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ch a p ter 5 Freedwomen and Freed Children An exercise in comparative history, however desirable, is not possible until the data for each country have been properly assembled. —keith thomas Every woman on the estate then [during slavery] worked in the field, now the case is altered; and as they get rich they keep their wives at home to take care of their houses or look after the children, who used all to be reared in the nursery of the estate; and for that reason at least half the female laborers have to be taken from the field and from the estate and applied to other purposes. —british guiana planter, 1848 An important ‘meaning of freedom’ for women and men—but above all for women—must have been the right to control one’s own body, the right to be free of violation and abuse. —bridget brereton It is to make women a focus of inquiry, a subject of the story, an agent of the narrative—whether that narrative is a chronicle of political events . . . or a more analytically cast account of the workings or unfoldings of large-scale processes of social change. —joan scott One of the most dynamic developments in emancipation studies over the past two decades is its gender turn. Older categories of labor, race, citizenship, and politics have been reinterpreted regarding the various roles of black and white women as well as the social construction of sexual spheres of femininity and masculinity. Moreover, previous debates over ex-slave women’s labor withdrawal have been replaced by examinations of the reconstruction of exslaves ’ households in which black women’s agency is centered rather than marginalized. These new directions can be partially explained by the lack of attention to such topics in the past, along with the emergence of a generation 102 freedom’s seekers of professional women historians attracted to the subject, together with the expansion of gender studies into new historical areas.1 This pioneering research has begun to generate comparative studies of gender and emancipation. We now have regional studies of the pan-Caribbean.2 There are informative collections of essays comparing the lives and labors of free black women.3 Two historians of emancipation recently assembled an international group of scholars to address the relationship between gender and emancipation in the Atlantic world. They state their argument and its spatial significance in the opening sentence of the subsequent published volume : “From Brazil to Cuba to the U.S. South, from Jamaica to the British Cape Colony, from Martinique and Haiti to French West Africa, gender was central to slave emancipation and to the making of the nineteenth-century Atlantic world.”4 Much of this recent scholarship has opened our eyes to the enormous potential of international approaches to post-slavery developments beyond the nation-state. At the same time, there are some drawbacks. The exclusive focus on gender, for instance, precludes understanding the broader dynamics of post-emancipation societies. According to one reviewer: “This risks reproducing the very lack of balance characterizing the androcentric studies which the book’s theme so rightly challenges.”5 More important for our purposes , the potential of comparative methodology for emancipation and gender studies remains unfulfilled. These collections invite the reader to make the comparisons through discrete chapters rather than either the contributors or the editors providing systematic comparative analysis. The contributions to the Scully and Paton volume, for instance, examine gender and emancipation across time and space, but none of them provide specific comparisons. The comparative method pursued in the editors’ introduction is largely one of similarities: emancipation was gendered; men benefited more from emancipation then women; freedwomen’s invisibility versus freedmen’s visibility in the archives; freedwomen’s commonality with working-class women in the new political economy of capitalist social relations of production, and so forth.6 This emphasis on similarities broadens the spatial and temporal dimensions of gender and emancipation, but it is less clear what we are learning anew from the comparative method beyond gaining a greater cosmopolitan reach. Moreover , the Anglo-Atlantic world continues to serve as the epicenter of gender and emancipation, with other collective experiences in West and Central West Africa, Central and South America, and the Indian Ocean either peripheral or absent altogether. freedwomen and freed children 103 This chapter provides an explicit comparative analysis of ex-slave women and children in the nineteenth-century Caribbean, United States, and Latin America. It makes two central...


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