Slaves and Mistresses: The Female Slaveholder in the Americas

AHA Session 80
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Liberty Suite 3 (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Natasha Lightfoot, Columbia University
Thavolia Glymph, Duke University

Session Abstract

As recent historical studies have shown, women played a key role in the everyday management and maintenance of the system of slavery across the Americas, where they served as central political and economic agents in this violent institution. Building off of this important literature, this panel examines the phenomenon of the female slaveholder and gendered practices of mastery in distinct historical, geographical, and political contexts in the Atlantic and Pacific worlds, from colonial Xalapa, Mexico, the post-independence New Granadian (Colombian) Pacific Coast, and the antebellum U.S. South.

The papers analyze the diverse experiences of both white and non-white female slaveholders from a variety of economic positions, from free black women of means living and working in cities to poorer, white widows in the countryside, thereby interrogating the influence of race, color, and class on the everyday dynamics of female slaveholding. As slaveowners and, at times, slave traders, these women were actively engaged in the brutal administration of slavery, and these papers closely examine the ways in which they commodified both male and female slaves’ bodies, livelihoods, and productive and reproductive labor. The marketplace and the household as a disciplinary workspace further emerge as two primary sites for the practice and display of female mastery across these distinct places and historical moments. Indeed, the business transactions and everyday conflicts that transpired at these sites had significant consequences on the gendered matrix of power relations, and the papers discuss how the actions and activities of these female slaveholders crucially contested the ideals of female respectability, honor and citizenship, and patriarchy in their respective contexts.

The panel therefore places the female slaveholder into a broader comparative analysis, revealing the tenuous similarities among these women in the Americas. In so doing, it seeks to enhance our understanding of the gendered politics of slaveholding and freedom across diverse regions and periods. The commentator of the panel, Thavolia Glymph, composed one of the foundational studies on slaveholding mistresses and enslaved women in the U.S. South, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. We expect that the audience should include those interested in slavery in the Americas, and those interested in the intersections of race, class, and gender in the Atlantic and Pacific worlds.

See more of: AHA Sessions