Women and Antebellum Slavery

Jessica Moore's picture

The topic of women and slavery offers enough sources to warrant an entire class period and usually supplies some engaging discussion among the students.  When discussing the subject it is important to offer perspectives from both female slaveholders and female slaves.  There were of course diverse experiences for female slaves and slave owners based on their circumstances, but I try to provide a variety of examples of how they lived.

There are many sources available that display the life of a female slave.  I like to begin with a movie clip as students always respond well to visual sources.  The movie Amistad offers a scene depicting the Middle Passage and how slaves experienced it.  It does an especially good job of showing the treatment of women during the journey.  In one example female slaves are kept on deck by the slave traders for their personal amusement, while in another a female slave decides to jump overboard with an infant, ending the horrible experience for them both.  Students are shocked by the clip and a lively discussion usually follows.  We then move on to what life was like for slaves once they reached their homes on farms or plantations.  I make a point to explain that experiences varied greatly depending on the size of the farm or plantation the slave was working on, and whether she was a fieldworker or a domestic slave.  I pass out a few excerpts from Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself to discuss different themes such as slave women doing chores in their own homes after working all day (p 12), varying treatment by different masters (p 17-18), and how they viewed female slaveholders (p 22.) 

After discussing female slaves, I move on to female slaveholders.  I again remind the students that experiences varied greatly for slave owners since they could be working alongside their slaves on a small farm or plantation or strictly supervising on a larger plantation.  My lecture covers typical duties of female slaveholders as well as their varying attitudes toward slavery.  Since most of the students have laptops in class, I ask them to pull up the Antebellum Women in North Carolina entry on the NCpedia website, and I also pull it up on the screen.  As a class we read the “Women in the Yeoman Farmer Class” section as well as the “Women in the Planter Class” section.  We then spend the remainder of class discussing how the lives of female slaveholders varied depending on their environment.

Using the primary sources seems to help students better grasp what life was like for these women.  By combining visual and written sources, students get a more complete picture of the topic and are more interested in the class.  Many students have never learned anything about women and slavery before and are very intrigued by the topic.     

Teaching Resources:

Amistad Movie Clip - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMliaXlKxow

Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself –UNC-CH digitization project, Documenting the American South http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html

Antebellum Women in North Carolina - http://ncpedia.org/history/1776-1860/antebellum-women