Sexuality and Reproduction

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Sexuality and Reproduction

The experience of bondage for slave women was largely distinguished from that of slave men by the commodification of sexuality and reproduction. Each time an enslaved woman gave birth, the slaveholder acquired additional human property. This fact gave rise to a deeply gendered system of slavery. Just like slave men, slave women were expected to work, often performing arduous labor. But where slaveholders most valued the brawn of slave men and their ability to perform backbreaking physical labor, masters were most concerned with the fertility of slave women. According to historian Deborah Gray White, "Once slaveholders realized that the reproductive function of the female slave could yield a profit, the manipulation of procreative sexual relations became an integral part of the sexual exploitation of female slaves" (1985, p. 68).

Some male slaveholders coerced sexual relationships with slave women and increased their capital by fathering slaves. But slaveholders tried other ways to manipulate what they considered their reproductive domain, though slaves' efforts to preserve sexual and reproductive autonomy meant that these were areas over which the master-slave power dynamic was constantly being renegotiated.

Such was the case for Harriet Jacobs, who famously lived in her grandmother's garret for seven years to avoid sexual assault from the man who owned her. The harassment Jacobs endured began when she was fifteen and the man, represented in her narrative as Dr. Flint, began whispering obscenities in her ear and passing her licentious notes. When Jacobs wanted to marry a free man, Flint responded, "I'll soon convince you whether I am your master" and decreed that if Jacobs was determined to marry, she should marry one of Flint's male slaves (Jacobs [1861] 1987, p. 39). As a free man, Jacobs's fiancé lived beyond Flint's authority. Had she married another of Flint's slaves, Jacobs would have been further in the power of the slaveholder, who wanted to seclude her in a cabin and make her his concubine. According to Jacobs, Flint "claimed the right to rule me body and soul" (p. 38). But it was also her submission Flint wanted. And by maintaining control of her sexuality, Jacobs denied Flint's authority. Seeing marriage as an impossibility, she entered a sexual relationship with a local white politician. She later reflected, "If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home shielded by the laws." But as that was not the case, Jacobs found, "There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except what he gains by kindness and attachment" (p. 55). By her own characterization, Jacobs's affair was a careful political calculation that allowed her to exert agency against Flint by preserving her sexual autonomy. Before long, though, she was the mother of two children, both legally Flint's property. And to her struggle for personal autonomy was added her struggle for the care and protection of her children.

As with Flint, who had refused Jacobs's request for marriage to a free man and ordered her to choose a husband from among his slaves, slaveholders felt it within their purview to regulate marital relations of slaves, usually by granting or withholding permission for courtship or marriage. In Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative, the imminent coerced marriage of the narrator precipitates her decision to run away. But such cases were rare. As historian Marie Jenkins Schwartz noted, "The extensive effort that would have been required to force sexual partners upon slaves and ensure that the couple stayed together deterred all but the most ardent of would-be breeders." But knowledge that pairings were occasionally coerced, however infrequently, "worried slaves and pushed them into early marriages of their own making, rather than marriages arranged by their owners" (2000, p. 188).

Even then, the fact that marriage between slaves had no legal sanction meant that the union could be broken up. Suggesting the degree to which the sexuality of the married couple was commodified, Annie Burton recalled that where she spent her enslaved childhood, if no children were born within the first year of a marriage, slave couples usually were separated by the sale of one or both slaves.

Because slaveholders profited from the labor as well as the fertility of female slaves and because arduous labor threatened the health and stamina of expectant mothers, the work routines of pregnant women became a major point of concern. According to Marie Jenkins Schwartz, "the desire to increase their human property and to appear humane made owners reluctant to deny pregnant slaves relief from difficult work assignments for fear they would miscarry or produce a sickly or stillborn baby" (2000, p. 27). But cases where women failed to produce a child—either after falsely claiming pregancy or failing to report a miscarriage—led most owners to wait until the advanced stages of pregnancy, when imminent childbirth was clearly visible, to lighten workloads. And even then, slaveholders had differing ideas about what constitued heavy labor. The families of expectant women could negotiate the terms of treatment either by running away or refusing to work until slaveholders agreed to accommodations. But the reduced workloads had to be renegotiated with each instance of pregnancy.

Similarly, breastfeeding tended to interrupt the work routines of new mothers, who had to remain close to their nursing infants. This meant that during daylight hours mothers either had to be assigned work that allowed them to remain close to their infants or, for those mothers assigned fieldwork, that babies had to be carried to the field and nursed during scheduled periods of rest. Slaveholders generally preferred that children be weaned as soon as possible, usually between the ages of eight months and one year. Some imposed daytime regulations on the practice, particularly for fieldworkers. In another instance, Harriet Jacobs recalled that her mother, a twin, had been weaned at three months old so that Jacobs's grandmother could provide sufficient nourishment for her mistress's baby, whom she also nursed. More often, though, slaveholders' practice of withholding family rations for children under the age of two, meant that "many—probably most—mothers found it desirable to continue breastfeeding a baby through the child's second year" (p. 68).

The physical demands of labor and childbearing exacted a toll on the bodies of slave women, as Frances Kemble, an English native married to Georgia planter Pierce Butler, recorded in her journal. Chief among the entreaties of Butler's slaves was the extension of mothers' lying-in time after the birth of a child. The rule and custom of the plantation required that women return to their field labor three weeks after giving birth. After observing Kemble's own "tenderly watched confinement and convalescence" the slave women requested an additional week of recuperation before their mandatory return to hoeing the fields, a request Butler denied. Kemble also recorded a catalog of the women's gynecological complications and noted the high mortality rate of their childen: Fanny gave birth to six children, of whom only one survived; Nanny had three children, two of whom died; Leah, six children, three of whom died; Sophy, ten children, five of whom died; and Sally, in addition to two miscarriages, gave birth to three children, one of whom died. Kemble wrote of the slave women, "I think the number they bear as compared with the number they rear a fair gauge of the effect of the system on their own health and that of their offspring" (1984, p. 231).

To remedy these effects, many slaves took steps to regulate their own fertility. As most bondpeople highly valued children and motherhood, their efforts were not meant to prevent pregnancy altogether but to space pregnancies far enough apart that they did not "exhaust [mothers'] strength or interfere with their ability to care for older children" (Schwartz 2006, p. 94). Prolonged breastfeeding provided for the nuture of infants but was also understood to reduce the possibility of additional pregnancy, though its specific role in supressing ovulation was not known. Despite slaveholders' insistence on early weaning, slave mothers were likely to continue nursing their children in private until the age of two or beyond. In addition, many plants were known to have useful medicinal qualities. The root of the widely available cotton plant, as well as dogwood or dog-fennel root, could be chewed or boiled into a tea to induce menstruation. Slave women employed these herbal medicines to prevent conception or cause miscarriage. When they wanted to become pregnant, they simply ceased the treatments. Slaveholders attempted to quash the practice by punishing women found to employ these methods of reproductive control, but masters had a difficult time regulating what was largely practiced in secret.


Burton, Annie. Memories of Childhood's Slavery Days [1909]. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1996.

Clinton, Catherine. The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.

Crafts, Hannah. The Bondwoman's Narrative, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Warner Books, 2002.

Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl [1861], ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Kemble, Frances. Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839, ed. John A. Scott. Athens, GA: University of Georgian Press, 1984.

Schwartz, Marie Jenkins. Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2000.

Schwartz, Marie Jenkins. Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

White, Deborah, Gray. Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

                                        Christina Adkins

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Sexuality and Reproduction

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