During the years of 1877 and before, slavery for black men and women was a devastating experience. Both male and female slaves had little to no rights, were subjected to grueling hard labor, and suffered physical and mental abuse. They were forced from their native homelands, separated from their families, and sold as property in the eyes of the law. In America, most slave owners favored young males over female slaves (Harrod, Ryan, Debra, and Marshall 56); however, both males and females were slaves in the northern and southern colonies. Many slave owners treated females differently although both males and females were treated as property rather than human beings. Few slave owners did not mistreat their female slaves and often found them useful in their homes, while others were subjected to sexual violence and forced into the same hard labor as the male slaves. “Enslaved males and females were considered “chattel” in the antebellum United States without legal rights to their person or protection from sexual violence” (King 173). While some slave owners appreciated female slaves, female slaves were treated more harshly than male slaves, pregnant female slaves were used for economic gain, and female slaves were subjected to sexual violence from slave owners.
The fact of the matter is that there exists and unbalanced and profoundly abusive between slaves and their owners. Indeed, the very reason for this is that the owner typically had full control over the slave’s life in all aspects beginning from the most basic rights such as food and security to the more advanced ones (Gates et al., 54). However, the different genders were treated differently by their owners on the sole basis of their gender. There is strong evidence to indicate that men were held to a different standard than women and that women and men were given different jobs, ones that typically required hard labor. This dichotomy is believed to have a significant impact on the status of slaves in American society. In turn, this could have affected the gender bias that is in existence to date.
Traditional gender roles dictate that a man has to be strong, unemotional and resilient despite facing numerous challenges. In addition, it is believed that men are superior to women because it is thought that they are more intelligent than women along with other impressionable qualities (Gates et al. 72). On the other hand, women are believed to be a chattel to the men of the house and were supposed to be delicate creatures that cannot participate in manual labor. What is clear is that the slavery situation in the South challenged this notion since men and women were doing duties of the same caliber. Traditional roles were not the status quo of the slaves in the South. In the South, slaves were treated equally regardless of their gender unlike in other countries such as Haiti where women were more likely to negotiate their terms of servitude.
It is interesting to note that in the South, male and female slaves were given similar methods of punishment. Both men and women experienced poor living conditions and whooping as punishment without regard to gender. Female mistresses mostly punished female slaves but on some occasion, a male master could also execute the punishment in question. This shows that women are equally capable of violence just like their male counterparts and that they can use their strength to discipline a slave effectively.
Whereas physical violence was common regardless of the gender of the slave, sexual abuse was almost strictly restrained to the female slaves. Indeed, it is imperative to note that African women were only brought to accompany the males who are the ones who were brought in as slaves. Rape was a common occurrence among female slaves both from both their masters as well as their fellow slaves. In the South, female slaves were prized highly because of their breeding abilities as well as their low cost. Acquiring new slaves was a unique way for men slave owners to be able to increase the number of slaves that they owned without having to buy new slaves. History indicates that fertile slaves were required to bear children after every two years and a half. However, in the South of America, once women had surpassed the childbearing age, they were often taken back to the fields to do similar labor to the men. Since they were either pregnant, breastfeeding, nursing newborns at any one time, fertile female slaves were often given a reduced workload. Other slaves were jealous of these women without realizing that the children that they bore were often as a result of rape. Owners sexually abused their female slaves so much that King Charles II passed legislation criminalizing the fornication between masters and slaves in 1661. Some female slaves tried to obtain justice for the misdeed but few, if ever, acquired justice (White 54). One of the enormous problems that the female slaves had to contend with was the fact there was no legislation to protect female slaves against rape and other injustices. Since their masters owned the slaves, the general belief is that they could do anything to them without any repercussions. The legislation that existed only dealt with issues such as the compensation a master receives when an outsider rapes or impregnates his slaves. Just like a master could not trespass in his property, he could not be reported for abusing his slaves since indeed, they were lawfully his property. It is imperative to note that gender-specific violence was not only within the American South, but also white slaves owners in French colonies assaulted their slaves. One author claims that more than 50% of the female slaves had given birth to children who were illegitimate after being sexually abused by their masters. The psychological reasoning of this is that masters obtained gratification and pleasure after inflicting pain to their slaves. Indeed, this could be the very reason why women in the South were whipped as opposed to receiving a lighter punishment.
One of the significant issues that arose as part of the issue of illegitimate children was succession. The typical line of succession in Britain dictated that children take their father’s status. However, the mixed race of the children born to slaves received reversed lines of inheritance, and therefore, the children took the slave status of the mother. However, in other countries, when there was a sexual relationship between the slave and the slave owner often resulted in the slave resulting in a higher status (Jennings 70). The children who were born of these unions often led to children who were given better treatment than their black counterparts. In some cases, these slaves and their children were given freedom. In these particular countries, it is rumored that some slaves actively tried getting pregnant to ensure that they climb up the social ladder.
It is important to note that the first slaves to come to North America were primarily men. Women were just brought in to accompany the men. Male slaves were generally considered more valuable owing to their strength and the fact that they could perform various duties ranging from plowing fields to building houses. The Dutch first brought Creole and African slaves to New Amsterdam in the late 1960s but not to supplement the workforce but instead to keep the men company (White 58). However, in some cases, later on, women were given duties that required more skilled labor such as cooking in the households of the masters. Many planters within North America at the time preferred to have young, energetic men as slaves. Unfortunately, many of these men were shipped to the West Indies since the sugar crops that these colonies planted were dominant in the international trade economy. Since male slaves were apparently in short supply, slave buyers began to acquire female slaves to work in their fields since they were cheaper as well as more readily available. Men were also more likely to be assigned skilled labor duties such as blacksmithing and carpentry, and more slaves were needed to work in the agricultural farmland. Eventually, the number of female workers eventually outnumbered that of men in the field.
On the smaller farms, women were more likely to the same jobs as the men. On larger farms, however, labor work was typically divided between the two genders (Harrod et al. 50). The more physically demanding tasks were assigned to the males while women did the farm work. For example, men would chop the fence while women would construct the wall in question. It was a generally accepted norm that while the women hoed the fields, the men plowed. This is the reason as to why the activity of hoeing greatly upset the gender paradigm as was known in the country. In some colonies such as South Carolina women were forced to hoe in the rice fields alongside the women. This was degrading to the men since back in the homeland in West Africa. Hoeing was considered the work of women. Therefore, while in Africa hoeing was considered a domestic duty alongside cooking, in the South of America, it was considered commercial, and these women were part of the workforce officially.
In Africa, the primary role of women in the family was childbearing and nurturing. A man was supposed to look for a fertile woman who would ensure that his lineage outlived him (Bibb 45). In Africa, childbirth was a rite of passage that earned them a respectful place in society. In the United States, motherhood was debased for the woman, and many dreaded it. The American plantation system was developed in the middle of the Eighteenth Century, and the African woman was reduced to a mere multiplier of the labor force thus becoming an economic advantage for the slave master. A record of proven fertility often resulted in an increase of her value as a woman to the slave. A woman who had proven to be fertile was less likely to be sold away from those that she loved. However, the burden of childbearing was often too heavy for the woman who was expected to put the needs of the home before her own needs. Once the woman gave birth, it was expected that she would go back to the fields to ensure that she keeps the money coming. Her child was then raised by other people and would soon be grown enough to join in the work. In smaller farms, her motherhood responsibilities were added on to her other duties.
For both men and women from Africa, slavery was a devastating experience, In both cases, innocent people were taken away from their homelands and were forced to work as slaves in a new country away from home living under terrible conditions. These slaves were subjected to multiple physical and mental degradation and were denied their most basic rights. However, despite all the similarities between male and female slaves, it is evident that their experiences were predominantly different because of their gender. Women in particular, were subjected to sexually harassed by their masters as well as fellow slaves. As already mentioned, the struggle that women went through was different than the men, and many people would agree that the women had it rougher.
Bibb, Henry. The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb: An American Slave. Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2001.
Gates, H. L., Gronniosaw, J. A. U., Equiano, O., Douglass, F., Turner, N., Brown, W. W., … & Green, J. D. (2000). Slave narratives (Vol. 114). Library of America.
Harrod, Ryan P., Debra L. Martin, and L. W. Marshall. “Bioarchaeological case studies of slavery, captivity, and other forms of exploitation.” The archaeology of slavery: A comparative approach to captivity and coercion (2015): 41-63.
Jennings, Thelma. “Us Colored Women Had to Go Through a Plenty”: Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women.” Journal of Women’s History 1.3 (1990): 45-74.
Wilma King. “‘PREMATURELY KNOWING OF EVIL THINGS’: THE SEXUAL ABUSE OF AFRICAN AMERICAN GIRLS AND YOUNG WOMEN IN SLAVERY AND FREEDOM.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 99, no. 3, 2014, pp. 173–196. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5323/jafriamerhist.99.3.0173.
White, Deborah Gray. Aren’t I a woman?: Female slaves in the plantation South. WW Norton & Company, 1999.