Gendered Economies of Slavery and Freedom: Women as Agents in the Perpetuation and Demise of the Peculiar Institution

AHA Session 268
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Fairfield Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Kirsten E. Wood, Florida International University
Between Kinship and Patronage: Women's Manumission in Colonial Peru
Rachel Sarah O'Toole, University of California, Irvine
Women and the "Colored" Mosaic of Gold Rush San Francisco
Meredith Eliassen, San Francisco State University
Richard Follett, University of Sussex

Session Abstract

Within the American ideology of separate spheres the home was a sacred space where women acted as pious and genteel domestic custodians and the market was a supposedly masculine, defiling domain, signifying everything the household was not. The papers that form this panel suggest that the market itself was a sacred space that excluded some women but also offered others economic autonomy and stability. The participants suggest that economies of slavery sometimes transformed sacred spaces like the household. By examining enslaved and free women’s economic roles within their homes, communities, and local markets, our papers interrogate the ways that women’s quests for economic freedom contributed to the perpetuation or demise of slavery in their societies. We argue for a more complex understanding of the relationship between gender, economies, and sacred spaces and show that women’s economic and commercial activities were often instrumental in the construction of free and sacred spaces in societies shaped by bondage.

Rachel O’Toole’s paper “The Honor of Freedom: Commercial and Religious Networks among African Women in Colonial Peru” explores the life of Ana de la Calle, a free woman of color from the Yoruba-speaking interior of West Africa’s Bight of Benin. Dr. O’Toole argues that kinship, credit, and honor among people of color were responsible for the development of free communities during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. She contends that enslaved and free women of color were central actors in the coastal commercial trade in alcohol along the Peruvian Pacific corridor between Panama and Lima and that Yoruba-speaking women and others constructed their own spiritual economy that hinged on an interpretation of colonial honor that was rooted in profit.

In “Sinister Shopping: White Women, Consumption, and the Gendered Politics of Antebellum Slave Markets” Stephanie Jones-Rogers examines white slaveowning women’s interactions with slave traders, their negotiations with enslaved people who sought to purchase their freedom, and the commercial relationships between women’s businesses and nineteenth-century southern slave markets. She argues that white women entered slave marketplaces and attended slave auctions to buy and sell slaves. Moreover, she contends that slavery transformed the southern household into a slave marketplace, allowing white women to buy and sell slaves without leaving their homes.

In her paper “Women and the ‘Colored’ Mosaic of Gold Rush San Francisco,” Meredith Eliassen interrogates the economic and social dynamics that brought married women from the eastern United States, as well as those of European and Latin American descent, into direct contact with an energized Black counterculture community during the early gold rush in San Francisco, California. Ms. Eliassen’s paper shows how white women related to freeborn blacks, former, and escaped slaves and reveals the significant roles married women played in creating a unique economic dynamic within an ethnically and culturally diverse port community.

Our papers suggest alternative conceptualizations of “the sacred” in the Americas and reveal the ways that certain women challenged the masculinization of marketplaces by establishing businesses, entering and navigating markets, and engaging in commerce during periods characterized by white, patriarchal control.

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