When Black Women Reclaimed Their Bodies

The fight for sexual justice during Reconstruction.

A historic drawing shows black women together in a room. Plus, a Slate Academy logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Library of Congress.

Adapted from “ ‘What if I Am a Woman?’: Black Women’s Campaigns for Sexual Justice and Citizenship” by Crystal N. Feimster, originally published in The World the Civil War Made, edited by Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur. Published by the University of North Carolina Press.

In a public lecture given in 1833, Maria W. Stewart, a pioneer black abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, invoked black women’s demands for sexual justice by asking, “What if I am a woman?”1 It was a question with profound implications if answered in the affirmative. What would it mean to acknowledge women, especially black women, as full citizens with legal capacity and political consent? If black women were granted not just the rights of life, liberty, and happiness, but also self-sovereignty, then they would also be entitled to the legal protection of those rights. By asking the question, Stewart asserted the essential humanity of black womanhood and called for the inclusion of black women as fully human and autonomous beings, the “owners” of their own bodies with the ability to withhold consent.

Stewart, like many black women, insisted on sexual justice as a natural right. In doing so, black women and their allies influenced the Republican Party’s vision of racial equality over the course of the 1850s through the end of Reconstruction. And their radical campaigns for sexual justice taken together with evolving Republican ideas about legal equality made possible the emergence of a new sexual citizenship.

Maria Stewart called for women’s rights and joined the abolitionist fray in 1831, publishing her first essay in the antislavery newspaper the Liberator.2 Acknowledging black women’s sexual vulnerability, Stewart opened with a prayer, “O that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night [Jeremiah 9:1], for the transgressions of the daughters of my people.”3 Stewart knew that in most states, black women—free and enslaved—were excluded from rape laws.4 In fact, no Southern states made it legally possible for slave women to file rape charges against a white man before 1861. Thus existing outside the legal definition of rape and in the cultural imagination as a prostitute at best and a sexual beast incapable of virtue at worst, a slave woman had few options.

In the same year that Stewart published her antislavery pamphlet calling for the protection of black womanhood, Mary Prince published her autobiography, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. The first female slave narrative, Prince’s autobiography exposed the sexual violence masters committed against their slaves and made visible black women’s resistance to these acts. She recounted in graphic detail the physical and psychological violence that slaves suffered at the hands of their masters and mistresses. She recalled how her new mistress taught her not only “to do all sorts of household work” but also “to know the exact difference between the smart of the rope, the cart-whip, and the cow-skin” when applied to her naked body.5 The sexualized beatings that Prince withstood at the hands of both mistress and master functioned as brutal reminders that her body was not her own.

Limited in what she could recount by Victorian ideals that censored what a “respectable” women could say publicly about rape, Prince described Mr. D as an “indecent master” who forced her to bathe him. “This,” she confessed, “was worse to me than all the licks.” Unable to state overtly the sexual violence implicit in Mr. D’s demands, Prince instead spoke of her “shame” and her efforts to resist. On one occasion, she recalled, “He struck me so severely … that at last I defended myself, for I thought it was high time to do so … he was a very indecent man … with no shame for his servants, no shame for his own flesh.” By highlighting her resistance without transgressing Victorian norms of delicacy and propriety, Prince challenged the notion that slave women lacked virtue and welcomed white men’s sexual advances.

The recognition of master/slave rape soon became a standard part of the American abolitionist bill of indictment against slavery. Writing under a pseudonym, former slave and abolitionist activist Harriet Jacobs recounted her master’s sexual power over her in the best-known slave account on the impact of sexual violence on black women, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and similar, imagined incidences became a fixture in the antislavery fiction of white abolitionists, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Indeed, by the 1850s there were few slave narratives that did not mention the sexual exploitation of female slaves.6

The rape of slave women and their resistance also figured prominently in some of the most momentous legal and political battles over slavery in the decade leading up to the Civil War.
The 1855 case of Celia, an 18-year-old slave woman in Missouri who was tried and executed for killing her master after years of rape, raised the question of a slave woman’s right to defend herself against sexual violence. Despite popular belief that black women were sexually lascivious and could not be raped, Celia insisted on her right to withhold consent and defend herself.7 Celia could not speak on her own behalf because Missouri law prevented blacks from testifying against white people. Nonetheless, Celia’s defense argued that Missouri rape laws, which made it a crime “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled,” applied to Celia, a slave woman.

To recognize Celia as a rape victim would require acknowledging her as a person deserving of humane treatment and legal protection; indeed, such recognition would call into question the entire legal system of slavery. While Celia’s lawyers ultimately failed to save her life or to overturn legal precedent that defined slave women outside the criminal definition of rape, Celia succeeded in making visible black women’s campaigns for human dignity and sexual justice.

The 1857 Dred Scott decision also fueled political debates about the sexual exploitation of slave women. Indeed, the case reveals that by the late 1850s, Republicans had begun to integrate black women’s campaigns for sexual justice into their political ideas about equality and citizenship. Abraham Lincoln reminded his audience that not just Dred Scott’s freedom was at stake in the case, but also the freedom of Scott’s wife, Harriet Robinson, and their two young daughters, Eliza and Lizzie. Making clear his opinion, Lincoln explained, “We desired the courts to have held that they were citizens … that they were in fact and in law really free,” and concluded that the ruling also meant the girls would be “left subject to the forced concubinage of their masters.”8 Drawing attention to master/slave rape, Lincoln flipped the sexual script to argue for Eliza’s and Lizzie’s rights as citizens to withhold consent.

Republicans were not immune to racial prejudices, but as Lincoln made clear, the party believed free blacks were entitled to the natural rights of mankind articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Equal protection under the law, however, did not include political or social rights for black women as far as Lincoln or the majority of the Republican Party was concerned, though it did include a vision of sexual justice articulated by black women.

The arrival of Union troops in the South intensified master/slave violence and exposed black women to a new kind of sexual violence at the hands of soldiers. At the same time that the war made black women even more vulnerable to rape, the passage of new military laws under Lincoln’s Lieber Code of 1863 brought all Southern black women under the umbrella of legal protection. Defining rape as a war crime without regard to race, the code reflected the Republican Party’s commitment to legal equality.9

Yet sexual violence was common to the wartime experience of all Southern women, black and white.10 Black women, however, were in even more danger because Northern white men were not immune to perceptions of black women as sexually lascivious.11

Testifying before the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission in 1863, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler declared, “The women are all brought up to think that no honor can come to them equal to that of connection with a white man.” As an afterthought, Butler added that he was “sorry to say that white men are not all above taking advantage of this feeling.”12 Capt. John H. Grabill confided to his wife that officers in his regiment believed that “no colored woman will deny gratification to a white man especially if he is an officer.”13

While such sexual attitudes enabled the officers to rationalize their exploitation of black women, their ideas and actions did not go unchallenged by black women and their Republican allies. A recent historical study found that U.S. military courts prosecuted at least 450 cases involving sexual crimes during the war, many of them brought by black women who did not hesitate to make use of the Lieber Code.14 For example, in July 1863, Harriet Elizabeth McKinley, “a mulatto woman,” appeared before a military commission to testify against Pvt. Perry Pierson of the 33rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry, who had allegedly raped her.15 Before an all-white and all-male commission as well as her assailant, McKinley recounted in vivid detail her efforts to fend off the sexual assault: “He dragged me past a post, and I caught hold of it, and he told me if I did not let loose, he would slap the hell out of me. Then he … tried to make me lay down, and I wouldn’t. He then … flung his knee in my back and threw me to the ground … he got on top of me and held me down.” When asked bluntly, “Did the prisoner actually accomplish sexual intercourse with you: that is, did he or did he not insert his private part into you?” she answered solemnly, “Yes sir, he did.”16

During the Civil War, black women armed themselves with new legal tools to negotiate a deeply abusive sexual terrain, but one that, for the first time, admitted that they could be raped in the eyes of the law. In McKinley’s case as in others, military courts called black women as witnesses for the prosecution who could corroborate such accounts. Found guilty of rape, Pierson was “put to hard labor for one year” and deprived of pay for four months.

During Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, black women remained vulnerable to sexual violence and continued their campaigns for sexual justice. Their efforts were particularly clear in Memphis, where in the summer of 1866 white rioters killed 46 blacks, raped at least five black women, and injured hundreds more. The riot drew national attention, and a congressional committee traveled to Memphis to investigate.17 Black women bravely testified before the committee and asserted their legal claim to personal and sexual autonomy.18 In response to their testimonies, the committee concluded, “The crowning acts of atrocity and diabolism committed during these terrible nights were the ravishing of five different colored women by these fiends in human shape.”19

Yet the white and black Americans who wanted to ensure equal protection under the law faced profound opposition in the white South. As Southern white anxiety about the political, economic, and social meanings of emancipation intensified, different constituencies assembled a convergent set of racial and sexual fantasies that would soon strip black women of the rights they had acquired under military law. Whereas prior to the war, abolitionists had espoused a political narrative that centered on the rape of black women by white men, in the postwar years Southern white men developed a political discourse that defined rape as a crime committed by black men against white women.

When federal troops withdrew from the South, black women’s hopes of protection vanished with them.

Still, out of this renewed sexual violence against black women in the South emerged a powerful anti-rape movement led by Ida B. Wells. The publication of Wells’ 1892 pamphlet, Southern Horrors, marked a renewed campaign on the part of black women for sexual justice. Wells understood what black women had gained in the Civil War and its aftermath, and had lost in winning the peace. Yet like the black women who had fought for freedom before her, Wells insisted on black women’s rights as citizens to equal protection under the law. Like Stewart and Prince, Wells turned to the press to make her case. In doing so, she provoked the emergence of the black club women’s movement that would carry the campaign for sexual justice well into the 20th century.

Adapted from “ ‘What If I Am a Woman?’: Black Women’s Campaigns for Sexual Justice and Citizenship” by Crystal N. Feimster, originally published in The World the Civil War Made, edited by Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur. Published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Read more from this series.

1. Marilyn Richardson, Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), and “ ‘What if I Am a Woman?’ Maria W. Stewart’s Defense of Black Women’s Political Activism,” in Courage and Conscience: Black and White Abolitionists in Boston, ed. Donald M. Jacobs (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); and Valerie C. Cooper, Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011). 

2. Maria W. Stewart, “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Build,” 1831, in America’s First Black Woman Political Writer, 28–42. 

3. Ibid.

4. Block, Rape and Sexual Power, 64–74; Freedman, Defining Rape, 27–31; Bardiglio, “Rape and the Law,” 759–60; and Melton A. McLaurin, Celia, A Slave (New York: Avon, 1999), 88–93.

5. Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave: Related by Herself (London: F. Westley and A. H. Davis, 1831), 6.

6. For slave narratives that acknowledge sexual violence, see Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup (1853); Moses Roper, Narrative of the Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave (1849); and William J. Anderson, Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-Four Years a Slave (1857).

7. For a discussion of slave women’s resistance, see Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage, 55–57; Winthrop Jordan, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek,: An Inquiry Into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1996), 164–65, 201–2, 279; White, Ar’n’t I a Woman, 74–76; and Camp, Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance, 36–40.

8. Abraham Lincoln, “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision Delivered in Springfield, Illinois, June 26, 1857,” in Lincoln: Speeches and Writings: 1832–1858, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: The Library of America, 1989), 398.

9. General Orders, No. 100: The Lieber Code, April 24, 1863, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1899), series III, vol. 3, 148–64.

10. E. Susan Barber and Charles R. Ritter, “ ‘Physical Abuse … and Rough Handling’: Race, Gender, and Sexual Justice in the Occupied South,” in Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation, and the American Civil War, ed. LeeAnn Whites and Alecia P. Long (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 49–64.

11. On female contraband, see Schwalm, A Hard Fight for We; Thavolia Glymph, “ ‘This Species of Property’: Female Slave Contrabands in the Civil War,” in A Woman’s War: Southern Women, Civil War, and the Confederate Legacy, ed. Edward D. D. Campbell Jr. and Kym S. Rice (Richmond: Museum of the Confederacy, 1997), 55–71; and “Non- combatant Military Laborers in the Civil War,” Magazine of History 16, no. 2 (2012): 25–29; and Stephanie McCurry, “War, Gender, and Emancipation in the Civil War South,” in Lincoln’s Proclamation: Emancipation Reconsidered, ed. William A. Blair and Karen Fisher Younger (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 120–50.

12. Testimony of Maj. Gen. B. F. Butler before the American Freedmen Inquiry Commission file no. 5, see also testimony of J. Redpath, file no. 9, Capt. E. W. Hooper file no. 3A, O-328, 1863, Letters Received, ser. 12, RG 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.. For a discussion of abolitionist views on sexual depravity in the South and the immorality of female slaves, see Reid Mitchell, The Va- cant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home (London: Oxford University Press, 1993), 108–9; Ronald G. Walters, The Antislavery Appeal: American Abolitionism after 1830 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984), 70–110. For comments on the role of women as the guardians of domestic virtue, see James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (London: Oxford University Press, 2003), 34–35; Mitchell, The Vacant Chair, 74–75. For a description of antebellum stereotypes of black female slaves, see Fox- Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 291–93; White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, 29–34, 46–50; Feimster, Southern Horrors; and Jennifer Morgan, Laboring Women.

13. Capt. E. Gabrill to wife, June 20, 1865, Elliot F. Grabill Papers, Oberlin College Archives; Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (New York: Vintage, 1977), 385–402, 613–14. 

14. Barber and Ritter, “Physical Abuse … and Rough Handling.”

15. Trial of Perry Peirson, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General, Record Group 153, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

16. Testimony of Harriet McKinley in Trial of Perry Peirson, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General, Record Group 153, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. 

17. Rosen, “ ‘Not That Sort of Women’ ”; and Terror in the Heart of Freedom; Kenneth W. Goings, “Unhidden” Transcripts: Memphis and African American Agency, 1862–1920 (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1995); Kevin R. Hardwick “ ‘Your Old Father Abe Lincoln Is Dead and Damned’: Black Soldiers and the Memphis Race Riot of 1866,” Journal of Social History 27, no. 1 (1993): 109–28; Altina L. Waller, “Community, Class, and Race in the Memphis Riot of 1866,” Journal of Social History 18, no. 2 (1984): 223–46; and James Gilbert Ryan, “The Memphis Riots of 1866: Terror in a Black Community During Reconstruction,” Journal of Negro History 62, no. 3 (1977): 243–57.

18. Rosen, “ ‘Not That Sort of Women.’ ”

19. Memphis Riots and Massacres quoted in Rosen, “ ‘Not That Sort of Women,’ ” 282–83.