Daguerreotype portrait of an older New Orleans woman with her young enslaved servant woman in New Orleans (c. 1850).
Wikimedia Commons
book review / money

The Mistress's Tools

White women and the economy of slavery.
Each of the book’s chapters takes shape around a different economic theme, and some are titled with quotations by a formerly enslaved person, who poignantly and summarily dismisses any false notion of white-women’s passivity: “I Belong to de Mistis,” “Missus Done Her Own Bossing,” “That ‘Oman Took Delight in Sellin’ Slaves.” Taking her lead from these firsthand accounts, Jones-Rogers then supplies a stunningly voluminous archive of legal documents, newspaper articles, advertisements, letters, diary entries, plantation ledgers, and records of sale, which she mobilizes against a century of received historiography.

One of these economic fictions is that white women, even if they owned enslaved people, did not fully participate in the buying and selling of them. Many have believed that the public slave market was the domain of men, assuming that gendered codes of decency kept women out. Not only did white women appear at public auctions, where they participated in dehumanizing acts of inspecting black bodies, but the slave market often came to them. White women bought and sold enslaved people in their parlors and on their front porches. It is false, Jones-Rogers explains, to separate the plantation South into private and public spaces. Households were the locations of slave markets, too.

Jones-Rogers also stresses the ways in which white women strategically invested in the reproductive lives of black women and intervened in their sexuality for profit. The reproductive capacity of black women, and the fact that children inherited their legal status as free or enslaved from their mothers, made many white female owners come to see enslaved black women as better investments. With each baby born, their wealth grew. White parents were thus more likely to give their daughters enslaved women and girls, and slave-owning women made it a point to keep female slaves for their households. Jones-Rogers documents cases where white women orchestrated the rape of their enslaved women in acts of forced breeding. She implies, too, that white women were often responsible for bringing enslaved girls into households where they were systematically raped by their male masters—a system that Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman who lived under the sexual menace of her male master and the psychological torture of her female mistress, described as ingeniously designed so that “licentiousness shall not interfere with avarice.”

By the onset of the Civil War, white slave-owning women were so attached to the institution of slavery that they went to great lengths to keep their enslaved people in bondage.
View source