- Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery
Despite the plethora of recent works on the presence of Africans in the Americas sparked by the surge of interest in the Atlantic World, there remains a lacuna in discussions of women within that context. Morgan seeks to fill this gap in her recent monograph on women and slavery in early colonial Barbados and the Carolinas. To do this, Morgan focuses on African slave women's dual roles in production and reproduction in the racially polarized worlds of the British colonial project. The work presents these roles not as an interesting sidebar in the history of slavery in the Americas, but instead argues that understanding the contradictions inherent in assumptions about slave women's reproductive capacities should be seen as a "foundational methodology" through which to examine the early American past. Although Morgan may be overstating her case here, the book does help to open some new doors in the study of African women and reproduction in the slave regimes of Barbados and the Carolinas.
The book makes several important contributions to the study of African women and slavery. The first chapter offers a fascinating look at the development of a gendered racial ideology as the African woman came to be depicted as a "monstrosity" who had no problem flinging a breast over her shoulder in order to nurse a baby on her back (as depicted in various contemporary images). These depictions led pre-modern Europeans to conclude that African women did not feel pain, either in childbirth or in strenuous labor. The second chapter explores traditional roles of women in many of the regions of Africa from which slaves were taken. Morgan is careful not to essentialize "African" women by pointing out specific gender roles and expectations in some of the main trading areas. The downside of this approach is that some of the cultures of some important regions are omitted, such as those of West Central Africa. Despite some omissions, these chapters do a good job of setting up the rest of the book, and Morgan could have drawn on them more extensively in the remaining chapters. Those chapters examine the experience of enslaved women in the Americas through discussions of slave owners' understandings about [End Page 702] the reproductive capacity of their slaves, the creation and disruption of families under slavery, and the ways that work affected reproduction. The final chapter explores the topic of women's role in resisting the slave regime. Throughout, Morgan uses examples of enslaved women themselves from both Barbados and the Carolinas, stories that help to breathe life into the narrative.
Despite the important new ground that Morgan covers, the book leaves several large gaps of its own. While production and reproduction are amply covered, there is practically no mention of the other double burden of slave women, that of being exploited both as workers and as sexual objects. It is unclear why Morgan does not explore this more violent element of reproduction because throughout the study she discusses the implications of the power dynamic that existed between masters who could break up families and slave women who had to face that uncertainty. Certainly the power dynamic expressed itself most violently in the rape of African women by European men. The book would have been strengthened by the inclusion of a discussion of, or at least an acknowledgement of the literature on, gendered violence in the slave regime. Morgan also could have untangled the comparative aspect of her work a little more clearly. The book jumps from place to place without much explanation. The story she tells is multifaceted, and a more transparent chronological and geographic structure would have been helpful. Overall, however, Morgan makes an important contribution to the literature of Africans in the Americas with her study. She reaches into difficult and complex frameworks of thought, motivation, and action in an attempt to center the role of women and their unique capacity...