- Slavery, Freedom, and Women’s Bodies
The recent body-centered analytical turn in slavery scholarship has yielded fresh insights into the centrality of the female body to slave resistance and slavery’s ideological foundations.1 By focusing on the womb, each of the books under review reveals the significance of the reproductive body to the entrenchment and destruction of slavery. Because women’s reproductive ability threatened the social order, elite men enacted regulations to preserve the status quo. Sometimes, the subjugated populations who had different ideas about childbearing fought for bodily and maternal autonomy. At other times, they appropriated elites’ gendered expectations to fit their quests for freedom. While the womb was the single most important symbol in struggles over freedom and slavery, these authors also investigate contests over the body’s adornment, movement, and sexual contact, arriving at novel conclusions on how bodies shaped domination and resistance.
Camilla Cowling’s Conceiving Freedom most directly studies how the womb shaped contests over freedom and slavery. From the enactment of partus sequitur ventrem, the legal code adopted by New World colonies stipulating that children shared their mothers’ status, to the nineteenth century Free Womb Laws of Cuba and Brazil, enslaved women understood that [End Page 177] elites exploited their reproductive capacity. With significant limitations, the 1870 Moret Law in Cuba and the 1871 Rio Branco Law in Brazil promised freedom to children born of enslaved women. In both territories the laws were ambiguous and silent on many important issues. Women battled with slave owners and city officials over legal restrictions and contradictions to ensure that their children gained the freedom that these laws promised to them. What is fascinating about Conceiving Freedom is its rich documentation of how enslaved women, using scribes and political connections, filed legal claims. These women, remarkably, used legal suits even when the laws disempowered them. Many were strategic in their quests, they put slave owners’ and officials’ reputations at risk and manipulated customs and emergent beliefs about motherhood. Imploring servants of the courts and members of the royal family to “put yourself in my place,” petitioners received aid from among the highest and most prestigious officials, including the imperial family in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (80).
The second section of Conceiving Freedom demonstrates that women of color framed their appeals to maternal ideals within the political climate of the nineteenth century. Brazil and Cuba were hubs of growing and influential abolitionist campaigns. Like their American and British predecessors, Latin American abolitionists highlighted how slavery denied black women the rights and experiences of motherhood, their sacred duty. Depicting the most heartbreaking scenes of family separation through literature, speeches, and graphic illustrations, abolitionists singled out the separation of mothers and children as one of slavery’s most egregious assaults on womanhood. Women petitioners borrowed this tactic of emotional manipulation and sometimes received abolitionist support during legal proceedings. Although Conceiving Freedom convincingly establishes how the social and cultural environment shaped enslaved and freed women’s claims, it is not equally clear how women of color influenced abolitionists. Teasing out their impact on abolitionism would bolster Cowling’s argument that women claimants shaped the unfolding of emancipation. Conceiving Freedom reveals that although most women did not succeed in freeing their children, their suits did compel officials to extend certain prohibitions reserved for enslaved women...