12 Years A Slave

RaceSex & Gender

power had white women just as invested in slavery

March 5, 2019
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Those blindsided by the 53% of white woman that voted for Trump have not been paying attention to steadily unraveling history depicting the violence white womanhood has displayed in dedication to white supremacy. For “white feminists,” it shook up the core of white womanhood, dismantling a centuries-long picture that shows solidarity to gender over race. The “myth of feminine solidarity” was officially broken as white women were once again given the choice to abandon Black people and other marginalized groups to leverage their own power through fully opting into white supremacy while asking other races of women to abandon the role of race in power dynamics.

What came as a shock to many on November 6th, 2016, merely felt like a throwback for those who have picked up a slave narrative, or historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’ They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South.

Jones-Rogers’ book completely shatters the carefully crafted “received historiography” that white woman didn’t participate in slavery when history actually shows they were just as present, violent and dedicated to the system according to The Nation.

In Jones-Rogers’ They Were Her Property, the historian paints a picture of white women who were deeply invested in the slave economy of the South. Jones-Rogers’ most damning example was an Alabama magnate called Sarah Barnes. According to The Nation, “she owned a home, land, rental properties, 10 stocks in a local bank in Mobile, and 27 enslaved people.” When Barnes was set to marry Dennis Welsh, she drew up an antenuptial agreement, outlining the terms of their union so Barnes would not lose her land, fortune or slaves like women customarily did when they had to cede all assets over to their new husbands. Barnes refused to give up her wealth and the power that gave her the opportunity to rise out of the constraints of gender through the leveraging of white supremacist capitalism.

Barnes is just one case of white women embracing slave ownership for their own gain and sadistic enjoyment. Her case displays one of the first recorded cases of white women opting into white supremacy in hopes that they could use its exploitation of Black people to accrue the economic power of white men, thus overcoming the barriers of gender. White women were just as economically minded as white male slave owners, as evidence presented in They Were Her Property showed that they too attended slave auctions, inspecting stolen Africans with the callousness we’ve grown accustomed to linking to male slave owners at the time. Jones-Rogers writes of a woman who preferred that slaves were whipped with a nettle-weed branch instead of cow-hide whip because the nettles lodged into the skin, causing burning while showing little scarring.

The “innocence of white womanhood” was a trope slotted into the Lost Cause propaganda of the Reconstruction and the Jim Crow South. The nurturing, virtuous piety imbued in the mythical slave mistress pushed the notion of the “ally” who shared a common struggle against patriarchy, within gender, with Black women. This idea spread all the way into the 20th century when Anne Firor Scott and Catherine Clinton considered the power dynamics of slavery to be a purely gender-based issue, even over race — according to them, of course. Suffragettes ran with this ideology, sidelining Black Suffragettes and their issues in favor of sabotaging the possible voting rights of Black men because they felt they were more deserving of receiving the vote. This subterfuge resulted in Black women’s right to vote also being sabotaged, pushing the Black vote back almost half a century.

Out of the House of Bondage (2008) painted a holistic picture of white women during slavery that tortured, maimed and killed with as much malice as their male counterparts. That representation of white womanhood has seen a growing presence in media and movies over the past decade. Sarah Paulson’s Mary Epps showed audiences the vengeance of the jealous slave mistress, highly incensed to violence against Lupita’s Nyong’o’s Patty because of the ‘Jezebel’ trope imposed on Black women who were blamed for the sexual abuse of their slave owners. Slave mistresses were driven by more than jealousy though, with many of them chaining up slaves and putting out fliers for runaway slaves during the Civil War because they feared that they would lose their “property” and thus their good standing. They even wrote to the government to recoup the money lost from their freed slaves.

The issue of female white supremacists is that they are the worst manifestation of progress being likened to enjoying the privileges of white men — privileges violently instilled and maintained. White women enjoyed close proximity to power while leveraging their innocence to get Black men killed and see Black women and their children enslaved. That is the reality of their role in slavery. When true revolution looks like abolishing the system of exploitation entirely, we cannot mistake that vying for the top spot in a violent hierarchy as anything less than white supremacy at work, especially when it is mistaken for “Feminism” in our modern age.