/Book Review: Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ “They Were Her Property”

Book Review: Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ “They Were Her Property”

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes? –Dr. Samuel Johnson

Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ They Were Her Property is a beautifully written work of scholarship that demolishes great swathes of conventional wisdom while painting a vivid portrait of “19th century America’s most significant and devastating system of economic exchange,” and how white women slave-owners actively participated within it by owning, managing, and selling slaves. (Yale University Press has also done the work proud; the paper and typesetting are gorgeous, and best of all — ranting, here — the running heads in the footnotes section have page numbers, so you can flip directly to the page of footnotes you want and then to the note, rather than having to remember the name of the chapter, fumble through the index to find it, and then work slowly forward by the numbers. Why don’t all publishers do this? Close rant.) The Washington Post descibes Jones-Rogers’ methodology in “White women’s long-overlooked complicity in the brutality of slaveholding” (but, as we shall see, it’s more than “complicity”:

At every turn in her analysis, Jones-Rogers takes care to illuminate how we know what we know. Her central sources are firsthand accounts by enslaved persons, especially the more than 2,000 interviews with former slaves recorded by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency[1], in the 1930s. In those interviews, formerly enslaved people clearly recall having female owners and recall, too, the authority those female owners exercised in exploiting, punishing and tormenting their bondspeople. A vast documentary record confirms these recollections: For example, women appear as slave owners in census records; in newspaper advertisements for the return of runaways; and in court records, confronting spouses who refused to recognize their property rights.

The New York Times describes Jones-Rogers’ historiography in “White Women Were Avid Slaveowners, a New Book Shows“:

[The book] examines how historians have misunderstood and misrepresented white women as reluctant actors. The scholarship of the 1970s and ’80s, in particular, did much to minimize their involvement, depicting them as masters in name only and even, grotesquely, as natural allies to enslaved people — both suffered beneath the boot of Southern patriarchy, the argument goes.

Jones-Rogers puts the matter plainly. White slave-owning women were ubiquitous. Not only did they profit from, and passionately defend, slavery, but the institution “was their freedom.” White women were more likely to inherit enslaved people than land. Their wealth brought them suitors and gave them bargaining power in their marriages. If their husbands proved unsatisfactory slave owners in their eyes, the women might petition for the right to manage their “property” themselves, which they did, with imaginative sadism.

In this review, I’m going to quote long-ish passages of the book, both to display Jones-Rogers’ methodology and historiography at work, to drive home the points made in the reviews above, and to show — you think you know something, but come to find out you didn’t really know it — what a skin-crawlingly vile institution the Slave Power really was. I’ll conclude with a few brief remarks on the current political conjuncture.

Women Owned Slaves

From the Introduction, pages xii-xiv:

I focus specifically on women who owned enslaved people in their own right and, in particular, on the the experiences of married slave-owning women. In addition, I understand these women’s fundamental relation to slavery as a relation of property, a relation that was, above all, economic at its foundation. I am not suggesting that this was these women’s only relationship to the institution or that the economic dimension of their relations overrode other aspects of their connections to slavery; rather, I argue that pecuniary ties formed one of slave-owning women’s primary relations to African American bondage.

Historians who explore slavery’s relationship to capitalism generally focus on the roles that men played in the development of both. But if we considered the very real possibility that some of the enslaved people these men compelled to work in southern cotton fields actually belonged to their wives, the narrative about American slavery and capitalism would be strikingly different. And when we consider that the enslaved people women owned before they married or acquired afterward helped make the nineteenth-century scale of southern cotton cultivation possible, the narrative of slavery, nineteenth century markets, and capitalism as the domain of men becomes untenable.

In the South, slave-owning women possessed the kind of wealth that prospective suitors and planters in training hoped to acquire or have at their disposal. Why else would John Moore crassly tell his cousins Mary and Richard that “girls… bait their hooks with niggers and the more they stick on the better success” they would have in securing a worthy husband?”

Why else, indeed?

Women and Girls Were Given Slaves as Gifts

From the chapter “Mistresses in the Making,” pages 2 and 19:

[Slave-owning parents] gave enslaved men, women, and childen to their young daughters on special occasions like baptisms, birthdays (especially twenty-first birthdays), holidays, and marriage, or for no reason at all. They also bequeathed enslaved people to their daughters in their wills. And when human property was transferred to them, these young women came to value the crucial ties between slave ownership and autonomous, stable financial futures….

Slave-owning mother’ deeds of gift, like the one devised by Ann V. Hicks of Marlborough District, South Carolina, on August 17, 1831, not only offer more concrete support for enslaved people’s claims that their owners gave them to married daughters they also show that these property transfers preserved their daughters’ legal titles to these slaves as well. Hicks drew up a deed of gift that conveyed six enslaved people and their future children to her three married daughters. It stipulated that she gave these enslaved people to them “without any right in the husbands which they now have or may hereafter have, to exercise any control over said property, or in any manner to intermeddle therewith…. Hicks envisioned a certain kind of life for her daughters, one that did not leave them subject to whatever financial blunders their husbands might make.

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South… Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow… Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…”

Women Managed Slaves

From the chapter “Missus Done Her Own Beating,” page 72:

Although in most studies of slvery the underlying assumption is the only male heads of households exercised mastery over enslaved people, formerly enslaved people forthrightly challenged this view… They spoke of households in which slave-owning couples exercised “double mastery.” Each spouse had his or her own style of slave management and discipline, styles could be complementary or incompatible, and when their styles clashed, conflict was often the result…..

Slave-owning couples also used different instruments to administer punishment, and this, too, was a reflection of their particular styles of achieving mastery and preserving the value of their human property. On the plantation where Anna Miller resided, her master punished the men with a cowhide whip, and her mistress often whipped the women with nettleweed branches. At first glance, Miller’s emphasis on the different instruments of discipline that her master and mistress used might imply that her mistress chose a milder method of punishment, a choice that could support the contention that white women were more concerned about their slaves’ well-being. But this was not the case. The small hairs that cover the stems of the netttleweed, also known as “stinging nettle”… contain several chemicals that cause intense pain when they come into contact with the skin. When the affected area was rubbed, the motion would push the hairs, and the pain-inducing chemicals, deeper into the skin, prolonging the pain and irritation. Miller’s mistress’s weapon of choice had a long-lasting, increasingly painful effect on the bodies of the enslaved females living within her household.


Women Sold Slaves

From the chapter “She Thought She Could Find a Better Market,” pages 82 et seq.:

For [enslaved people], the slave market was a mobile, spatially unbounded economic network that connected urban commercial districts to plantation estates and incorporated boardinghouses, rural pathways, urban streets, taverns, and coffee shops, as well as holding pens and auction houses. They also saw slave-owning households — their porches, kitchens, dining rooms, and bedrooms — and the fields and the quarters, along with the pathways and roads surrounding them, as fundamental parts of the slave market. In all these places, slave-owning women orchestrated the sale and purchase of enslaved people. Not onlly did slave-owning women participate in the public haggling over bodies in the slave pen, they frequently subjected enslaved people to the terror of the slave market in the privacy of their own homes. While slave traders, auctioneers, and brokers prepared enslaved people for sale by the sides of country roads, in southern auction houses, and in slave-trading establishments, white women talked with friends and family members about their labor needs and their desire to buy or sell enslaved men, women, and children… They were often able to fulfill that desire without visiting a brick-and-mortar marketplace because this process often took place — or at least began — in their homes.

Lelia Tucker wrote a letter to her husband in which she documented one femail acquaintance’s negotiations with three slave-owning women in their social circle. A woman she called “Mrs. P,”… had not only “hired a houseservant” from one Mrs. Braxton, she had also hired or purchased a washerwoman who belonged to a Mrs. Charlton. Tucker told her husband that Mrs. P. expected “to take Mrs. Prentis’s cook on trial, before she venture[d] to purchase her.” Lelia Tucker mentioned no involvement by male kin, a proxy, or a agent in the agreements between Mrs. P. and the other women. Mrs. P. was likely to have learned about the available servants through local female networks and approached the women herself. Such local sales and hires between friends and acquaintances could be the reason why these transactions remained out of the slave traders’ account books.

Mrs. P.’s negotiations and transactions with Mrs. Braxton, Mrs. Charlton, and Mrs. Prentis offer further evidence of the integration of the home and the “intensive and brutal” market in slaves. The slave market so thoroughly saturated the slaveholding household that a slave-owning home could never be a place characterized solely by “human relations unqualified by a price.” All four of these women incorporated currency and human commodities into their social network.

Someone from Hollywood should really option They Were Her Property, and make an ensemble piece in the style of Robert Altman. With plenty of realistic sounds, as of coins, whips, flipping pages in account books, and so forth.


I don’t want to task the author with writing a book they didn’t want to write, but the potential connection to make for me, the sought through line, was this question: “How many of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) once owned slaves?” For those who came in late, the white women of the UDC were responsible for promulgating and propagating the fabulously vile and destructive Dolchstoßlegende-level myth Big Lie of the “Lost Cause,” an endeavor that makes today’s gaslighting and disinformation operations look like The Poky Little Puppy. From the Encyclopedia Virginia:

What do we mean by the Lost Cause? Long the prevailing ideology of not only the UDC but of the United Confederate Veterans, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and much of the postwar elite white culture, it follows several basic precepts:

So what does this have to do with white supremacy? All of these things add up to a nostalgic elevation of a society the foundation of which was the violent enslavement of other human beings. And this “elevation” was not by accident. It came at precisely the moment when those formerly enslaved people were competing with their former enslavers for political power [during Reconstruction]. By asserting that slavery was not that bad and that white people had always acted honorably and in the best interests of blacks, the Lost Cause became an argument for a society in which white people belonged at the top of the order and blacks at the bottom.

One way the UDC succeeded was through an effort to control the content of school textbooks. Facing South:

[69,706,756] students were enrolled in the South’s public elementary and secondary schools between 1889, when the government began counting students, and 1969, the height of the segregationist Jim Crow era, according to the U.S. Department of Education statistics. There they were subjected to the alternative reality of the Lost Cause, a false version of U.S. history developed in response to Reconstruction that minimizes slavery’s central role in the Civil War, promotes the Confederacy’s aim as a heroic one, glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, and portrays the white South as the victim.

The poisonous Lost Cause lessons were taught to multiple generations of Southerners to uphold institutionalized white supremacy — in part through public school curriculums shaped by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). More famous these days for their controversial Confederate monuments, the UDC had an almost singular focus on making sure the Lost Cause propaganda was so ingrained in the minds of Southern youth that it would be perpetual. Their most effective tool? School textbooks.

So, a natural through line from the Antebellum South through the Civil War through Reconstruction to Jim Crow would be to ask if the UDC leadership regretted the loss of their human capital. Jones-Rogers doesn’t ask the question, and I can’t find any scholarship on it. The Encyclopedia Virginia says that UDC co-founder Caroline Meriwether Goodlett was “raised on a large Kentucky plantation,” and that co-founder Anna Mitchell Davenport Raines was the “daughter of a Confederate officer.” It’s possible they owned slaves, but we don’t know. Suzanne Woolley Smith, in the journal Border States, says the following:

The U.D.C. was an organization which gave women of the middle and upper class a domestic arena.

Women were proud of the roles that they and their mothers had played during the war, but many were also mindful of the continuing changes that the war had wrought in their lives. Many women were forced to become self-supporting after the war.

Here again, we have likelihoods, not historical certainties. In the Slave Power, the upper and middle classes were slave-owning, by definition; it follows, statistically, that some members of the UDC were likely to have owned slaves. Surely “the roles that they and their mothers played during the war” would have including managing households and plantations, and therefore managing slaves. It’s also likely that some of the women were forced to “become self-supporting” because their slaves had been taken away. But I wish somebody like Rogers-Jones would write a book on this topic!

A second natural through line from the Antebellum South to the present day is prison labor. Nathan J. Robinson writes in Current Affairs:

The prison labor system in the United States has long been an unacknowledged scandal. It’s quite plainly a form of slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment even admits as much: it doesn’t say that when you’re forced to work for being convicted of a crime, that isn’t slavery. It says that slavery is legal if it is imposed as part of a conviction for a crime.

But two possibly unexpected beneficiaries of the contemporary prison slavery system were none other than Bill and Hillary Clinton, who during their time at the Arkansas governor’s mansion in the 1980’s used inmates to perform various household tasks in order to “keep costs down.” Hillary Clinton wrote of the practice openly and without any apparent sense of moral conflict. In It Takes a Village, Hillary Clinton writes that the residence was staffed with “African-American men in their thirties,” since “using prison labor at the governor’s mansion was a longstanding tradition, which kept down costs.” It is unclear just how longstanding the tradition of having chained black laborers brought to work as maids and gardeners had been. But one has no doubt that as the white residents of a mansion staffed with unpaid blacks, the Clintons were continuing a certain historic Southern practice. (Hillary Clinton did note, however, that she and Bill were sure not to show undue lenience to the sla…servants, writing that “[w]e enforced rules strictly and sent back to prison any inmate who broke a rule.”

Finally, and still thinking of the present day, They Were Her Property makes clear that essentialist claims to virtue by identity politics devotees are just plain wrong, an important result.

Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ They Were Her Property provides a vivid and textured portrait of the life in the Slave Power, comparable to the Genoveses’ The Mind of the Master Class, albeit broader in scope.


[1] Thank you, FDR.

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