Resistance and Revolts by Enslaved Women
By: Camille LaFleur, J. Kenji Nishikawa, Katie Thomas, Samiyyah Tillman
1. Overview of Enslaved Women
The role of women in slavery was one of great complexity. They had to deal with binary oppression, the state of being oppressed because of their race and gender (as enslaved black women). They were also burdened by overcoming stereotypical images such as the mammy and Jezebel. Slave women were oppressed in various ways, and faced many obstacles and strenuous workdays .
Stereotypes of Enslaved Women:
Binary oppression is defined as the dual oppression that slave women faced because they were black slave women. Slave women experienced binary oppression through the combination of forced productive and reproductive labor. Productive labor consisted of field work, domestic work, and other jobs that both male and female slaves were forced to perform. Reproductive labor differentiated slave women from men, and was the distinct form of oppression slave women faced. Reproductive labor consisted of forced reproduction and child raising. The children then became property of the owner, allowing the institution of slavery to continue even after the Atlantic Slave Trade ended. Because slave women were seen as property and mere objects, the law did not protect them from instances of rape and abuse. Binary oppression increased the everyday struggles of slave women and created an environment in which they fought against frequent objectification in everyday life.
The mammy was a stereotype of the black slave woman, described as, “a woman completely dedicated to the white family, especially to the children of that family. She was the house servant who was given complete charge of domestic management. She served as a friend and advisor. She was, in short, surrogate mistress and mother” (White 49). The typical Mammy consistently challenged the objectification by reminding people of her humanity through her role as mother and childcare provider. However, because she was still considered property and was forced to do certain activities, she still fell into the objectification of slavery.
The Jezebel was a stereotype of the black slave woman that portrayed them as women who wanted, desired, and eluded sex. The Jezebel “was the counter image of the mid-nineteenth-century ideal of the Victorian lady. She did not lead men and children to God; piety was foreign to her. She saw no advantage or prudery, indeed domesticity paled in importance before matters of the flesh” (White 29). The Jezebel stereotype was a widely used justification by white men and slave owners (even some free and enslaved black men) to rape black women, and use them as sexual objects. Slave women, under certain circumstances, used this stereotype as a tool to their advantage, occasionally manipulating slave owners; however, these acts contributed to the objectification of women as mere sexual objects.
2. Introduction to slave women and rebellions
In particular contexts, chattel slavery was very similar across regions within the New World. In that respect, and through a comparison of slavery in the United States, the Caribbean, and Canada from the early 17th to the 19th century, slavery in the New World was almost indistinguishable regardless of location and time period. Moreover, the forms of resistance and revolts that these slave women employed were much the same; Afua Cooper in The Hanging of Angélique states, “enslaved Africans in Canada reacted to slavery in much the same way that slaves did in other New World societies” (Cooper 80). Saidiya Hartman’s subject-object theory of slavery, with reference to slave women, can help to understand the positioning of enslaved women across various regions: slave women were regarded as objects of property regardless of their location. This resulted in similar forms of resistance and revolt across the New World. Hartman’s subject-object theory not only elaborates and expands upon the oppression of black slave women, but it also creates implications for how their resistance can be perceived, regardless of location.
3. Types of Resistance or Examples of Resistance and Revolt
Slave women resisted and revolted in various ways, such as verbal, physical, and armed resistance. Running away was common (there are two types, known as petit marronage and marronage), and sexual resistance, such as infanticide, abortion, and abstinence was expected (Cooper 81-169). Other examples of resistance included poisoning, arson, and sabotage (Cooper 81-169). Some resorted to feigning illness, slow productivity, and even suicide (Cooper 81-169). Hartman’s subject-object theory clearly delineates the psychological rationality behind the relationship between oppression, resistance and revolt. Because these women were oppressed by being treated as objects, their actions were a way of expressing their individuality as agents or subjects of their actions. Forms of revolt, such as arson, sabotage, and armed rebellions, place slaves within the realm of “subjects” through their roles as agents, and results in attaining blameworthiness—an ability “objects” do not have. Forms of resistance practiced by slave women had similar effects. Abortifacients are known to have been used and infanticide, which had been first opened up to speculation in the Caribbean, has been confirmed at least according to one source (Bush, Hard Labor 205, 208). Sabrina, accused of killing her three-month-old child in the Caribbean, was noted to have said that, “‘she had worked enough for buckra already and would not be plagued to raise the child to work for white people’” (Dadzie 30). Her choice to kill her child was done in part to spare her child from slavery. One might also say that she was also withdrawing a supposed “object” from the slave owner and reclaimed her child. These various methods served as a means for enslaved women in the New World to reassert control over their reproduction and thus reclaim their humanity while undermining the system of slavery (Dadzie 30).
Resistance can be generally defined as the refusal to accept or comply with something, or the attempt to prevent something by an action or argument. However, when referring to slave women, resistance is defined as any action that reminded or proved to slave owners that they were more than mere objects and property. Slave women resisted in many ways in all areas of the New World. The types and degrees of resistance varied slightly in different parts of the New World, but it is shown through many slave narratives and scholarly essays that slave women, in all areas, resisted and rebelled every day. This is how they survived slavery. Resistance repeatedly brought the slave woman out of objectification and gave the slave woman strength and existence as able subjects.
Types of Resistance or Examples of Resistance and Revolt Continued
Infanticide, abortion, and poisoning are all actions in which female slaves could be, and usually were, held accountable for their actions. Cooper in The Hanging of Angélique explains, “the reproductive story of enslaved Black women shows that slavery was much a system of sexual bondage as it was one of racial bondage” (Cooper 168). Enslaved Black women in Canada also experienced binary oppression. Cooper explains that enslaved Black women experienced slavery in a different way than enslaved Black men “because of the gender ‘disadvantages’ faced by women,” and the oppression by White women because of racial subordination (Cooper 168). Sexual exploitation became a means by which White men tried to overpower women who, though deemed genderless by a system designed to preserve their harsh workloads, were considered female when the slave owner stood to benefit (Davis 6, 23-4). Harriet Jacobs, a United States house slave, is a prime example of a girl who saw her body as her own, as she thwarted her owner’s advances and entered into a relationship with a different man (Sterling 22-23). Yet sexual abuse could also take on different forms. In the United States, it became common for slaves to be “bred” in order for the labor force to grow. In an interview taken from the 1930’s, Louise Everett described how she came to marry her husband Sam (Minges 16). Everett said that after being forced to look at Sam’s nakedness, “‘[Mr. McClain] told us we must get busy and do it in his presence, and we had to do it. After that, we were considered man and wife’” (Minges 17). In this instance, it is clear that enslaved men and women were considered analogous to animals. Although at present, there is no “hard evidence” of forced breeding in the British Caribbean, the objectification and abuse of the female body is concurrent with slavery in the New World (Bush, Hard Labor 201). This abuse extended through pregnancy and motherhood.
Enslaved women in the Caribbean and Canada, like those in the United States, were also forced to put motherhood second to the demands of slaveholders. Likewise, women in bondage were not necessarily given more favorable treatment during pregnancy. Angela Davis states, “Pregnant women were not only compelled to do the normal agricultural work, they could also expect the floggings workers normally received if they failed to fulfill their day’s quota” (Davis 9). Just as poor treatment was delivered in the Caribbean, where one planter, Lewis, noted, “‘bookkeepers and overseers kick black women in the belly from one end of Jamaica to the other’” (Dadzie 24).
Key Forms of Resistance
Infanticide was the killing of ones infant. This was a common form of rebellion for slave women. Slave women in all different areas would kill their infants to save them from slavery. By committing infanticide, slave women were also taking back ownership of their children. By law, any child born to a slave became property of the slave owner. This law only further objectified the slave woman; by committing infanticide, the slave mover decided her child’s fate. This exemplification of the will demonstrated the slave woman’s struggle against objectification.
Marronage was the act of a slave running away. The term marronage started, and was primarily used, in Canada. Permanent marronage meant that a slave ran away and had no intention of returning. Many ran to forests, swamps, and mountains. This type of resistance freed enslaved women and people in bondage, and took them out of the object position of slavery.
Petit Marronage is defined as “enslaved persons [who] ran away for a few days or weeks because they were upset and angry with their owners [with the intent] to go back” (Cooper 87). This was a form of resistance used by slaves to show their owners their ability to resist unreasonable treatment by running away. It also demonstrated to owners that they did not have complete control over their slaves and their slaves’ bodies; it took the slave out of the object position and proved their existence as individuals.
Marie-Joseph Angelique was born in 1705, and she was enslaved in Canada from 1725-1734. Angelique was accused of being the prime suspect for the burning of Montreal, Canada on April 10, 1734, Her trial lasted two months; throughout her trial, Angelique resisted by maintaining her innocence and remaining silent. She only spoke when she was put through the extreme torture from “lace boots.” Even after this torture, she would not give any more information other than stating she started the fire. She named no accomplices (whether she had any or not), but the court persisted torturing her until she named a collaborator. She was executed June 21, 1734. Afua Cooper wrote The Hanging of Angélique, originally published in Canada, in 2006. Angelique’s silence was an example of verbal resistance; arson an example of armed resistance; and possible infanticide as example of physical resistance (there was no evidence of infanticide, but Cooper alludes the possibility). The Hanging of Angelique is a clear example of how female slaves in Canada used various forms of resistance to remove themselves from their object position. The book also brings female slave struggles to life through a real life perspective.
Harriet Tubman was a slave and, an instrumental part in creating the Underground Railroad in 1849. The Underground Railroad was a system in which slaves from the South could escape to the “Free North” by taking refuge in people’s houses who were against the institution of slavery. She resisted the institution of slavery by making multiple trips through the Underground Railroad, and helped other enslaved people escape to the North to obtain freedom. This was an extremely dangerous endeavor because there was a large chance she could have been beaten, arrested, tried, and even killed if caught. Harriet Tubman was resisting the institution of slavery, and was un-objectifying female slaves by helping them run away.
Celia, A Slave
In Missouri, October 1855, Celia fought back against master Newsome who had raped her. She was then tried and executed. She had no legal protection from rape or beatings from her master; and because of this, she had to fight back. After refusing to be a defenseless object, Celia was executed. Her death illustrated how women were forced to use personal resistance as a form of un-objectification. Even though she was executed, her story demonstrated the intensity of resistance that slave women partook in. Ultimately her story conveyed that slave women existed through acts of resistance.
The United States
Slavery primarily existed in the southern part of the United States, and it was a very large, economic-based institution. Throughout the United States, slave women had no legal protection or rights. The slave women also had different experiences within the southern Untied States. Slave women on large plantations had a greater sense of community because there were more slaves to communicate with; however, they were also subjected to more field labor. Slave women in urban settings had less of a sense of community to identify with, since urban slave owners often did not have as many slaves. Slave women in rural areas, as opposed to urban areas, had a lesser chance of running away because they had less opportunities to escape. Women were forced into the object position of slavery because of their lack of legal protection. These women used resistance as a way of existing and proving that they were more than mere objects. They resisted by physically fighting off their masters (from beatings and rape), committing arson, committing infanticide, running away, taking on mother roles, and many other tactics. These were the main forms of resistance in this region, and these forms of resistance were what gave slave women existence and helped them survive the entire institution of slavery.
Slavery was less common in Canada, but the practices and punishments of slaves and slave women were not any less brutal. Slave women were beaten just as harshly, but they did less fieldwork than their US counterparts and mostly did domestic work. Slaves in Canada also often had the same living quarters as their owners; they lived under the same roof and ate the same meals (Cooper 76). Slave women in Canada also used both petit marronage and marronage as forms of resistance. They also committed arson, spoke back and insulted their owners, broke tools and other equipment, “malingered” on the job, faked illnesses, and committed infanticide (Cooper 81). These forms of resistance again took the slave woman out of the object position and helped them survive slavery through proving their existence and fighting back.
Slavery in the Caribbean can be considered just as harsh as slavery in the United States. The Slave Trade was just as prevalent in this area as it was there. A law was passed in Trinidad, 1823 that prohibited slave owners from whipping female slaves (Bush 197). This did not completely follow through in practice, however, and owners found new forms of punishment. Slave women in these areas practiced everyday resistance by resisting work, verbal abuse, and feigning illness. They also committed armed revolts and poisoned their masters. They also practiced forms of birth control and abortion as a way of resistance. All of these forms brought the slave women out of the object position and into existence, similar to slave women in the United States and Canada.
4. Cultures and Resistance in the Caribbean
Despite the differences of the regions and enslaved women in the New World, there were always forms of resistance. What was more unique about the experiences of Caribbean women reproduction and resistance are two customs practiced by some African cultures; one of which was rarely found in the “southern United States” (Bush, Hard Labor 202). Though the British would criticize and criminalize the traditional customs of late weaning and birth spacing, these two practices were assertions of womanhood, motherhood, and rebellion.
In the late eighteenth century, British planters in the Caribbean found it necessary to challenge the way in which enslaved women reproduced and raised their children; some of which had become a means to resist. For many years, planters in the Caribbean relied on new shipments of African captives to work, rather than rely on the women’s capacity to reproduce (Bush, Hard Labor 198). However, the need to boost the birth rates in the Caribbean did not come in the late eighteenth century because of “growing abolitionist pressure to end the slave trade” (Bush, Hard Labor 198-9). It was during this shift to reliance on natural reproduction that enslaved women’s birthing practices came into question. Late weaning and birth spacing refer to a two-year period of abstinence during the nursing of a recently born child (Bush, Hard Labor 202). In response to the low fertility rates in the Caribbean (thought to have been caused in part by the trauma of slavery and forms of reproductive resistance) (Bush, Hard Labor 201) planters and overseers offered enslaved women in the British Caribbean incentives to have more children, and provided them with better facilities prior to their birth (Bush, Hard Labor 199). However, as noted by Dadzie, these policies were not effective in raising the number of children born (27). Women were still making choices to have children on their own terms. It is important to note, as Bush states, customs such as birth spacing and late weaning were not enough to curb the population by themselves (203). Conditions were terrible, and as mentioned before, women most likely practiced other means of birth control and abortion (Bush, Hard Labor 204). Nevertheless, African customs such as late weaning and birth spacing could be seen as forms of resistance (Bush, Hard Labor 203). The assumption was made by the British that late weaning was simply used by women to shirk their duties (Bush, Hard Labor 203). However, they certainly created a dilemma for the planters: whether to have women invest their time in the fields or in the health of future laborers. Although, whatever the planter’s choice, it was clear that enslaved women would continue seeing their bodies as their own; one woman, for a period of twenty-four years, refused her owners’ financial incentives to wean her children after one year (Bush, Hard Labor 203).
At one level, mothers who nursed their babies for a longer period would have had more time away from the fields, an act of defiance towards the planter and overseers. It “may have provided limited contraception” but perhaps what was more defiant was each woman’s act to take ownership over her children and her body (Bush, Hard Labor 203). They were taking care of their own and their children’s health by preventing their “forc[ed] separation” (Bush, Hard Labor 203). By maintaining her cultural customs, each woman was also affirming her identity as being apart from the cultural customs around her, a reminder to others that the place where she currently lived was not where she was originally from. Cultural practices were unique to specific regions in Africa, yet throughout the New World, asserting a form of motherhood consistently affirmed that enslaved women did have gender and humanity.
In her book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-Century America, Saidiya Hartman attempts to redefine how it is that the slave position has been processed in both contemporary and classical discourses in American history, more specifically slave narratives. The framework that creates the dynamics and basis of Hartman’s argument is situated in an understanding of subjectivity and objectivity. Subjectivity is a reference to the position of the slave owner, as recognized by the law. As a subject, the slave owner is considered a human, and therefore, a citizen who obtains the rights that a citizen is guaranteed, such as private property and protection under the law. Conversely, the slave is placed into a position of object, a category of non-human, as objects of property to be owned by those who are designated subjects. Therefore, this position disqualifies slaves from the protection of the law. Hartman explains that the only instances upon which the slave may enter the realm of the human subject is under occasions of criminality and punishment, “the slave was recognized as a reasoning subject who possessed intent and rationality solely in the context of criminal liability; ironically, the slave’s will was acknowledge only as it was prohibited or punished” (Hartman 82). This situation between White subject culpability, juxtaposed with Black slave criminality, presented a legal language that permitted the dehumanizing violence toward the slave body, “the recognition and or/stipulation of agency as criminality served to identify personhood with punishment. Within the terms of the law, the enslaved was either a will-less object or a chastened agent” (Hartman 80).
Hartman’s explanation of what the slave position means introduces a different dimension of how slave women’s rebellions should be read and understood. By redefining how one conceptualizes humanity and human activity, the acts committed by slave women in the New World in attempt to gain access to their autonomy should not be taken lightly, nor should they only be seen as important when another life is taken. Acts of resistance performed by Black slave women take the shape of teaching oneself and those slaves around them to read, to create families where they should not (by the definition of slavery) exist, to poisoning their masters, and even to run away and help establish maroon communities. In the case of Black slave women in the British Caribbean, resistance took the form of maintaining African religious practices, birthing practices, and even claiming ownership of their own children. In Canada, resistance was seen through Marie-Joseph Angélique; she spoke out against her owners, took part in infanticide, and under gratuitous torture, refused to cooperate with the judge at her trial. It is important to understand that Black enslaved women, who were traded and sold throughout the New World, were all forced to articulate themselves through a system that did not consider them human beings. Rebellion and resistance for these women became an active part of their everyday lives, since attempting to exert their very existence (living and enduring in slavery) was in itself an act of rebellion.
5. Suggested Reading
- 1. Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” in The Classic Slave Narratives. ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Penguin, 1987.
- The narrative of the life of Harriet Jacobs captures the dangers of coming of age for a young female slave. She avoided the sexual advances of her owner Dr. Flint and eventually hid in a small attic for several years, before escaping to her freedom.
- 2. Minges, Patrick, ed. Far More Terrible for Women: Personal Accounts of Women in Slavery. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair Publisher, 2006.
- Minges’ arrangement of primary sources, more recently edited, is a compilation of transcribed interviews of enslaved women in the 1930s. Though not as extensive in breadth as Sterling’s compilation, Minges offers the valuable information about the interviewer and the interviewee. This is information that is lacking in Sterling’s volume and helps the researcher consider the audience members the interviewees faced. The reader is also given longer excerpts from each individual woman that is found within thematic chapters.
- 3. Sterling, Dorothy, ed. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1997.
- Sterling’s collection is valuable for its organization, breadth, and variety of sources. She has categorized interview transcriptions and documents by time period, offering graceful transitions in between excerpts within each section. This set of primary sources is valuable for anyone interested in hearing about the first-hand experiences of enslaved women throughout the nineteenth century.
- 1. Bush, Barbara. “Hard Labor: Women, Childbirth, and Resistance in British Caribbean Slave Societies.” in More Than Chattel, ed. Darlene Clark Hine and David Barry Gaspar. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.
- Barbara Bush’s contribution delves into the reproductive lives of enslaved women in the Caribbean and the mystery surrounding the low fertility rates that existed there. Her thorough research reaffirms the ways that women strove to assert control over their bodies and their families. At the same time, Bush does not dismiss the harsh conditions placed upon women during slavery. From her research, and incorporation of accounts from planters, we learn the tension between boosting the image of slavery to the rest of the world, growing the slave population, and objectifying the female labor force.
- 2. Bush, Barbara. “The Woman Slave and Slave Resistance.” in Slave Women in Caribbean Society, 51-83. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1990.
- Bush’s exploration of enslaved women’s resistance in the Caribbean draws upon the many different methods used by women to prove their humanity. Her use of documented accounts of female slave resistance illuminate some of what is known about the individuals themselves. This chapter allows us to draw comparisons between the experiences of women in the Caribbean and those in North America.
- 3. Cooper, Afua. The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.
- Cooper breaks new barriers in the study of enslavement in the New World by noting that, contrary to the myth that Africans have always been considered free in Canada that for over two hundred years, Black individuals were treated as pieces of property (Cooper 68). Through the lens of Angélique, a young slave accused of setting fire to Montréal, Cooper discusses the nature of slavery in Canada and the kinds of resistance used against it. Her book helps us broaden our understanding of slavery in the New World and brings into question the ways that true history is glossed over or concealed.
- 4. Dadzie, Stella. “Searching for the Invisible Woman: Slavery and Resistance in Jamaica.” in Race and Class 32, no.2 (December, 1990): 21-38. http://rac.sagepub.com/content/32/2/21 (accessed February 9, 2011).
- Dadzie’s style of article is reminiscent of work done by Angela Davis. First published in 1971, “Searching for the Invisible Woman” counters any preconceived notions that women enslaved in Jamaica were treated less harshly due to their sex, or were more passive than their male counterparts. This overview delves into the labor and abuse of enslavement as well as the fortitude displayed by those who experienced it. Her dynamic work draws from the accounts of planters and the voices of slaves themselves, when possible. Dadzie’s work serves as a solid starting place from which to research more about the female enslaved experience.
- 5. Davis, Angela. “The Legacy of Slavery: Standards for a New Womanhood.” in Women, Race, and Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.
- Davis’ look at the enslaved woman’s experience in the United States brought focus to a topic that had been long neglected in scholarship. In it, she battles the assumptions made by Senator Moynihan, and offers an alternative view of women who, within the slave community, had a form of equality and fought for their freedom on a daily basis. Davis’ work has helped alter the way in which historians have studied women in slavery in the United States, and has no doubt influenced the way in which enslaved women have been studied in other parts of the New World.
- 6. Harrison, Renee K. Enslaved Women and the Art of Resistance in Antebellum America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
- This more recent book, written by Harrison offers slightly more theory in regards to how the conditions of slavery impacted women, both internally and externally. Harrison’s religious studies background also addresses the ways in which different forms of African spirituality were suppressed by the influences of Christianity. It might be a helpful read when considering the internal and intergenerational trauma that occurred, and coupling that with the resistance exhibited by female slaves.
- 7. Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Hartman’s subject/object theory has served as a strong means by which to discuss the oppression experienced specifically by enslaved women. By discussing the various labels, or states of being, that masters imposed on their slaves, we are able to derive a deeper meaning of resistance. Not only were enslaved men and women making claims to their freedom, they were making claims to their humanity.
- 8. Morgan, Jennifer L. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
- Jennifer L. Morgan’s book features a closer look at the reproductive capacity that was not at first the planters’ main focus when enslaving women, but was used as another means to justify their enslavement. Morgan captures the hyper-sexualized stereotypes, targeting African women, prior to their enslavement, as well as how reproduction contributed to their resistance in the Americas. This work builds upon that of Deborah Gray White, Barbara Bush, and others who have helped establish that the enslaved female experience was different from that of men.
- 9. Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
- Roberts’ book chronicles the treatment of African American women in relation to their bodies, starting with the sexual exploitation which pervaded the institution of slavery. Though this paper does not address the continuance of objectification that is found in her book, Roberts’ research regarding female slave resistance, and the whites’ denial of a woman’s right to motherhood on her terms, ties directly into the subject/object theory.
- 10. White, Deborah Gray. Aren’t I a Woman? : Female Slaves in the Plantation South. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
- Deborah Gray White’s study of the female slave experience explores the ways that lives of enslaved women were, due to their double oppression, different from those of men. White offers strong examples of the conditions that women faced, as well as the resistance they employed. Her book is a key resource for those interested in the perceptions and stereotypes that Whites held about African American women, as well as the demands of living in bondage.