Freedom of the Womb: Realities of Women and Gradual Abolition in New Jersey, 1804–60

Friday, January 3, 2014: 8:50 AM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
James J. Gigantino II, University of Arkansas
This paper explores the impact of the gradual abolition process in the northern United States on female slaves, using New Jersey as a case study.  In 1804, the New Jersey legislature passed a gradual abolition statute that freed children born to slave women after July 4, 1804 once they had completed a period of service to their masters.  The law’s use of women’s reproductive potential to halt the spread of hereditary slavery made women central actors in the unfolding drama of gradual abolition.  The link between the female body and freedom, of course, played out in numerous slave societies that enacted gradual abolition laws, yet a more detailed understanding of what happened to these women and their children, especially in the American context, remains cloudy at best. I argue that women’s bodies became not the site of freedom in the American North but the way in which slaveholders perpetuated slavery in another form.  After the abolition law’s passage, slavery became far more gendered.  Women became increasingly valuable as the law allowed their children to live essentially as slaves until adulthood.  Jersey slaveholders continued to profit from the labor of these enslaved women and their children and sold them for additional profits to the southern United States.  This gendered process likewise increased bound women’s negotiating power.  I examine how women used their increased value to negotiate for greater protections for themselves and their children as the abolition period developed. This paper adds a critical vantage point to this multisession workshop by showing how freedom in the Americas was inherently flexible.  Gradual abolition’s gendered construction allowed slaveholders to bend the law to make slavery die a remarkably slow death both in the antebellum American North and in societies around the Atlantic World that enacted similar laws.