Slavery and the Making of AmericaPolitical caricature depicting black and white men and women interacting
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Men, Women & Gender
Intro Historical Overview Character Spotlight Slave Clothing Personal Narratives Original Docs
Historical Overview Men, Women & Gender
Men, Women, & Gender
By: Jennifer Hallam

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For black men and women, slavery was an equally devastating experience. Both were torn from homeland and family. Both were forced to perform grueling labor, subjected to mental and physical degradation, and denied their most basic rights. Enslaved men and women were beaten mercilessly, separated from loved ones arbitrarily, and, regardless of sex, treated as property in the eyes of the law.

Illustration of Africans on the slave bark WILDFIRE
Africans on the slave bark Wildfire. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Despite common factors, however, the circumstances of enslavement were different for black women and black men. The first slaves to be brought to the British colonies of North America were disproportionately male. Considered more valuable workers because of their strength, enslaved men performed labors that ranged from building houses to plowing fields. When the Dutch brought African and Creole women into New Amsterdam in the late 1620s, they did so not to supplement their workforce, but to provide company for their black male slaves.

Although most planters in colonial North America favored robust young men as slaves, the bulk of these were shipped to the West Indies, whose sugar crops dominated the international trade economy.
Picture of an Isaac Jefferson Daguerreotype
Isaac Jefferson Daguerreotype, Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, special collections, University of Virginia.
Early on, slave buyers in the colonies turned to purchasing female field hands, who were not only more readily available, but also cheaper. In fact, because skilled labor, such as carpentry and blacksmithing, was assigned only to male slaves, the pool of black men available for agricultural work was further reduced. As a result, female slaves eventually outnumbered men in field forces.

On small farms with few slaves, women were more likely to perform the same labor as men. Usually, however, especially on larger farms and plantations, fieldwork was divided along gender lines, with more physically demanding tasks assigned to male gangs. Men, for instance, might chop the wood for a fence, while women were put in charge of its construction. Men generally plowed the fields, while women hoed.
The activity of hoeing, in particular, speaks to several ways in which the institution of American slavery upset the gender roles men and women played in Africa before enslavement. In South Carolina, where rice was the dominant crop, men hoed the fields alongside women. The task was an emasculating one given that the hoe was specifically identified with woman's work in West Africa.
Illustration of Slave women cultivating a village garden, Central Africa
Slave women cultivating a village garden, Central Africa. University of Virginia Library.
Because rice was a staple food item in this region of Africa, hoeing was considered among female domestic duties, along with cooking. Ironically, therefore, the task of hoeing also disturbed the gender identity of the female slave. In the American South, enslaved women wielding hoes were contributing to the commercial production of their masters, not to the nourishment of their families.

In Africa, woman's primary social role was that of mother. In slavery, this aspect of African womanhood was debased. Whereas childbirth in Africa was a rite of passage for women that earned them increased respect, within the American plantation system that developed by the mid-eighteenth century, it was an economic advantage for the master, who multiplied his labor force through slave pregnancy. The average enslaved woman at this time gave birth to her first child at nineteen years old, and thereafter, bore one child every two and a half years. This cycle, encouraged by the master, was not without benefits to the mother. While pregnant, she could usually expect more food and fewer working hours. Because proven fertility made her more valuable to her owner, she was also less likely to be sold away from friends and family.

Of course, the burdens, physical as well as psychological, that came with childbearing were enormous for enslaved women. Expected to put the needs of the master and his family before her own children, the slave mother on a large plantation returned to the fields soon after giving birth, leaving her child to be raised by others. On a smaller farm, the slave's mothering responsibilities were simply added on top of her usual duties. For the love of their children, slave mothers often chose to stay in bondage, while their male counterparts attempted escape. The female slave was, moreover, faced with the prospect of being forced into sexual relationships for the purposes of reproduction. Perhaps more harrowing, she might be witness to her daughters suffering the same fate.
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