Slave Women and Urban Labor in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World

Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Mariana L. Dantas, Ohio University
Scholars of slavery in the early modern Atlantic World have increasingly paid more attention to the presence and importance of slaves in and to the development of urban centers in the Americas. Still, less attention has been paid to the presence and importance of slave women. While different studies have examined slave women’s participation in the domestic labor force and in petty commerce, this focus, however, suggests slave women had a very limited impact on the wide range of economic and financial exchanges that helped to shape Atlantic urban economies. Moreover, by suggesting slave women occupied such a specific labor niche, such studies have discouraged a broader investigation of the demographic and economic circumstances that may have limited slave women's access to and employment in other types of activities. Using a comparative approach, that relies both on a review of the scholarship on female slavery in the Americas and original research on female slave labor in the United States and Brazil, this paper explores the demographic, economic and labor issues that circumscribed enslaved women’s labor roles in urban centers of the Americas. Issues such as labor competition from white immigrant or indigenous women, the dominance of a service industry over other urban economic activities, and the development of gendered practices of employment, for instance, help explain the ways in which slave women participated in urban labor forces. By exploring as well these women’s efforts to improve their material conditions, participate in advantageous financial exchanges, and pursue their freedom and that of family members this paper will, furthermore, provide a more nuanced view of slave women's impact on urban economies in the Americas.
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