserve it because women existed at the center, not the margins, of the colonial landscape—in all its economic, social, political, and moral realms. Women enslaved in the American colonies found themselves at the intersection of ideologies that would profoundly shape the colonial ...


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pp. 203-250


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pp. 251-272


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pp. 273-276

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pp. 277-279

There is something about acknowledgment pages that I have always loved; perhaps because seeing the network that sustains the work of writing helps to give the lie to its isolation. For even though it is ultimately just a pile of pages, a purple pen, and me, many people and institutions allowed me to shut out all the other parts of my life in order to find the ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206371
E-ISBN-10: 0812206371
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812218732
Print-ISBN-10: 0812237781

Illustrations: 17 illus.
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: Early American Studies