- Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery by Jennifer L. Morgan
Laboring Women traces the relationship of African women’s reproduction to race-based slavery in the British New World, providing a much-needed exploration of the importance of African women’s physical and symbolic labor to the colonial Caribbean and American South. Morgan’s methodological approaches range widely from cultural analysis of images of African women’s bodies to careful interpretation of demographic records to theoretically informed interpretations of the significance of enslaved women’s labor and reproductive practices. By tying production and reproduction to the creation of New World slavery, Morgan shows not just that African women were part of a race-based slave system, but how their physical and symbolic roles helped to create that very system.
This clearly written book is based on manuscript sources from British, Caribbean and South Carolinian archives as well as an array of published records. Morgan engages thoroughly with a range of historiographies on slavery, U.S. history, colonialism, and theoretical work on gender and race. Morgan’s dual focus on the North American mainland and the Caribbean provides a welcome alternative to the sometimes insular studies of the early South that read back the geographic results of the American Revolution into the colonial period.
Laboring Women is organized around African women’s lives; beginning with European travelers views of African women, following women through the Middle Passage and into their enslaved lives as mothers and agricultural workers. This structure makes clear one of Morgan’s central points: that African women are central to New World slavery, colonialism, and developing ideologies of racism. Morgan’s dual foci on women and gender shows how material realities intersected with ideological power structures, thus reconceptualizing the relationship of women to slavery and of slavery to African women.
Morgan begins by examining sixteenth and seventeenth-century European print descriptions and images of African women’s bodies. She deftly ties the shifting iconography of African women to growing racialist beliefs in the suitability of those bodies to enslavement. As Morgan eloquently terms it, the early modern Europeans’ “process of calling blackness into being” (12) was constructed through distorted notions of African women’s sexual and social savagery, notions that would allow Europeans to make the unfamiliar familiar. Morgan’s second chapter addresses African women’s gender roles and the demography of the Atlantic slave trade. Despite the historiographic attention to captive African men, African women and children made up the majority of transports to the Americas. Using demographic data and individual stories of the Middle Passage, Morgan shows how African women passed on and transformed their social identities under slavery.
Morgan’s next two chapters focus on how slaveowners appropriated enslaved women’s reproductive capacities as a means to increase their own wealth, and how enslaved women experienced the conflicted nature of reproduction under slavery. Chapter Three uses wills and probate records from late seventeenth-century Barbados and eighteenth-century South Carolina to show how slaveowners imagined their future wealth via enslaved women’s reproductive value and engineered enslaved men and women’s couplings for their own financial gain. Chapter Four is an exceptionally engaging examination of the culturally and historically specific meanings of childbirth for newly enslaved African women. Combining demographic analyses with painstakingly reconstructed stories of enslaved women’s experiences, Morgan analyzes how childbirth marked cultural meeting points of African and creolized identities under slavery.
Chapter five addresses the productive labor undertaken by enslaved women, showing the centrality of gender roles to the development of a race-based slave labor system. Morgan traces how enslaved women’s backbreaking agricultural labor – often made invisible in slavery historiography – structured their lives. A final chapter enters into recent debates over the binary nature of resistance and accommodation to show the complex ways in which enslaved women’s gendered identities structured their reactions to the brutalities of slavery.
Morgan’s original exploration of the ways that African women were central to Europeans’ cultural, social, and legal construction of a race-based slave labor...