Here Is How Women Resisted Slavery in the American South

Women’s everyday acts of bravery and their resistance to slavery has been sadly overlooked by historians. This is the story of enslaved women in the American South.

Feb 27, 2022By Olivia Barrett, BA & MA History
women slavery american south

 

Both women and men demonstrated formidable resistance to slavery in the American South. Though there has been a traditional focus on the male side of resistance to slavery, a growing corpus of groundbreaking scholarship brings the much-needed female perspective to light. Historians have traditionally focused on rebellions and runaways, which is understandable given the immediate impact of such brave acts. But since women’s participation in slave uprisings have been rarer (or, at least, more downplayed) and women made up only a small proportion of runaways, we need to view women’s resistance to slavery with a finer lens. We need to look at women’s everyday acts of heroism to learn how women defied their oppressors in the American South. Due to the tragic subject matter, some of the actions and issues here discussed may be distressing to read. Please be aware that some incredibly upsetting concepts such as degradation, sexual assault, offensive language, violence and infanticide are, by necessity, mentioned in this article.

 

Truancy as Resistance to Slavery

harriet tubman photograph library of congress
Photograph of Harriet Tubman, via Library of Congress & history.com

 

Why, exactly, were women less likely to run away from the plantations? Perhaps the most important factor that kept enslaved women tethered to the plantation was their familial ties and the gendered expectations of their communities. The disproportionate sale of enslaved men away from their families resulted in a high percentage of matriarch-headed families in slave communities. Antebellum gender expectations enmeshed women, more so than men, in networks of family and friends who relied upon them.

 

The social condemnation of escapee mothers was severe. An enslaved woman named Molly Horniblow reprimanded her granddaughter for even daring to contemplate escaping, telling her matter-of-factly: “Nobody respects a mother who forsakes her children.” Likewise, Patience Avery’s statement stands as testimony to the betrayal that children felt on the rare occasions that mothers did leave their children to escape the plantation, “I can never fergit dat…how my mother stole out and left me…I was a poor motherless chile.” Such heartbreaking stories of children pining for their escapee mothers served as a lesson to those that considered running away.

 

sugar cane plantation illustration national geographic
Sugar Cane Plantation, illustration via National Geographic

 

Though permanent escape was not an option as readily available to enslaved women as it may have been for men, this did not mean that they submitted to the masters’ control of their temporal and spatial boundaries. Instead, truancy became one of the most important and common methods of resistance for women, since the exploitation of slave labor was a natural source of conflict of interest between slaves and the “masters” who exploited them. Truancy accordingly became a way in which the latter could define for themselves a limit to the pace and amount of work they would perform.

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Women’s reasons for truancy were numerous; often to avoid violence or to visit their families. Unlike men who sometimes had permission to visit their families, when women were separated from their loved ones, truancy was more often than not their only option if they were to see their families again. Frederick Douglass’ autobiography describes how his own mother would escape from the plantation she was bonded to, to come and visit him. Though visits were rare, no more than “four or five times in [his] life”, she escaped as often as she could, always ‘in the night, traveling the whole distance on foot… she would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.”

 

frederick douglass 1879 portrait
Frederick Douglass, photographed c.1879, via the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration & Wikimedia Commons

 

However, it seems that often enslaved women engaged in acts of truancy simply to withhold labor to the slaveholders, to have some time of their own. As a former slave named Lorenzo Ivy recalled: “Sometimes slaves just run away to de woods for a week or two to get a rest from the fields and then they come on back.” Why? For a break, certainly. But more importantly, truancy was a direct challenge to the slaveowners’ authority and a social protest against the institution of slavery.

 

Instances of truancy, though seemingly small, represented vital acts of resistance that deprived the slaveholder of his so-called “right” to enslaved people’s bodies, time, and labor. This refusal to work constituted a challenge that struck at the very core of slavery as an institution. When enslaved women (and men) were absent from their expected place and denied their “owner” their labor, they resisted the fundamental basis of what it meant to be a slave: they defined for themselves if they would work or not, if they would be present or not, refusing to submit simply to the masters’ wishes. This act of resistance not only dealt an economic blow to the plantation but, importantly, it also reclaimed some semblance of personal agency.

 

Reproductive Resistance: Women’s Bodies and Their Resistance  

portrait dune femme noire benoist
Portrait d’une Femme Noire by Marie-Guillemine, c. 1800, via The Louvre, Paris

 

The second and perhaps more salient difference between men’s and women’s experiences of resistance to slavery pertained to sexual violence. Reproductive exploitation and the constant threat of sexual terrorism were daily realities for enslaved women. As Darlene Hine has claimed, “Unlike male slaves, female slaves suffered a dual form of oppression. In addition to economic exploitation… female slaves were oppressed sexually as well.”

 

It is, however, necessary here to acknowledge that enslaved men were also likely to be victims of sexual abuse. Though there is a great deal more evidence documenting the sexual abuse of women, we cannot necessarily conclude that men were not subjected to similar abuses. Due to the plethora of socio-cultural gender expectations that bound antebellum society, it would be a mistake to accept the documented evidence of instances of sexual abuse as indicative of reality. Indeed, as Thomas Foster has made clear, modern scholarship has a responsibility to confront “our own raced, classed, and gendered perceptions of rape and… to recognize… the physical and mental sexual abuse that enslaved black men also endured.” Thus, both black women’s and men’s bodies were consistently eroticized and objectified in American society.

 

creole red headdress 1840 jacques guillaume lucien amans
Creole in a Red Headdress by Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans, ca. 1840, via Tulane University

 

That being said, it may well be true that women and girls were more vulnerable to sexual abuse than males. We know, for instance, that black and “mulatto” women and girls were openly fetishized. Women’s aesthetic appeal was even at times the basis on which they were sold; “fancy maids” (sex slaves) were in such “heavy demand that [the slave traders] might do better selling coerced sex retail rather than wholesale.” No evidence for such a market catering to fetishes for black men appears to have existed. Nonetheless, since it is so difficult to ascertain the prevalence of the sexual abuse of enslaved men, we must focus our attentions on the more conspicuous element of oppression unique to women: reproductive exploitation.

 

The cruciality of the exploitation of enslaved women’s reproductive labor has often been alluded to. Thomas Jefferson attested to its importance in a letter to John W. Eppes in which he wrote: “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man on the farm…what she produces is an addition to capital.” Such was his emphasis on the importance of reproducing yet more human “capital”, he impressed upon the manager of his own overseers that “it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us.”

 

sojourner truth national portrait gallery
Sojourner Truth, photographed c. 1797, via Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

 

Both slaveowners and slaves alike were aware of the importance of women’s reproductive labor to the survival of the peculiar institution. Women’s resistance to being used to fortify the very system that oppressed them should not be underestimated. The frustration is palpable in narratives such as that of Sojourner Truth (a.k.a Isabella Freebaum):

 

Isabella found herself the mother of five children, and she rejoiced in being permitted to be the instrument of increasing the property of her oppressors! Think, dear reader, … of a mother thus willingly, and with pride, laying her own children, the ‘flesh of her flesh,’ on the altar of slavery… beings capable of such sacrifices are not mothers; they are only ‘things,’ ‘chattels,’ ‘property.’

 

If enslaved woman’s primary function was “breeding” then their most important acts of resistance were in rejecting that role in “the maintenance of the slave pool.” This resistance takes three main forms: abstinence, abortion, and infanticide.

 

Abstinence as Resistance 

 

Abstinence is quite frequently mentioned in slave narratives and appeared to be recognized contemporaneously as an act of resistance. For example, in one account of an instance of rebellion, an enslaved woman named Sukie violently resisted her master’s sexual abuse. The woman who recounted this story, another enslaved woman by the name of Fanny Berry, was barely able to contain her pride and glee.

 

the plantation painting met museum
The Plantation by unknown artist, c. 1825, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

She recalled how one day as Sukie was making soap in the kitchen, Mr. Abbott tried to rape her. With a great deal of admiration, Berry remembered, “dat black gal got mad… She took an’ punch ole Marsa… [and] she gave him a shove an’ push his hindparts down in de hot pot o’ soap. Soap was near to boilin’, an’ it burnt him near to death.” Without a doubt, this is an extremely satisfying story of a cruel and violent man getting exactly what he deserved. But this story of Sukie’s triumph also indicates that enslaved women consciously viewed their own and other women’s refusal to submit to sexual use and abuse (and, moreover, to bear children) as acts of resistance.

 

Abortion and Contraception as Resistance to Slavery 

 

Likewise, instances of abortion feature fairly heavily in the WPA interviews. Several narratives give details of various substances including calomel, turpentine, indigo and cotton roots being used as contraceptives and abortifacients. Historians have largely neglected to consider antebellum enslaved women’s use of contraception as an act of resistance to their reproductive exploitation. But the use of birth-control was fairly widespread among the slave population and certainly was intended as a form of slave resistance. As a former slave named William Byrd’s asserted, “the negro race would have been depopulated cause all the negro womens they had become wise to this here cotton root… They would chew that and they would not give birth to a baby.”

 

winslow homer the cotton pickers
The Cotton Pickers by Winslow Homer, 1876, via The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

This refusal to bear children was clearly considered to be an act of resistance and challenge to the plantation order, both to enslaved people and their oppressors. For example, when a formerly enslaved woman named Mary Gaffney refused to sleep with her husband, he complained to the master and she was whipped. After that, Mary relented but as she explained, she “still… cheated Maser, I never did have any slaves to grow and Maser he wondered what was the matter… I kept cotton roots and chewed them all the time but I was careful not to let Maser know or catch me.” She went on to have several healthy children after the abolition, once her offspring were beyond slavery’s grasp. Another very satisfying story of enslaved women outsmarting and outmaneuvering the people that sought to “own” them.

 

Infanticide as Resistance to Slavery

 

Not all enslaved women’s stories end well. Inevitably, most stories of women’s slave resistance are tied up in tragedy. The most extreme and psychologically devastating form of resistance that we can identify must be infanticide. Though the prevalence of infanticide is very unclear, even if it happened extremely rarely, it had far-reaching political implications. Perhaps the most famous case of this tragic form of resistance was that of Margaret Garner, who killed her infant daughter rather than see her returned to slavery.

 

noble margaret garner thomas satterwhite
Margaret Garner or The Modern Medea by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, 1867, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Garner’s story amassed a great deal of sympathy and was widely understood as an act of resistance. Garner became somewhat of an antislavery icon and served as inspiration for abolitionist works of fiction, for example, Hattia M’Keehan’s heroine Gazella in Liberty or Death. Disturbing and difficult to understand though it may be, infanticide represents an enormous act of resistance. As Hine has asserted, in resisting reproductive exploitation, enslaved women resisted their vital economic function as “breeders.” Infanticide, while violent and heartbreaking, was symptomatic of bondwomen’s desire to put an end to this cycle of oppression, by any means necessary.

 

Mothers’ Resistance to Slavery

 

If women’s primary function on the plantation was that of “breeder”, then asserting an identity not simply as a breeding machine but a mother was an act of resistance too. For many enslaved women, motherhood was intimately bound up with their constructions of their identities. Enslaved mothers often considered their children to be extensions of their identity. The act of claiming parenthood, therefore, is a significant act of resistance to the institution of slavery.

 

As Hortense Spillers has argued in her classic essay, enslavement denies a mother’s natural parental rights – enslaved women had no legal rights to govern how they or their children were treated. Many enslaved women, therefore, risked serious punishment simply by asserting their claim to their children. An open challenge to the master’s authority would, more often than not, result in a higher likelihood of punishment, both for the enslaved mother and her children. And yet, slave women risked their own safety in order to make their feelings as mothers known.

 

slave auction illustration
Illustration of a Slave Auction, via University of Connecticut, Mansfield

 

Take, for example, the story of “Aunt Cissy”, a courageous woman who publicly criticized her master when he sold her daughter, publicly humiliating him, calling him a “mean dirty n*gger-trader.” When Cissy’s son died some time later, she did not appear to exhibit grief at the death of her son, rather, she took the opportunity to voice her enduring bitterness towards the slaveowner: “She went straight up to ole Marsa’ an’ shouted in his face, “Praise God! My little chile is gone to Jesus. That’s one chile of mine you never gonna sell.”’ In this story, Cissy took great risk in criticizing a man who had tremendous control over her life. Through stories such as these, enslaved women could celebrate women like themselves who spoke out against the injustices that they too suffered and hit back at the master archetype who oppressed them.

 

Intellectual Resistance To Slavery In the American South

 

Heroines in enslaved women’s narratives exhibit characteristics that would typically have been considered “masculine” in the American South antebellum society; traits such as courage, aggressiveness, and self-determination are abundant in these tales of resistance. Notions of femininity such as passivity and helplessness were simply not plausible for them. They raised their children, by necessity, often with no husband/father because they were so often sold away from their families. Therefore, the women had to provide for their families, offer protection, and make day-to-day decisions.

 

Enslaved women could not emulate that particular brand of dependent, dainty white femininity that the white American patriarchy lauded. Nor, seemingly, did they want to. Instead, with stories such as the likes of Sukie and Cissy, they created their own ideas of what it meant to be a woman; strength and bravery in the face of such severe racism and cruelty became an especially important characteristic in slave women’s self-identity.

 

gone with the wind still
Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, via The Guardian

 

In the stories and identities that black women created they resisted the negative stereotypes that the American South society used to define them. Their demonstrations of disdain for the people that oppressed them can be viewed as an important form of intellectual resistance. While Southern antebellum society held up the elite white woman as a model of perfect femininity, enslaved women invented their own definitions of womanhood that enabled them to resist defeminization and dehumanization.

 

Both men and women suffered many of the same horrors and injustices under slavery, their genders did radically affect their experiences of those abuses and, accordingly, the ways that they were able to resist. Historians have been right to criticize the prejudiced scholarship that failed to recognize the more subtle elements of individual, intellectual, and reproductive resistance. The importance of male-dominated acts of resistance such as organized rebellion should by no means be overlooked.

 

However, as James Scott has argued, the tendency to dismiss “individual” acts of resistance as insignificant, and to reserve the term “resistance” for collective or organized action is grossly misguided, and does a disservice to the brave women who fought everyday, in every way they could. Women did engage with organized and collective resistance such as rebellions and escapism, but the expectations and limitations placed on their gender usually prohibited them from engaging those acts in the same ways as did men.

 

sojourner truth aint i a woman cover
Cover, Sojourner Truth, Ain’t I a Woman?, via Penguin Books

 

The most important acts of resistance that women dominated such as truancy, reproductive and intellectual resistance, were not insignificant. In fact, they were hugely important. In a system that denied the very personhood of enslaved people, refusing to be defined as their oppressors’ cotton-picking machine, “breeder” or simply their “inferior”, constituted perhaps the ultimate act of resistance. The refusal to be reduced to something less than a person was epitomized and immortalized by Sojourner Truth’s famous demand “ain’t I a woman?” Enslaved women answered that question. In their acts of everyday resistance, they asserted their own identities as women, as mothers, and as people with their own thoughts and desires.



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By Olivia BarrettBA & MA HistoryOlivia holds a BA from University College London and an MA in History from the University of Manchester, England. She specializes in histories of gender, sexuality and religion, with a particular interest in how the beliefs, folklore and mythologies of the past manifest in the present.