They Were Her Property by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers is an examination on the role that free white women played in the institution of slavery in America’s Antebellum South. The book was first published in 2019. There is a little bit of a story as to why I read this work that relates to some of my thoughts on its content as well as my thoughts on some of the social and historical debates going on these days.
An online friend of mine was reading this book in her book club. My friend had read almost no history before. Certain things about this book led her, and myself, to consider the possibility that this book might be agenda driven and not based upon serious scholarship. Because I am someone who reads a fair amount of history, my friend asked me if I would like to also read the book and assess what I thought about it. Why were such concerns relevant to this work? Lately there has been some revisionist history, partially driven by a social and political theories. The most prominent example of what I am talking about is something called the 1619 Project. The project is a series of articles accompanied with educational materials that seeks to reassess slavery within the context of American History. The creators of the project have been accused, I believe with some justification, of biased scholarship that is agenda driven that looked to find evidence aimed at proving points that are not based upon truth. Several prominent historians who are experts on American History have been critical of that project. The subject of this book could possibly be viewed as having a tangential connection to the 1619 Project and other agenda driven interpretations of history that have recently been popping up.
In addition, this book is obviously critical of the actions of many white women in Antebellum America. Unfortunately, among certain quarters of what I have been referring to as the postmodern left, white women are currently being stereotyped and assigned a kind of collective guilt. The reasons and the history for this is beyond the scope of this post. However, a book such as this will set off alarm bells for folks who are paying attention to the current discourse.
If these concerns had merit it would mean this work would be too biased to take seriously. In addition, a postmodern reasoning disregards many ways that are traditionally used to determine truth and sets up all sorts of truth finding mechanisms that are not based on reason or objectivity. At the very least, this means that works written from a postmodern point of view need to be approached differently from other works.
I should note that I have no professional qualifications to assess the quality of history scholarship. What I have is an amateur’s interest. I do hold a bachelor's degree in history. I once took a graduate level class in historiography. I read a lot of history. I read a lot of American history. However, the Antebellum South is not my prime area of interest. In terms of postmodernism I have read a fair amount of the theory and arguments behind it. This includes postmodernist takes on history. I have also read a fair amount from the critics of postmodernism. I have followed the debate over the 1619 Project closely and have read its controversial parts as well as content written by its critics. Thus, my evaluation of this book is not a professional one, just my own views based on my own reading and interests.
With all that, having read the book as well as looking through what others are saying about it online, I feel good about giving it a clean bill of health. First of all, its main premise, that is that white, free women in the pre – Civil War America were active participants in almost all aspects of slavery, is a worthy topic that is worthy of examination. There is a narrative that has sprung up both with some historians and in popular culture that free women of this period were more or less innocent bystanders and were also an oppressed group. Reexamining that narrative is a legitimate line of inquiry.
More importantly, this seems to be a serious work of history. It is heavily researched. Almost every fact and account presented is footnoted. Conclusions and opinions are supported by facts. It contains none of what I would call postmodernist reasoning nor is there what I would call postmodernist rhetoric. I did think that the book had a couple of flaws, which I will touch on below, however, I do not believe that these flaws relate to the above concerns. There is also the question of whether the current debates on these issues led to the writing of this book in the first place. I cannot say if this is the case or not, however, I do not believe that is important as the book itself is a solid work of history.
The question arises, should I even bring any of this up? Most history books that I write about, unless I mention some kind of bad scholarship or bias, are assumed to be good works of scholarship. The reason that I have devoted some words to this is that, as I mentioned above, a superficial look at the subject of this book is going to lead to many people connecting it to the current debates on these issues. I thought that it was important to address these issues so that they do not distract from the content of the book itself.
As mentioned above, in this book the author looks at the role that white free women had upon slavery and enslaved people in pre – Civil War America. She also contrasts what she found to what she considers a false narrative that has sprung up around the topic.
While Jones-Rogers uses a variety of sources including newspaper articles, letters and public records, she also relies heavily on interviews conducted as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). This project took place in the 1930s and conducted numerous interviews of formally enslaved persons as well as a few free people who lived in this time and place. Obviously, these interviews are of great interest to anyone interested in this topic.
As a result, this book is full of accounts of women who actively participated in the slave trade and who owned slaves. A picture is drawn of a society where many women owned slaves. The author points out that some past historians have depicted a situation where women owned slaves on paper and with the real control exerted by male their relatives. However, Jones-Rogers shows that often, women exercised day to day control of slaves, and at times sought, through legal means, to keep the slaves from falling under control of their husbands. Furthermore, the book is full of accounts of women actively participating in the buying and selling of slaves. Unsurprisingly, the actions of women varied, with some women slaveholders eschewing punishment and cruelty while others acting in cruel and brutal ways.
In regards to crueler Mistresses, the author writes,
Formerly enslaved people also remembered their female owners as powerful disciplinarians who used a variety of techniques that resembled those of male slave owners . Addy Gill was enslaved in Millburnie , North Carolina , and she recalled that her mistress Louise Krenshaw “ done the whuppin on Mr . Krenshaw’s plantation an she was mighty rough at times . ”
Some of the worst behavior was committed by free women who were brothel owners who forced female slaves into lives of sexual slavery and prostitution. An entire section of the book is also dedicated to the use of slave women as wet nurses for white women who could not breastfeed their own children. This trade was almost exclusively conducted and controlled by free white women.
The biggest issue with this book is that is does not contain enough statistics. This makes it difficult to build a comprehensive picture. In defense of the author, I am not sure that such statistics exist from this time and place. The book is filled with hundreds of individual cases. These cases are almost all footnoted and tied to what seem like good sources. There are so many individual accounts that it is clear that the author is on to something. In addition, many of the individual accounts seem to illustrate situations that were considered to be usual occurrences. While this kind of evidence will always lead to gaps in our knowledge, it is valuable. Because of the lack of these statistics however, a book like this can only advance knowledge so far. Jones-Rogers has convinced me that a lot of women own and exercised control of slaves. Many participated in the slave trade. Like male slave owners, some were crueler then others. Furthermore, the narrative that white women were almost exclusively innocent bystanders is questionable, at least in a lot of cases. However, we really can only approximate the extent of all this and we do not know how, on a large scale, it all this compares to the actions of men. The biggest flaw in the book, is that sometimes the author generalizes a little too much based upon this insufficient evidence. At one point the author writes,
Southern slave-owning women had existed in a world in which slavery and the ownership of human beings constituted core elements of their identities.
I thought that this was a very worthwhile book. It offers an valuable look at gender, human nature and the differences and similarities between the behavior of men verses women. It sheds light on an important and little talked about subject. It is extremely well researched. It is also very interesting and will likely keep a reader’s attention. Though a book confined to a fairly narrow subject, this is a good read for those already interested in slavery, or gender roles throughout history.