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Contributors. Catherine Clinton, Sara Evans, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Jacqueline Jones, Suzanne D. Lebsock, Nell Irwin Painter, Theda Perdue, Anne Firor Scott, Deborah Gray White
Race, Sex, and Self–Evident Truths
THE STATUS OF SLAVE WOMEN DURING THE ERA OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
Jacqueline Jones is Harry S. Truman Professor of American Civilization at Brandeis University. Her first book. Soldiers of Light and Love: Northern Teachers and Georgia Blacks, 1865–1873 (1980), revealed her central interest in sex, race, and region in the American past. Her second book, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and Family from Slavery to the Present (1985) won the Bancroft Prize, the Letitia Brown Prize, the Julia Cherry Spruill Prize, the Philip Taft Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent study, The Dispossessed: America's Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present (1992), explores the interlocking systems of class, race, and gender oppression in the American past.
The article that follows is an abridgement of an essay prepared for a symposium in Washington, D. C. that examined women at the end of the eighteenth century. The papers from the conference, sponsored by the Capitol Historical Society, were published under the title Women in the Age of the American Revolution (University of Virginia Press, 1989).
Amid the political turmoil that accompanied the founding of the new nation in the 1780s, George Washington managed to retreat periodically to his beloved Mount Vernon. Of all his public roles—including military commander, lawmaker, statesman, and chief executive—Washington embraced that of Virginia planter with a special passion. According to Washington's diaries, the slaves who collected manure from the barnyard, and later spread it around the fallow fields, were almost always females: the observation "woman heaping dung" appeared regularly in reference to all seasons of the year and on all different quarters.
The image of the proud pater patriae astride his horse surveying the menial toil of his female slaves has compelling symbolic value. Nevertheless, such a static portrait reveals little about the political system that sustained this superficially placid scene, or the human emotions that threatened to undermine it. As delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Washington and his compatriots acted decisively to protect the rights of slaveholders; the American Revolution solidified the legal institution of bondage even as it guaranteed certain rights and privileges to all white men. Edmund Morgan has shown that the simultaneous legitimization of black slavery and the expansion of white freedom was more than coincidental; Virginia aristocrats like Washington "could more safely preach equality in a slave society than in a free one." On a daily basis, apparently, the conjunction of slaveholding and revolutionary-republican responsibilities rested lightly on George Washington's shoulders.
For the historian, race, as a socially defined category of human relationships, should constitute a central consideration in exploring the self-evident truths of this country's past. More specifically, during the era of the American Revolution, the status of all black women differed in fundamental ways from the status of all white women. Together, slave women and men endured the agony of bondage, and together blacks, both enslaved and free, struggled to form families that eventually served as the foundation of a distinctive Afro-American culture. The military conflict between loyalists and rebels intensified physical hardship among blacks, while the ensuing social and economic turmoil afforded some of their race the opportunities for a basic kind of freedom that white women and men—for all their rhetoric about the evils of tyranny—already enjoyed. Therefore, any discussion of the war's impact on American women must first highlight racial factors before dealing with issues related to class, regional, ethnic, and religious diversity in the late eighteenth-century population.
Yet within the confines of the slave system, and within the boundaries of their own households and communities, black women shouldered burdens that set them apart from their menfolk. In the period from 1750 to 1800, the nature and extent of these burdens varied according to whether a woman was African or American born; whether she lived in the North or South, in a town or rural area; whether she toiled in the swampy South Carolina low country or on a Virginia wheat farm. This is not to suggest that black women suffered more than black men under the oppressive weight of the racial caste system, only that gender considerations played a significant role in shaping the task assignments parceled out to blacks by slaveholders and in shaping the way blacks structured relationships among themselves. By 1800 transformations wrought by the Revolutionary War had intensified racial divisions in American society, as large-scale cotton cultivation introduced a new and brutal chapter in the history of slavery. At the same time, sexual divisions within the Afro-American community became more obvious, as an explicit sexual division of labor emerged within the private and public lives of free blacks.
To assess the status of black women in late eighteenth-century America, we must confront the central paradox in their collective experience: that a stable family life was the source of both their personal strength and their vulnerability. While kin ties provided all slaves with love and affection, a world of their own within a nation controlled by whites, those ties remained painfully fragile. Therefore it is necessary to consider whether various regions and local economies inhibited or encouraged the growth of the black family and add this factor to general findings related to legal status and work obligations. Although their position remained distinct from that of white women, black women experienced racial prejudice in different ways, depending upon the demographic, economic, social, and political characteristics of the area in which they lived.
The ordeal of black women as wives, mothers, and workers encapsulates all the ironies and tensions that marked the history of slavery during the era of the American Revolution. In their efforts to create and preserve a viable family life, these women sought to balance caution and daring, fear and hope, as they reacted to the peculiar matrix of individual circumstances. Regardless of their work and family status in Boston, on a small farm in Pennsylvania, on George Washington's plantation, or in the South Carolina low country, they saw freedom through the prism of family life. Consequently they perceived this revolutionary idea in ways fundamentally different from the white men who tried to claim the War for Independence as their own, and from the white women who remained so awkwardly suspended between their racial prerogatives on the one hand and gender and class liabilities on the other. Caught in the crossfire of sexual and racial oppression, black women contributed to the definition of liberation in these turbulent times. Indeed, through their modest everyday struggles, these wives and mothers offered a vision of freedom that was, by virtue of its consistency and fairness, more enduring than the one articulated so eloquently by the founding fathers.
One way to combine historiographical perspectives on the gender and racial caste systems is to focus on the theme of black women's roles in the family. Responsible for child rearing and other tasks in their own households, these women affirmed affective family values in defiance of the slaveholder's crass materialism. As Angela Davis has suggested, tending the home fires under such adverse circumstances amounted to a political act of resistance against white hegemony. At the same time, the black family, with its rather explicit sexual division of labor and its developing kin networks, served as the cornerstone of Afro-American culture, the key building block of black nationalism. Thus, an exploration of black women's history is crucial to a full understanding of the priorities of black and white women and men and their respective responses to the personal and political conflicts that engulfed them all during the revolutionary era. An analysis of black women's work as slaves and as family members affords an overview of their general position in the new American nation. Recent scholarship reveals the necessity of paying special attention to the regional variations in the slave system, from the large, isolated rice plantations of the South Carolina and Georgia low country to the smaller, more diversified estates of the upper South and the small farms and commercial centers of New England and the Middle Colonies. It is helpful here to consider several factors that determined the well-being of slave women: their material standard of living (defined by the adequacy of their food, clothing, and shelter); their ability to form kin relationships and then to preserve them; the amount of control they exercised over their own productive energies; and the arduousness of, or physical danger associated with, their labor.
Within eighteenth-century slave economies, the sexual division of labor included the kinds of work slave women were forced to do by whites and the types of services they provided for their own households, kin, and communities. From the slaveholder's perspective, black women's labor presented problems in terms of plantation management. Theoretically, these women were, of course, able to perform almost any task as field laborers, house servants, or artisans. But as black females' reproductive capacity gradually assumed greater significance in the course of the eighteenth century, most southern planters came to reject the policies followed by their West Indian counterparts—white men who found it more convenient to work to death successive groups of imported Africans than to purchase large numbers of women and encourage them to have children. In addition, the mainland colonists' set ideas about the nature of women's domestic work (ideas that transcended racial boundaries) revealed that cultural bias, as well as economic imperatives, shaped the task assignments meted out to slave women.
The history of black women's work roles is intimately connected to the history of the black family. Here it is worthwhile to consider a major irony in the history of the slave family—the fact that no matter how subversive the institution to slaveholders' claims on black people's time and energies, and no matter how comforting kin ties to a folk constantly under siege, the natural reproduction of the bound labor force greatly enriched whites in the long run, and by the late eighteenth century contributed directly to the expansion of the staple crop economy. The revolutionary period marks the convergence of these two mutually supportive developments—on the one hand, the emergence of a relatively stable slave family combined with a vital Afro-American culture, and, on the other hand, white men's tacit recognition that some form of tolerance for, if not positive encouragement of, family relations would promote plantation harmony and yield greater returns on investment. The issue turned on maintaining a balanced sex ratio within individual farm units and on providing slaves with a certain measure of freedom to form marital ties. As one aspiring planter noted on the eve of the Revolution:"[Husband-wife relations] will greatly tend to keep them [men] at home and to make them Regular and tho the Women will not work all together so well as ye Men, Yet Amends will be sufficiently made in a very few years by the Great Encrease of Children who may easily [be] traind up and become faithfully attached to the Glebe and to their Master."
A limited amount of evidence indicates that at least a few southern slaveholders in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries took deliberate steps to force slave women to bear children. A North Carolinian reported in 1737 that after two or three years of marriage, childless wives were compelled "to take a second, third, fourth, fifth or more husbands or bedfellows—a fruitful woman amongst them very much valued by the planters and a numerous issue esteemed the greatest riches in this country." Yet the proclivities of individual owners did not translate into a policy universally accepted among planters during this period, nor did it guarantee any sort of viable family life for the slaves involved. In fact, the dynamics of the African slave trade conspired against a natural increase of the black population until the second quarter of the eighteenth century in the South, and probably later in the North. Individual planters had some control over this process; nevertheless, certain demographic and economic variables remained impervious to the deepest desires of either whites or blacks.
Whether or not a slave woman was expected to bear children for her master's use, she remained vulnerable to his sexual advances, and the constant threat of rape injected raw-edged tensions into black family life. Any offspring that resulted from rape or concubinage served to enhance the wealth of labor-hungry planters, who thus had positive inducements to wreak havoc on the integrity of slave husband-wife relations. In crowded northern cities the economic benefits of such behavior were less apparent; nonetheless, many domestic servants found themselves at the mercy of lascivious masters and their teenaged sons. Some owners indulged in ritualistic sex games with their bondswomen, while others boasted proudly of their conquests in the slave quarters. The degree of public acceptance of these unions varied throughout the colonies—from tacit disapproval in the North to open acceptance in aristocratic South Carolina, where, according to Josiah Quincy, Jr., in 1773, "the enjoyment of a negro mulatto woman is spoken of as quite a common thing; no reluctance, delicacy or shame is made about the matter." But the ensuing harm to black family life was universal. In no way could a master more dramatically demonstrate his racial and sexual prerogatives to his own wife as well as to his slaves. For southern planters, especially, this combination of self-indulgence and economic self-interest proved irresistible; it also served to terrorize their female slaves and to humiliate all black men.
At this point it is useful to contrast the work assigned to slave women with that performed by white women of various social classes. Obviously, wives of the wealthiest masters found themselves freed from much of the most arduous and tedious household labor, although they frequently bemoaned the supervisory responsibilities incumbent upon them as slave mistresses. Young women of the elite planter class might learn to knit or do fancy needlework, but they rarely engaged in cloth production themselves. According to Julia Cherry Spruill, "Unlike northern and frontier housewives, the southern mistress in the settled counties did not generally spin and weave the clothing of her family"; she relied instead on either "Negresses ... trained as spinners" or foreign imports of cloth. With the onset of the Revolution, "flax was planted. Negresses were taught to spin, and wheels were set in motion on every plantation."
Poorer white women in all areas of the colonies performed essentially the same kinds of domestic tasks as female slaves. However, we may assume that the quality of their work experience was considerably enhanced (at least in a relative sense), for white housewives retained some control over the pace of their labor and derived a measure of satisfaction from it when it directly benefited their own families. Though they might have followed the same techniques in preparing meals, the black cook in the "big house" and the white woman of modest means had divergent perceptions of the value of their own labor.
The issue of women's field work is more problematic, for white women in frontier households probably did their share of stump clearing, plowing, and harvesting. Still, a few generalizations seem warranted: first, white women of the elite and middling classes confined themselves to the house and its immediate environs during the workday; this sexual division of labor between white partners was a matter of pride for husbands, a matter of self-respect for wives. Second, white female indentured servants, North or South, might be sent to the fields, according to the demands of the crop, but they were "not ordinarily so employed." Contrasting the status of female slaves and indentured servants in Virginia in 1722, Robert Beverley wrote: "A white woman is rarely or never put to work in the ground, if she be good for anything else; and to discourage all planters from using any women so, their law makes female servants working in the ground tithables, while it suffers all other white women to be absolutely exempted; whereas, on the other hand, it is a common thing to work a woman slave out of doors, nor does the law make any distinction in her taxes, whether her work be abroad or at home." Slave women were a regular part of the South's agricultural labor force, while white women (regardless of class status) were not.
Excerpted from Half Sisters of History by Catherine Clinton. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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