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.
I am surprised that anyone would think that white women were NOT complicit in slavery. They existed in and actively benefitted from the slaveholding system. That women were/are also an oppressed group due to their sex is beside the point. We are all complex mixtures of oppression and privilege. One and the same person can be personally oppressed, yet simultaneously oppress others who are even more unfortunate.
This is fascinating. Frankly, I had never heard of this book or its author or of the 1691 Project or of the loopy idea that southern white women were somehow not full participants in the atrocity of slavery. Having grown up in Mississippi and being surrounded in those years by iron-willed southern white women, it would never have occurred to me that they were not complicit right up to their eyebrows. You may not have the professional qualifications but you seem to have done a pretty thorough delineation of this book.
"Southern slave-owning women had existed in a world in which slavery and the ownership of human beings constituted core elements of their identities." Yes, that pretty well sums it up, and some of their descendants, unfortunately, are still doing a rear-guard action in defending and continuing in those identities.
Hi Debra - I totally agree that "We are all complex mixtures of oppression and privilege" and a lot of other stiff that goes in to the equation. It think that it is theoretically possible to have a situation where women were so politically, socially and economically powerless that they had little role in the institution of slavery. This book provides a lot of evidence that was not the case.
Thanks Dorothy - Indeed there are some very bad characters out there and some of them are women. It is astounding how folks will internalize and let things like slavery become a part of them.
What bothers me is "I was surprised, as many other people were, by the scope of this thing, especially since it’s going to become the basis for high school education and has the authority of the New York Times behind it, and yet it is so wrong in so many ways."
Hard copy collection of history and facts gleaned from those "on the ground" is important to me. History viewed in the rear view mirrors makes me angry.
History develops a shot-gun effect. As I know from my brothers who used shotgun shells, having filled them with pellets, they never hit a target.
I appreciate this and will never read this book.
Hi Susan - In my opinion, The 1619 Project not just looked at history through a rear view mirror, but it looks at it through a distorted mirror.
in light of the current effort by certain segments of the population to make untruths socially acceptable, close analyses of books purported to justify unpleasant realities in history would seem to be performing a public service... tx, Brian for an honest and truthful post!
Thanks Muddpuddle. It is an odd time culturally. Hopefully this stuff will not continue to be a concern.
Hi Brian, really great review and you make a very good point about the importance of statistics when it comes to knowing what a society was like. That said I also have never doubted white women were complcit in the slavery system. As Debra says a person can face discrimination in tneir own life but that doesn't mean tney can't oppress others. I also think you only have to look at Margaret Mitchell who wrote Gone With the Wind 70 years after the Civil War and yet she was still trying to defend the system of slavery.
Thanks Kathy. Indeed, without statistics we have only a general idea. But the Margaret Mitchell example is a good one.
A great post Brian. I have never heard of the 1619 Project but what you had to say about it was interesting.
I think it is critical that we make a distinction between REVISIONIST history and what I call RETRIEVED history, the latter being retrieving stories that have been forgotten or overlooked (for whatever reason) and putting them, with sound reasoning, into the wider context. For me this particularly relates to the role and treatment of women and of indigenous people. There's a fine line, I suspect, between revised history and retrieved history. It requires a sophisticated understanding of time and place to retrieve lost stories and accurately place them versus revising history by giving these stories undue weight which alters their import and impact.
As you say about this book, finding a topic and re-examining it is a legitimate thing to do. The challenge is re-examning it legitimately!
Thanks WG. I like the idea of retrieved history. I think that this book fits the bill. I also think that it becomes an issue when folks push an ideology and do not acknowledge that they are advocating for it.
Another great review of what appears to be a somewhat obscure book. I wondered what your following statement was based on:
"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."
Is that a claim made by the author? Or is there some other source for that.
This book has received very positive reviews on the Goodreads site. Do you think that women in the Confederacy were treated any differently than women in the Union? After all this was an era well before women's suffrage and other advancements.
Mass respect for your ability to so calmly and logically dissect a controversial topic, Brian. I didn't realize you had a B.A. in History. I tried to go for a double major (History & English), but I ran out of money & had more credits toward my English degree than my History, so I went for a minor in History. I'd have loved more training in research and historical analysis.
Anyway, I always like reading your informative posts, especially when you take an historical topic and contemplate it in light of our own historical moment. Cheers. :)
@Kathy: My personal feeling is that Margaret Mitchell was being satirical in Gone with the Wind: the whole novel has a "beware of romantic thinking" feel. Ashley is described as a knight, as are the KKK, for example. At the end of the novel (SPOILER) ---> Scarlett realizes she's been chasing a fantasy. I don't think it's a mistake that the story of a Confederate's response to the loss of her security is told alongside the story of a child's inability to let go of her crush, even as he tarnishes before her eyes. She realizes at the end that she dressed up a weak and unremarkable man, who had some good qualities and some bad, to be something that he wasn't, and she lost nearly everything in trying to keep him. To me that's a giant sign that Mitchell meant the novel to be read as a warning -- a contemplation of the Conferacy's inability to view their world realistically. I don't pretend Mitchell had a 21st century outlook on race relations. I think she had a paternalistic viewpoint, but I do think her novel is doing a lot more than people realize.
Only my thoughts of course.
@Brian: I forgot to say, this book sounds fascinating. I have some of Catherine Clinton's writings on American Civil War women of the South, as well as a big book on the topic by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. It will be interesting to see what they argue.
@James: "Do you think that women in the Confederacy were treated any differently than women in the Union? After all this was an era well before women's suffrage and other advancements."
I am not an expert on this topic by any means, but I took a class on American women of the nineteenth century in college, & I remember that the professor argued that many white women of the South (certainly not all, see the Grimke sisters) fought hard to keep the institution of slavery in place because they had relative power within such a system, and would have lost that power without it. While white women of the North (& certainly SOME of the South, I imagine) began to gain a voice in the nineteenth century because they were permitted to enter the public sphere & begin preaching about temperance (considered a woman's prerogative due to the emphasis on her moral superiority at the time), and from there they learned about abolition and the women's movement, and their voices grew louder. During the suffrage movement of the nineteeth century, white women of the South OFTEN argued against allowing female suffrage because they didn't want to shake the power system in the South, while women in the North stood baffled, because HOW do you not want to use your voice? Interesting time period! :)
Hi Jillian,Good point about how Ashley in some ways represented the pre civil wat South, an idealized romantic version that wasn't baded in reality and Pat Conroy has said that Rhett and Scarlett represent the new South which would eventually result in bustling cities like Atlanta. Margaret Mitchell wrote a powerful novel and she was also complex. In the 1940's for example she gave away alot of money annonymously to black colleges so that the sudents could go on to medical school. It only got revealed recently.
Hi Kathy, thanks! Yes, I read a book about that recently: Benjamin E. Mays and Margaret Mitchell: A Unique Legacy in Medicine by Ira Johnson. Apparently her influence on the careers of the men she anonymously helped was in some cases totally life-changing. They were not told it was she who fronted the money.
I have also read that she was totally disgusted by the Jim Crow world of 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s Atlanta. She often held debates in her home (just as a way to pass the time) and one of the topics she'd debate was the treatment of African-Americans in her city. She took the position that their treatment was appalling. (I cannot cite a source here as I don't recall which book I read this in. I do recall it delivered as an anecdote within one of my biographies.)
Oh, & I CAN say that within her letters, I find the total opposite of a romantic thinker: Mitchell was a slightly cynical, extremely realistic woman. When she talked of the South, she did so with some regional fondness, certainly; but she LOATHED romantic remarks about the South's "good old days."
This was a woman born to a fiery suffragist who constantly critiqued her social world. My gut feeling, just from having read extensively about the woman, is that Mitchell had no intention of romanticizing the South in Gone with the Wind. She was basically saying, "Those days are GONE WITH THE WIND, my friends. And good riddance. Women have voices now, and we DO NOT intend to continue to wander about having our heads patted." But it was in keeping with her story-telling style to do this around the back door, to lead you along to make you think she was saying one thing, and then at the last moment to turn the tables. I've read her short stories from her early writing days, and that's what she often did: take you along on a ride and then in the last moments startle you.
Again, all of this said, I would never argue that I believe she saw race relations as a 21st century person might. I do sense a paternalistic attitude in her writings. Her philosophy on African-Americans seemed to be steeped in self-reliance. She was for education as a means to true independence. She disliked institutions like the New Deal because she felt they would lead people to become too reliant on Big Government, and I see her suggesting within her novel that institutions like the Freedman's Bureau ultimately stole much-needed freedom from African-Americans, so that they became reliant all over again on White Americans.
I believe this was a common criticism of the Freedman's Bureau in the day, but I'm enormously uneducated on the topic of Reconstruction in America at this point. I own a giant copy of W.E.B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in America, though, and I'm looking forward to what it can tell me.
Anyway, respect for your remarks! :) Again, these are only my opinions and I totally understand the controversy about the novel.
Slavery is just so abhorrent to me. The idea of owning another human being for one's own economic benefit has nothing to recommend it, yet it has been going on for most of human history as far as I can tell. I do admire your endeavor with this book.
Thanks James. I thin k that a lot of history books come out that hover around t6his level of popularity.
The author makes the case about there being a narrative of white women being passive when it comes to slavery. She provides numerous examples and quotations from historians. I would say that I had a vague notion that this was the popular perception, but it was only vague and perhaps unsubstantiated.
I would case that there were some differences between Northern and Southern societies in regards to women. But I do not really know enough to go beyond a guess.
Thanks Jillian. English and History would be a great double major.
Thanks Judy - Slavery is abhorrent. It is true that it was considered normal and accepted throughout the globe for most of civilization. How we came to a point where we consider it unacceptable is both important and interesting.
Brian - Depressing topic, but your review is so interesting and makes me reevaluate how I read books on history (or current events, for that matter).
My personal hypothesis is that slavery and other social evils are/have been the joint responsibility of men and women. I struggle to see women as bystanders, unless they are/were tantamount to slaves themselves.
On the other hand, like you I get uncomfortable with language like "core elements of their identities." That's an awfully tidy way of putting it, but not very nuanced. Identity is such a fundamental, complex concept that's been watered down by tying too many attributes to it, IMHO.
Jillian - Thanks for sharing those insights on Mitchell! I didn't like the movie GWTW but I wonder if I might like the book for what you point out.
Hi Marian - This can be depressing stuff.
I think men and women did have different levels of power in society so there might very well have been differences in the way they generally acted towards slaves.
In the author’s defense, she did paint a picture of how many women allowed slavery to become key components of their lives. So I think this might Have been a fair statement for some.
Really good review, Brian, although the book leaves me with some questions that all white guilt books leave me with. Why are we looking at people, both oppressed and oppressive as if they have not been dead for almost two hundred years?
Instead of being depressed, why aren't we celebrating the fact that slavery has not been around in America for longer now than we've been a country? Why are these scholarly works dredging up the past and inflicting it on the present? What do they hope to accomplish?
If they're concerned about slavery making a comeback, why don't they focus their energies on the parts of the world where it has never gone away? Or is it an inconvenient truth to discuss people other than the white race enslaving humans?
Sorry, but I am really going through major white guilt fatigue. We are so blessed in this country with the freedoms and opportunities that don't exist anywhere else, and I include Europe when I say that.
There are European countries where you would not even be allowed to make any negative accusations against the current political leaders or you'd be shut down. No I'm not talking about Russia. I'm talking about France and England, not to mention Canada, where they are now dictating to pastors what they may or may not say from the pulpit.
But no. Let's go tsk, tsk, tsk over people who no longer exist.
Your review was really good, Brian. Sorry if I'm being negative. Have a good week!
Hi Sharon - The thing is, as I think you know, I am adamantly opposed to the collective guilt, dismissal of human progress, looking only at identity to find truth and morality, censorship in the name of social justice, etc have been referring to these things as postmodernism. As I mentioned above, I approached this book with suspicion. But I think that we have to be careful and not throw everything out that touches on these issues because we find postmodernism such a bad set of ideas.
On the other hand, I think looking at gender roles of the past has some value. Were the majority of women so oppressed that they did not participate in these things. Or were women exactly the same as men? Or is the truth somewhere in between. How much does biological differences between large groups of men and women come into play? I think that these are valid, interesting and important questions.
BTW - I did not think that you were negative. These are complicated issues.
Have a great day!
One additional thought occurred to me. As to celebrating the considerable progress we have made, that is one reason why I like Steven Pinker so much. It is one of his central themes.
It doesn't surprise me that in the Pre-Civil War South white women played an active role in slavery. It would surprise me to know of those who did not ... and what their roles were ... religious or otherwise. It just seemed a prevalent part of society in agriculture and the like. But I need to do more reading about this era and part of the country.
Hi Susan - It seems that the majority of people are not surprised by all this. The author does not delve into the abolishment movement. That history is well documented but I have only read a bit about it.
Wow! Such a powerful cover.
Saddened that we, the fairer sex (right?) were complicit in such things and yet I'm neither surprised nor, sadly, shocked. Yes, to a certain degree we were also oppressed but is that ever an excuse???
What sounds like a truly thought provoking read. As always thank you for sharing your thoughts on a book that I suspect may raise as many questions as it answers.
Hi Felicity- That is a great cover. That is a great cover.
Oppression is never an excuse to oppress others.
Though I am convinced that a lot of woman did participate in the institution of slavery, I am not sure how men and women really compared. We would need more statistics.
Another remarkable review dear Brain!
I read it twice to get along well as topic is new to me
I really admire your knowledge about history and specially what inspires me more is your insightful look over the changing environment of world and revolutionary evaluation in human perspective
You will find me at the ending edge of knowledge if you look for learned people though
I have not much information about the subject writer discussed here but i respect my own opinion about it and not hesitating to share
Thinking other human being low or treating him poorly on the basis of imbalance power we both possess makes us an ill minded person., there is no second opinion about it i think
What happened in past was "normal" in that era because being racist was "fashion" and people in power followed it blindly , may be even those who did not want to but still did to avoid ridiculous behaviour from circle they existed in.
I strongly object upon project who is trying to make people relive that painful time .
I think such research can bring no good but restlessness and negatively among people
I think if we want to progress for better,it is important to pickup ,only "goodness" that our past had as humans instead of events that show our sick approach that we experienced then.
Thank you for being always so AMAZINGLY brilliant and sharing your wisdom with us!
Thanks Baili - You raise some good points. It is as if a small number of loud activists are trying to not not had relive, but to take revenge for the past, on people that are alive today.
With all that, what was normal in the past is unthinkable today. I agree that we must continue to push good ideas. We can make things better by doing that.
Found this quote today. Just thought it'd be good for a laugh. :)
Margaret Mitchell in a letter to her friend Herschel Brickell – Oct 22, 1936 (referencing reviews of her novel Gone With the Wind):
– “You recall how the ‘left wingers’ romped on me? Some said with pity that it was unfortunate that I was only interested in plot and character and background. Because, it seems, I missed all the political and economic implications inherent in the period of which I wrote. Others, in wrath, shouted that I seemed totally unaware of ‘mass movements’ (I’ve been wondering just what they were). Others that I was too small-minded to realize that there were sociological matters that I entirely overlooked.
“Well. The English reviews have come in and, for the most part, are as good as to take my breath away. But one of them says, ‘It is a pity that Miss Mitchell cannot handle character and plot as superbly as she handles mass movements.’ Another, after a whacking good review, remarks that it is obvious Miss Mitchell is far more interested in the economic and sociological side of the period of which she writes than she is in mere story. Another announces shrewdly that I am, at heart, a sociologist. It seems that there is some slight disagreement.”
That's a recent publication, for such a historical topic. It sounds like she really did her homework with a great variety of sources. An interesting study indeed.
Hi Paula - There really are a lot of books still being written on slavery related topics. The book was well researched
Hi Jillian- Thanks for the quotation. It is so interesting to read about early reaction, in this case it is reaction to the reaction, of a famous work.
This does sound like an interesting book, worth a read - I must see if my local library has a copy.
I read Gone With The Wind in my teens, and I’m afraid I thought of it as a 1000 page Mills and Boon! One which romanticised slavery, at that.
Superb critical review ... I look forward to reading the book AND more of your postings.
Best wishes, Tim
Hi Sue - I have never actually read Gone With the Wind.
If you gave this a try. I would be curious what you thought about it.
I’m not all that familiar with American history but I was reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass recently & he mentioned some women who were just as bad as their husbands when it came to cruelty towards their slaves.
Hi Carol - I think that I remember that from The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas.
This is a fascinating topic and They Were Her Property sounds like a thought provoking read. What I've come across on this topic has been mainly while reading articles or watching documentaries about the Civil War. I did read Fredrick Douglas' memoir and reading about it from his POV was really emotional. We can't even begin to imagine something so horrific but also it's not hard to imagine that some of the white women were as bad as their husbands in regards to the treatment of their slaves. I barely made it through some scenes in 12 Years a Slave.
Off topic still somewhat related, I went to Gettysburg not too long ago and I was surprised that the Confederate flag memorabilia is all over the place for sale and I saw people purchasing it. Once the shock of seeing that wore off, I really began to wonder why.
Great commentary as always! This is one I would read.
Thanks Naida - I also have been mostly exposed to this topic through more general sources. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Is well worth reading. I need to give it a reread soon. I also find some of this stuff disturbing.
That is an interesting observation about Gettysburg. I think that for some, the Confederate Flag thing is cultural and not related to racism or slavery. But others do use it as a racist symbol.
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