How did Gender Shape the Institution and Practice of Slavery During the Antebellum Era?


“Likewise, if we maintain the notion that gender is a socially constructed concept, it is easy to appreciate how historical context would have majorly shaped the ideologies concerning the femininity and masculinity of slaves during the antebellum era.”

The institution of slavery during the antebellum years in America, illustrated a continuously developing and undeviating bond between the concepts of gender and race. It is these two key factors in unison, arguably, that majorly influenced the industry and practices of slavery during the years prior to American independence. Moreover, in regard to how this was done, an observation that can be made is that the influence of gender in shaping the slave industry, was not restricted to one particular theme. To elaborate, one could maintain that the history and relationship of gender and slavery, reveals how several aspects of the industry of forced labour were majorly impacted by the concepts of gender, in a number of ways. These, I would argue, primarily resided in economic, ideological and social matters. The issues I will be particularly exploring, will widely focus on these three thematical factors. I will also be looking into the ways to which such theories of gender were racialised, it’s use as a justification for the treatment of slaves, and the slave to slave-owner relationships that were ideologically driven by racist gender concepts. Furthermore, I will be presenting and developing the scholarly contributions made by historians including Professor Adrienne D. Davis, Professor Jennifer L. Morgan, and Doctor Rebecca Hall.

Respectably, the scholarly definition of gender, as Professor James Moorhead presents in his article, ‘Slavery, Race, and Gender at Princeton Seminary: The Pre-Civil War Era’, is widely recognised as a socially constructed form of being male and female. [1] I would develop this definition by adding that, in more recent years, gender has indeed generally come to be recognised as a socially constructed concept of being male, female and, as evidence of it being completely subjective, possibly a wide range of other further sexes. Gender is, therefore, a flexible concept which is subject to be redefined throughout time. As Professor Moorhead explains, the differentiation of characteristics varies both from one’s own personal beliefs, cultural norms, and, more importantly, historical influences.[2] I stress in presenting the academic definition of gender, as I will argue that this is a majorly relevant concept in exploring how both its denotative and connotative meanings, played great importance in structuring slavery in the antebellum era.  Likewise, if we maintain the notion that gender is a socially constructed concept, it is easy to appreciate how historical context would have greatly shaped the ideologies concerning the femininity and masculinity of slaves during the pre-civil war years. Indeed, it could be argued that such a period, has a unique distinctiveness in how developments of racist gender theories came to be associated with slaves in plantations. I will be further discussing this.

When reviewing the impact of gender on the organisation of forced labour, there are arguably three key aspects of the institution of antebellum slavery. Such themes are crucial examples in demonstrating the ways to which sexual characteristics concepts, played a role in influencing the structure and practices of the slave industry. I would identify these three areas to have been the economic, social and ideological organisations of antebellum slavery. Of these three parts, the historian, Professor Jennifer L. Morgan, provides a detailed and highly agreeable illustration, of how racialised gender concepts impacted slavery ideologically. One of the most insightful examples she uses, is in her publication ‘Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery’.[3] In the book, the historian presents an interesting narrative depicting African females, back in their native lands and prior to being enslaved, to have not socially discriminated or distinguished each other by their biological and visually physical differences. Or at least by a concept remotely close to race[4]. This suggestion, may at first seem unrealistic. Nonetheless, I would like to develop this view by adding that, if we are to exclude the obvious social practices of exclusions based on tribal differences and cultures in the African native lands of the past; it is reasonable for one to acknowledge the issues of assuming a similar Eurocentric concept, that is racism, to have been replicated in African cultures and ideologies. Indeed, Professor Morgan maintains the notion that theories of race, or at least the scientific approach to the issue of race, was only brought to the consciousness of Africans, after their enslavement.[5] The concept of race, and the valuing of racism, as Morgan suggests, was very much a European creation. Likewise, as the historian points out, it was the western gender concepts which too began to manifest into the consciousness of African slaves, differing greatly to their own native gender driven societal norms.[6] Professor Morgan’s narrative is useful in reminding academic thinkers, of the genuine possibilities of the psychological enslavement of peoples, not just the physical enslavement. The historian argues how such new and differing ideas and expectations of a slave’s ‘race’ and gender, grew to become just as important to them, as it did to slave-owners.[7] One could interpret Morgan’s narrative to have been questioning the origins of racialised gender concepts, particularly focussing on purpose and place. That is, not only were such concepts a product of European, western norms. But they were also, I would argue a unique and unprecedented ideology. Such theories of race and gender were, after all, sought to justify and establish a hierarchical ladder amongst humanity, with its framework being majorly based on ethnic and sexual factors. Gender, therefore, shaped the institution and practice of slavery ideologically, during the antebellum era, by providing theories which, in many ways aided slave owners as a tool to justify their own treatment of slaves based exclusively on their sex, and ‘race’. With Professor Morgan’s suggestion being acknowledged, it would seem wise of one to then question how these two, separate concepts of race and gender, came to emerge and be constructed to oppose the racist gender roles, and ‘qualities’ of whites. The historian Professor Rebecca Hall, contributes to studies explaining how theories of race, particularly focussing on black slaves during the antebellum era, were infiltrated and conjoined with the concepts of gender. The historian demonstrates, by giving the examples of the sexual exploitation and rape of women slaves, as one way the stereotypical ideology of women being sexually inferior, was used to shape the institution and practice of slavery, though the literal reproduction of slaves.[8] I would further add that, such devastating abuses towards female slaves, illustrates how both the concepts of race and gender, justified the actions of the rapist slave-owners. To elaborate, racist theories maintained the idea of African slaves being socially and physically reduced to an inferior being. Likewise, stereotypical gender ideas, particularly the sexualisation of women, co-worked to maintain the idea that such inferior beings were to be used largely for her reproductive and maternal role in the slave industry. Overall, it is arguable that the concept of gender grew to become a crucial backbone in structuring the practices of slave owners, through the racialisation of gender itself. Hence one particularly important way gender shaped the organisation of slavery, was through the racist theoretical values slave owners obtained, to which they implemented into their understanding of African slaves, in the attempts to explain their natural ‘differences’. Such differences, related greatly to both sexually and ‘racially’ driven concepts of gender. For the institution of slavery, gender certainly ensured that the African slave woman was to be considered inferior both sexually and socially.

The ideological ways to which gender shaped the institution of slavery, can also be relevantly related to financial aspects. A significant way to which the gender roles of both men and women shaped the organisation and practice of pre-civil war slavery, consists of several economic factors. In regard to the gender roles assigned to female slaves, in particular, it is arguable that the stereotypical and ideological observations, made by slave owners, of the women slaves’ ‘feminine’ qualities, attributed greatly to the economic blueprint of the antebellum slave industry. Indeed, it was both the biological and theoretical associations of female slaves, as the historian, Adrienne D. Davis explains, which came to be of growing financial importance for slave owners.[9] In Professor Davis’ book ‘Slavery and the Roots of Sexual Harassment’, the historian presents a highly agreeable observation, depicting the practical gains slave owners maintained through the sexual exploitation and rape of women slaves. Similar to Professor Hall’s observation, Professor Davis, also narrates how the sexualisation of women slaves was very much of a common practice conducted by slave owners.[10] Interestingly, however, in terms of historiographical interpretations, Davis writes of these accounts, from an economic perspective. In doing so, Davis illustrates the economic and financial importance gender theories had within the institution of slavery during the antebellum era. The historian attempts to provide a practical, rather than theoretical, reason for the ongoing and accepted rape and sexual abuse of women slaves. This is done so, as she presents, by a three-part structure, or ‘markets’ which the historian refers to as belonging within the ‘Slavery Sexual Economy’[11]. The three markets consist of ‘productive, reproductive and sexual’ roles to which slaves were expected to abide by.[12] All three factors, the historian argues, were vital for the economy and control of the slave institution during this era. Respectably, Professor Davis’ explanation is highly appreciable. The commodifying of the stereotypical, gender roles of women slaves, including maternal instincts and hypersexuality, is a narrative which has also been shared, as I have demonstrated, by both Hall and Morgan. Indeed, all of the historians’ study and conclusions seem to all link in terms of the powerful influence gender theories had in justifying, and perhaps even encouraging, the violent and non-consensual sexual relations or abuse, slave owners shared amongst women slaves. I will further add that perhaps the historiographical differentiation between Hall’s and Davis’ link with gender and slavery is this: Professor Hall clearly presents an ideologically driven reasoning for the slave owners of the antebellum era practices of sexual exploitation and rape. That is, mainly for the act of exercising the ideology of gender and patriarchy. On the other hand, Professor Davis provides an alternative, and equally agreeable interpretation of how gender impacted the practice of slavery, through concepts centring on female inferiority. By valuing a belief system which maintained that women were inferior, and further lower ranked by race; the commodifying of women, sexually, did not only become a social norm, but often a financial necessity. Indeed, the economical build and structure of the antebellum slave trade was, one could argue, a prime example of gender shaping the institution and practices of slavery, economically.

For a social interpretation, there are additionally several important social ways in which gender impacted the slave industry during the antebellum era. The racial behavioural ideologies slave owners theorised African slaves to have inherently possessed, were majorly distinguished and determined by their stereotypical gender roles. Interestingly, however, there are historiographical depictions of the social structure of the slave industry which would suggest that gender prejudices of women often created, to an extent, a perhaps matriarchal environment within a female slave’s household and family.[13]  The historian, Professor Deborah G. White, presents two opposing historiographical interpretations, centring on the social status, gender had established amongst African slaves, within the organisation of slavery. Professor White first details the perhaps now controversial but significant illustration of a typical slave family, by providing the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier thesis.[14] Dr. Frazier, who was an African American sociologist, theorised how a woman’s decision making, widely concerning procreating and childcare, was of high importance to slave owners for the smooth running of plantations, as well as the maintenance and control of African slaves.[15]  This narrative, however, is rather questionable, as the issues of rape and sexual violence can be easily disregarded through this particular imagery of women slaves. Understandably, there has been academic criticism that has challenged such an interpretation. As an alternative, White identifies the opposing understanding of the social influences of gender within the institution of slavery. The historian uses the examples of Engerman and Fogel, who concluded that, through the highly valued gender concepts of patriarchy, African enslaved men, were able to generally maintain their higher status above enslaved African woman.[16] This was because, as the historians demonstrated, highly skilled jobs, including artisan work, were exclusively assigned to male slaves.[17] Likewise, the cultural belief and social norm of women being naturally inferior to men, was a concept slave owners believed was still necessary to maintain, even within African families.[18] Irrespective of the presented arguments opposing each other, one could consider both interpretations to generally agree with the idea that the concepts of gender, contributed and structured the institution and practice of slavery, through its influence over major social norms, hierarchical status, and roles.

To conclude, a final observation that I will make concerns the historical phenomena of the development of racist gender theories, particularly for the institution and practice of slavery in the antebellum era. One could observe the interests of a ‘legitimate’, biological explanation of the differences between African male and female slaves, as to have been a useful tool for slave owners, in the means of justifying the, quite literally, sub-human treatment of humans. Such an observation is crucial in determining how influential gender, perhaps needed to be for the slave industry. For historians including White, Frazier, Davis and Hall, racist gender concepts, particularly associated with enslaved women, were primarily the most powerful theories to have been universally shared amongst slave owners, and more importantly, slaves themselves, during this period. Indeed, although theoretical, the gender stereotypes and roles assigned to slaves, produced very genuine, and almost always devastating realities. Such gender theoretically driven realities, as I have demonstrated, resided majorly in the ideological, economic and social aspects of the institution of slavery. It can be suggested, therefore, that it was gender theories, along with the combination of race ideology, that substantially determined the fate of a slave, based purely on their sexual differentiation. Indeed, gender concepts had the power to do so, with its influences being the most powerful in the ideological, economic and social affairs of the antebellum slave industry.

Written by Tara Kofi-Adu.

Second-year BA History Undergraduate, University of Essex.


[1] James Moorhead, Slavery, race, and gender at Princeton Seminary: the pre-Civil War era, Theology today Volume: 69 Issue 3 (2012), p.283.

[2]James Moorhead, Slavery, race, and gender at Princeton Seminary: the pre-Civil War era

[3] Jennifer Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, (USA, 2004), pp.12-14.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jennifer Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery,pp.12-14.

[6] Ibid. p.13.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hall, Rebecca, Not Killing Me Softly: African American Women, Slave Revolts, and Historical Constructions of Racialized Gender, Freedom Center Journal Volume: 1, (2008), p.12.

[9] Adrienne Davis, ‘Slavery and the Roots of Sexual Harassment’, Directions in Sexual Harassment Law, ed. Catharine A. MacKinnon and Reva B. Siege, (Yale University Press 2013), p.458.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Deborah White, ‘Female Slaves: Sex Roles and Status in the Antebellum Plantation South’, Journal of Family History, Vol 8, (1983) p. 248,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Deborah White, ‘Female Slaves: Sex Roles and Status in the Antebellum Plantation South’, (1983) p. 248

[16] Ibid. p.249

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

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