Equal-Opportunity Evil

A new history reveals that for female slaveholders, the business of human exploitation was just as profitable—and brutal—as it was for men.

Wye House, a historic plantation house in rural Talbot County, Maryland.
Wye House, a historic plantation house in rural Talbot County, Maryland. Historic American Buildings Survey/Wikimedia Commons

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers opens her stunning new book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, with a story about Martha Gibbs, a sawmill owner in Mississippi who also owned “a significant number of slaves.” One of them, Litt Young, described her owner as a woman in total control of her financial affairs, including the management of her enslaved workers. Young remembered, for example, how Gibbs’ second husband tried and failed to convince her to stop ordering her overseer to administer “brutal whippings.” After the Confederates surrendered, Gibbs “refugeed:” She took some of her enslaved workers to Texas, at gunpoint, and forced them to labor for her until 1866—“one year after these legally free but still enslaved people ‘made her first crop.’ ” Then, writes Jones-Rogers, “Martha Gibbs finally let them go.”

Early books about female slaveholders, written in the 1970s and 1980s by historians of women’s experiences, tended to be about elite, wealthy Southerners who fell into that role when their husbands or fathers died. The women in these histories were depicted as having had a conflicted relationship with their role as slaveowner, and some historians posited that these plantation mistresses themselves were restricted and oppressed by the patriarchal society of the Old South. In this telling of history, the women who owned people didn’t directly involve themselves with the day-to-day management of enslaved workers, and certainly not with the selling and buying of the enslaved.

It’s these assumptions about female slaveowning as a kind of passive, half-hearted practice that Jones-Rogers is challenging with her book—and with them, the idea that white women were innocent bystanders to the white male practice of enslavement. Her goal, she told me in a phone interview, was to paint a picture of the way white women economically benefited from their own slaveholding. For some women, slaveholding helped them attract husbands. Within their marriages, a woman like Martha Gibbs who owned enslaved people might retain a measure of independence by maintaining control of “her” slaves. And if those husbands died, or turned out to be failures at business, their wives figured out ways to retain the human property that would ensure their continued material security.

Jones-Rogers began this shift in historical perspective by looking away from letters and diaries of elite white women that formed the documentary basis for earlier histories, and toward the testimony of the people who had been in bondage. Looking at life narratives of formerly enslaved people recorded during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration (Litt Young’s was one of these), Jones-Rogers found multiple instances of these witnesses naming the women who owned them—not simply as “mistresses” but as owners, with everything that entailed. She found stories of times when these women “reinforced their property claims in conversations with or in the presence of their slaves” and “challenged their male kinfolks’ alleged power to control their property, human or otherwise.”

Examining other kinds of records, Jones-Rogers found female slave-owners all over the archive of American slavery: female authors of the advertisements placed in newspapers when enslaved people ran away, identifying themselves as the runaways’ owners; women awarded compensation for the deaths of enslaved people who had been executed or sold away after being found guilty of fomenting insurrection; women compensated by cities who hired enslaved workers for public works projects. Married women, who under the legal doctrine of coverture were not commonly allowed to hold property once they had husbands, petitioned courts to gain economic rights to the enslaved people they had owned before marriage—and judges often agreed with their pleas.

The stories from WPA narratives show that from the perspective of the enslaved, female slaveholders weren’t much different from their male counterparts. Many of them were just as physically cruel as men, and they didn’t hesitate to make decisions to “sell away” enslaved people or their relatives. Stories of women who whipped enslaved people with nettleweed or fed enslaved children spoiled meat, and an entire heartbreaking chapter about the practice of separating enslaved women from their infants so that they could act as wet nurses for their mistresses’ offspring, make it clear that Southern women who owned people weren’t kind “mothers” making the best of a bad situation. “If we look carefully at slave-owning women’s management styles, we find that these differed little from those used by slaveholding men—and they rarely treated enslaved people as their children,” Jones-Rogers writes.

“I was thinking about the chapter about wet-nursing in relationship to Trump’s policies on separating women from their children,” Jones-Rogers said. “I saw an interview with this white couple in Texas, a part of Texas that was close to the border. And they asked the woman, how would you feel if these were your children? And she essentially said, ‘These wouldn’t be my children.’ ” The woman who forced WPA interviewee T.W. Cotton’s mother to breastfeed her own infant, leaving infant Cotton to be fed “animal milk or pap from a bottle, a dangerous practice that many physicians strongly discouraged at the time,” as Jones-Rogers writes, probably didn’t view this rupture as emotionally or physically difficult for the mother or the son. “When these women separated enslaved mothers from their children, they aren’t seeing themselves in that situation,” Jones-Rogers said. “They’re seeing themselves as vastly different from these women, and they’re seeing their relationships to their children as starkly different from their own.”

To some (let’s be honest, probably mostly white) people, the fact that white women have the capacity to inflict violence and to cruelly manipulate the lives of others—to be what Jones-Rogers, in our conversation, called “evil and dastardly”—is an eternal revelation. That’s why we still get curious, “look at this weird phenomenon” articles about white women at Unite the Right, or within the alt-right movement. Or why we need to be reminded again and again that white women gleefully attended lynchings, flocked in the thousands to form auxiliaries for the Ku Klux Klan, and avidly protested school integration in the South and the North. This history of slave-owning women’s economic relationship to slavery, Jones-Rogers says, should “remove the surprise.” “If you think about the value, the importance of whiteness in their lives, being a source of power, being a source of empowerment and emboldenment, then throughout history these little things make sense,” she said. “Women can hold their own when it comes to violence.”

Perhaps it’s a particularly American tic to want to believe in white women’s innocence in the cruelty of American history. Jones-Rogers reports that when she would present her work to scholars in Europe, they’d be unsurprised at its contents. “There was this kind of consensus among them that women could do these things. But when I talked to American historians, and American scholars, they were saying—‘What??? Wow!’ ”

While writing her book, Jones-Rogers read Hitler’s Furies, Wendy Lower’s history about Nazi women’s participation in genocide on the Eastern Front during World War II. “One of the arguments Lower makes is, the reason why we may be shocked is, we hold onto this hope that at least one half of humanity still has some good in it,” Jones-Rogers says. “We need some part of humanity to have this inherent, natural empathy. When we find out women can be just as vicious and atrocious, it’s very disillusioning. Because who else is left?”