- They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers
Almost fifty years ago, Anne Firor Scott's The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 (1970) changed the image of the white woman in slaveholding southern families from that of the frivolous belle to the plantation mistress with a host of responsibilities. In the flood of scholarly writings that followed, notions about these privileged white women have taken many forms. Inflected by the second wave of feminism, these analyses sometimes made women appear victims of the southern patriarchy. In contrast, scholars such as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese believed that although the plantation mistresses lacked power, even in the household, they nonetheless were deeply complicit in supporting the institution of slavery. More important, others who studied the ways that privileged white women exercised power tended to believe the antebellum women more critical of the institution of slavery and its injustices than were their male relatives and friends.
In her well-researched and tightly argued new book, Stephanie Jones-Rogers has brought forward a bold new argument. In Jones-Rogers's view, southern white women were not merely complicit in the support of slavery; they actually were property owners who actively controlled, disciplined, bought, and sold enslaved people. In her words, women in slaveholding families "were not passive bystanders. They were co-conspirators" (205).
Jones-Rogers constructs her case by changing the lens of vision on these privileged white women. Even while using some of their letters and diaries, she relies more heavily on numerous legal documents (lawsuits, divorce cases, deeds of sale and probate) and on evaluations of the women as owners made by the formerly enslaved; she also consulted newspaper and travel accounts. Because Jones-Rogers includes all the slaveholding states from the late eighteenth century through the Civil War, her research is prodigious.
Numerous accounts of how slaveholding white women exercised power appear in They Were Her Property. Jones-Rogers cogently points out how white girls in slaveholding families early learned that they held a different, higher status and were in control. Moreover, Jones-Rogers asserts that female ownership of enslaved people was far more widespread than [End Page 633] earlier argued. Although marriage in the antebellum United States gave a husband legal control of the property of his wife, Jones-Rogers points out that marriage contracts could create separate estates or trusts that held a woman's property separate from the husband's control. Arguing that such separate estates were widespread, Jones-Rogers further asserts that the existence of married women's separate property allowed other women to fight in court to protect property rights. Enslaved people were the property that most of these litigant women wished to keep. And Jones-Rogers suggests that such legal maneuvers, this "willingness to do these things suggests that [white women] were more, not less, invested in slavery and its growth than some men were" (xvii). Still, questions remain about how general property ownership was among married women.
Jones-Rogers produces chilling cases in which southern women were abusive disciplinarians and stern taskmasters, but even the kinder ones calculated property values. She argues that these women "grew accustomed to the violence of slavery, contemplated the sale and purchase of slaves, and used the bodies of the enslaved people they owned in ways that reinforced their pecuniary value" (83). Not only does Jones-Rogers persuasively argue that slaveholding women privately bought and sold more people than past historians have realized, she also more speculatively asserts that slaveholding women did not shy away from attending slave auctions and marketplaces. Jones-Rogers also documents much more thoroughly than earlier histories the role that slaveholding white women played in finding, securing, and even selling enslaved wet nurses. The author further explores some of the psychological as well as physical costs for the enslaved women tasked with this weighty responsibility.
Some may wish that, in addition to her original interpretation, Jones-Rogers had...