- Women and Slavery: The Modern Atlantic
This volume is a set of twelve essays on the subject of women and global slave systems, edited by three distinguished scholars: Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers, and Joseph C. Miller, whose main goal is to offer differences across enslaved experiences and centralize gender as an analytical tool.
In many respects, this volume offsets the attention asymmetrically paid to the experiences of enslaved men. Most of its essays focus on the desire "to emphasize enslaved women's economic values as workers and to include their physical presence in every other way, including forced sex as work" (p. 2). According to the editors, "analysis of 'slaves' simply as labor, proprietarily and dominated, cannot reveal the gendered struggles within slavery any more than it can reveal the sexual and reproductive strategies of enslaved women to survive within slavery" (p. 14).
In all, the essays in Women and Slavery consider sex as a "powerful tool, emotionally as well as physically" (p. 9). Contributing to various fields of study, including women's and gender studies, as well as racial problems in the Americas, these essays nuance the conditions, motivations, and experiences of enslaved women.
The contents of the book, separated into five parts, show that gender analysis is not limited to the study of sex, but also covers the influence of environmental and working conditions on enslaved women's reproduction and infertility. The authors become conversant with "detecting the experiences of enslavement distinctive to women, particularly as bearers of children whom they loved and protected and whom their masters often denied" (p. xxiv). This orientation underscores everyday conflicts that arise from perusing a gendered analysis. Several of the essays demonstrate how a focus on gender expands the range of "effective" responses to the horrors of modern global slavery. Gender analysis spotlights individual opportunities that develop from sexual relations, which include reimagining kinship systems as avenues for emancipation. The essays essentially reorganize and complicate the pain, the taboo, and the unspeakable tenets of modern slavery for women in ways that emphasize human reciprocity and connectivity.
The book's part 1 contains two chapters, the first of which, "Slave Women and Reproduction in Jamaica, ca. 1776–1834," by Kenneth Morgan, a historian, examines "the crisis of reproduction" in Jamaica after "the legal end of the British slave trade" in 1807 (p. 28). He demonstrates that scholarship on slavery has often shown low reproductive rates in enslaved populations as overt political resistance. He emphasizes slave agency, but [End Page 87] with a focus on culture and in particular "the lethal effects of slavery itself" (p. 47). Above all, he explores the justifications of low fertility, such as Anglo myths about slave sexuality, African taboos about intercourse while nursing infants (p. 38), and finally, the rise of midwifery as pronatal policies in the British Caribbean increased.
The second chapter, "Gloomy Melancholy: Sexual Reproduction among Louisiana Slave Women, 1840–60," is offered by Richard Follett, who studies American history at the University of Sussex. It unveils a mystery about reproductive rates and sugar slavery in Louisiana. Follett discusses "the specific physiological mechanisms affecting the slave woman subject to the harsh regimen of sugar" (p. 56). Like Morgan, he challenges, but does not dismiss, arguments that position pregnancy with political resistance. Also similar is a focus on the intense physical demands of sugar production at a specific geography. Using contemporary physiological and dietary studies, Follett hypothesizes that conception suffers during the intense and stressful sugar production season, but he finds the opposite to be true. The rest of the essay explores the available data on dietary and environmental conditions that contribute to increased conception during the most difficult working conditions. Both essays expand on the relationship among labor, nutrition, and reproduction.
"Women's Initiatives under Slavery," part 2 of the book, consists of three chapters that address religion, kinship, and postrevolutionary law. Initially, Mariza de Carvalho Soares discusses eighteenth-century Brazilian ethnic identities and religious communities in "Can Women Guide and Govern Men? Gendering...