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They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South

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A bold and searing investigation into the role of white women in the American slave economy

Bridging women’s history, the history of the South, and African American history, this book makes a bold argument about the role of white women in American slavery. Historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers draws on a variety of sources to show that slave-owning women were sophisticated economic actors who directly engaged in and benefited from the South’s slave market. Because women typically inherited more slaves than land, enslaved people were often their primary source of wealth. Not only did white women often refuse to cede ownership of their slaves to their husbands, they employed management techniques that were as effective and brutal as those used by slave-owning men. White women actively participated in the slave market, profited from it, and used it for economic and social empowerment. By examining the economically entangled lives of enslaved people and slave-owning women, Jones-Rogers presents a narrative that forces us to rethink the economics and social conventions of slaveholding America.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published February 19, 2019

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About the author

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers

1 book71 followers
Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the winner of the 2013 Lerner-Scott Prize for best doctoral dissertation in U.S. women’s history.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 602 reviews
September 30, 2020
I've just been asked, online, if I would recommend this book to a friend who is reading every book on race right now. I would only recommend the book to people who a) like text books and b) like reading the minutae of business litigation cases. Otherwise, the information's good but it is presented so dryly it's like week-old bread without benefit of butter.

Three times in two days in the shop people have picked up this book and I think I might have talked them out of it in the interests of honesty. I have to pay the rent, I must stop doing this!

The book is a dry read, full of legalities. There isn't much humanity in it, but then humanity had a different meaning to slave owners than it does to us. They could be perfectly genteel and give to charities for poor orphans at a Church supper and then go back and order a slave beaten almost to death, rub salt or poison into the wounds, say their prayers and go to bed.

Slave owners were almost all Christians who went to church on Sundays and taught Christianity to their slaves. They taught them to control them, tellling them that God had put them into their position and if they fulfilled it well then they would have their reward in the afterlife.

The promise of heaven after the tribulations of this earth is so common in gospel songs. It is a mystery to me why the vast majority of African-Americans and West Indians adhere to a religion that replaced their own traditional ones as a method of control by the most brutal and wicked people on earth who treated them as farm animals, but with far more cruelty.

"South Carolina declared it “lawful for any white person to beat, maim or assault” a black person, and “if such negro or slave cannot otherwise be taken, to kill him, who shall refuse to shew his ticket, or, by running away or resistance, shall endeavor to avoid being apprehended or taken.”

Punishment of slaves was a complicated affair. For certain offences, assault and running away amongst them, the slave owner had to report it to the local authorities and show that they had appropriately punished them. The slave owners could be fined if they didn't punish them. Some slave owners did not like to whip slaves themselves, so they employed others, often slave overseers themselves to whip them. On the fifth offence of assault or running away, the slave had to be killed, "as an example".

The pretence is that the wives of the plantation owners in the South were all Southern Belles, wilting flowers who were ignorant of the controlling of other human beings by lashes, knives, nooses and guns. They thought the slaves were just darlin' people like their Mammy or else going quietly about their business which was to make the white man profit.

Gone with the Wind is the bible of people who want to believe it was possible for blacks and whites to have a wonderful life together, mistress and slave. It's about as grounded in reality as Cinderella.

Women were given slaves when they were children so they could learn how to handle and control them. They were valuable assets and gifted to brides by their fathers. There were men who married rich women who owned many slaves and did not necessarily give up control of them of their businesses to their new husbands. Widows who inherited slaves did not necessarily let their houses and fields overgrow with weeds whilst they took to darkened rooms for 40 years of grief.
The women all had written contracts proving their slaves were theirs and theirs alone, and often took to the courts in defence of their 'property' should they be seized as payment for the husband's debts.

I think this book has the two most horrible stories in it I have ever read and I'm still reading chapter 1.

The first story a slave, Alfred, of 12 or 13 allegedly told the son of his master to kiss his ass. So over the next three hours the master Green Martin and his son Godfrey beat the boy to death, choked him, sat on him, kicked him and dragged him around the yard. The three young daughters, one of whom was 16, saw this happening as they went about their business passing sometimes through the yard where he was abused and lay dying. They grew up with this boy. They weren't concerned. The case went to court as murder, but on appeal the conviction was overturned.

In the second story, a little girl slave of 9 years old was responsible for emptying chamber pots. The mistress kept her slaves half-starved but used to leave bits of candy around to tempt them. The little girl resisted for days but then took one. Her punishment for this theft and consequent lying was to pin the little girl's head under a rocking chair which the mistress sat in and rocked back and forth while her daughter beat her with a whip. The little girl's jaw was permanently crushed on the left side and for the rest of her life she was disfigured and could only eat semi-liquid food.

It's worth reading. It's not a beginning-to-end book, because you could get bogged down in legal matters which are tedious, but a look at the chapter headings and read each until the inevitable legal matters start. So I read most of the book, but not every word.

Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,659 followers
March 2, 2019
This is excellent. I did a little tweet storm so I'll just write that here:

This book is brilliant and necessary. The part about the “management” of the breast milk of slaves by mistresses was just devastating and also I just can’t believe it never occurred to me that it would be a commodity! childbirth, nursing--of course that was the realm of the white slaveowner. It's cutting edge and new scholarship like this is EXACTLY the reason we need more black women scholars! She dug through slave testimonies and focused on things that other people missed. I also love work that paints women as just as cruel as men and just as abusive of power. Why? Because it shows that corporate feminism won't save us. We need race/class consciousness in a feminist revolution. It also reminded me of Weiss's excellent book The Woman's Hour about suffrage and how women said that if women had the vote, we could end war and make politics more pure, etc. And then men were worried that women would vote as a block against corruption. 🙄 So much for that
Profile Image for I Be Reading .
69 reviews
March 13, 2019
I am the descendant of a group of enslaved people that were owned by a slaveowning woman in middle Tennessee.

This woman inherited my family from her first husband upon his death and then promptly got remarried to a man who was an active slave trader and who decided he was going to immediately start selling some of my family while taking the others to Mississippi to start a cotton plantation. The family of the late husband, who were also to inherit some of his estate, said “hell no” and took the woman and her new husband to court, where ultimately the slave trader was prohibited from leaving the state. While he had to stay in Tennessee, he refused to be close enough to the dead man’s relatives that they could “monitor” him so he took his wife and my family to west Tennessee and stayed there.

This woman is the only confirmed female slaveowner that I am aware of in my family history. Since I learned this history last year, I have always wondered about that woman’s role in how things turned out for my ancestors. This book went a long way towards answering a lot of questions I had. I was never sympathetic towards her, but I did wonder if she was coerced into stuff by her second husband. This book made clear that she was likely perfectly aware of what she was doing. Difficult to process, but I am so thankful for Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ scholarship on this subject. Five stars, highly recommend.
Profile Image for emma.
1,822 reviews45.6k followers
September 20, 2021
This book should be required reading for everyone, but above all for white women.

The fact of the matter is that the easiest to swallow form of progressiveness is white feminism, and the ease of indulging in mugs that say "#GIRLBOSS" and T-shirts with RBG's face on them is tempting to many of us. It's much more difficult to bring intersectionality into your feminism than it is to retweet vaguely anti-sexist awards acceptance speeches made by beautiful blonde women.

But the kind of feminism that upholds body hair and free tampons (while both are important) without working to ensure that everyone's top concerns are equal is racist.

That racism originated in this era, an era when white women owned slaves and yet have managed to make it to the 21st century under the perception that they were merely unwilling participants in their husbands' evil.

It's not true.

Awareness is part of this, and it's our responsibility as white women to engage in that in order to include antiracism as part of our feminism.

Bottom line: Shutting up. Read this!
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,945 reviews292k followers
July 6, 2020
Enslaved people also remembered slave-owning women giving their children human property, which contradicts historians’ claims that bequests and gifting of enslaved people were practices in which only slave-owning men engaged.

A horribly graphic but necessary read, especially for any Americans who still believe all white women were merely victims themselves during the slavery era. Nope-- as the author shows here, they were also very much responsible for owning, controlling and torturing enslaved people.

The work the author has put in here is seriously incredible. Jones-Rogers has taken another look at historical documents, read through the accounts of former slaves and uncovered a truth: that wealthy white women did own slaves in their own right, they fought hard for their rights to their "property", even having it written into marriage contracts, and they also subjected them to horrifying abuse. On that note-- be warned that this book contains some of the most graphic and horrible instances of abuse and torture during slavery that I have personally ever read.

While I previously assumed women shared in the culpability, I certainly didn't know all of the things that went on. I had no idea, for example, that mistresses capitalized on the breast milk produced by enslaved women and "routinely sought out and procured enslaved wet nurses to suckle their children." Horrible.

The book gets a bit wordy and repetitive when Jones-Rogers goes into the details of property law, coverture, county court records, and antenuptial contracts. Though I can see how it was a necessary part of the argument she was making, it was definitely the driest part of the book.

What I really liked about this book, though, is that Jones-Rogers gives a voice to former slaves, not to the people who owned them. While sometimes it was necessary to look at slave owner testimonies, she mostly focuses on the perspectives of those who experienced the abuse-- those who have often been dismissed by historians. And I like books that dispel the myth that women are weak, cowering victims, for better or for worse.

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Profile Image for Thomas.
1,425 reviews8,323 followers
September 1, 2022
Important and powerful book about white women who owned enslaved Black Americans during the period of slavery. The book’s depictions of how white women abused the people they enslaved is brutal and helps eliminate the stereotype of white women as helpless and fragile. In reality, white women wielded their whiteness to hold power over other people. They Were Her Property speaks to the importance of examining the intersection of race and gender within an anti-Black capitalist system. I enjoyed reading Stephanie Jones-Rogers’s thorough research and intelligent writing, though of course the subject matter is horrifying.
Profile Image for Never Without a Book.
468 reviews100 followers
February 8, 2019
I can't find the words to put together a proper review for this book. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers absolutely blew my mind with her research. The testimony of formerly enslaved people, just wow! I am speechless. The information provided is not an easy one to digest, but I could not put this book down. This is a must read.
Profile Image for Faith.
1,822 reviews499 followers
June 25, 2020
“Some couples, for example, preferred one style of mastery for managing and disciplining their own slaves and another, perhaps more brutal, system to control those of their spouse. In other households slave-owning couples allocated discipline and management according to the enslaved person’s sex. ...Other couples... delegated management and discipline according to where the enslaved people labored — in the house versus the field, for example. The couple shared the responsibility of punishing the slaves who worked in the house while they employed overseers to discipline those who worked in the fields. Slave-owning couples also used different instruments to administer punishment, and this, too, was a reflection of their particular styles of achieving mastery and preserving the value of their human property.”

This book debunks any delusions that anyone might have had that women were uninvolved in the purchase, sale, inheritance and abuse of slaves in the United States. Personally, I’ve never made any distinction between male and female slave owners. This book describes the same cruelty and abuse that I’ve read about many times before. The gender of the abuser is irrelevant to me. However, other people may appreciate the fact that this book gives female slave owners their proper place in the historical record. I can’t really applaud these examples of equal opportunities for women.

The book has too many descriptions of contracts, wills and legal proceedings. I felt like I was back in law school, and that’s not a compliment. Too much of the book read like this:

“Louisiana courts required married women who sought a separation of property to prove that their husbands’ pecuniary affairs, fiscal mismanagement, or economic circumstances jeopardized their own property and economic well-being. One such form of evidence was a husband’s indebtedness to his wife or his misuse of her ‘paraphernal’ (separate) or her ‘dotal’ (dower) property, which she would continue to own after marriage, but would have placed under his management.”

Or the ridiculously long description of Chancery Courts (much abbreviated here):

“Chancery courts as they came to exist in the United States developed in fourteenth-century England during the reign of Edward III. When British subjects could find no remedy for matters related to ‘trust, fraud, or accident’ under the common law, they petitioned the king for relief and resolution of legal matters. He, in turn created the Court of Chancery, appointing a member of his Council to serve as chancellor and assist him ‘in all cases in which natural justice, equity, and good conscience required his intervention.’”

This book might be useful for a women’s studies class. It was informative, but very dry and pedantic. 3.5 stars

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
Profile Image for Nancy.
382 reviews57 followers
October 5, 2019
Fascinating but flawed; I'm rounding up my rating.

This is important as an account of women as agents in the economics of slavery, as opposed to having mostly a social role as according to the theory of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. But it's history by anecdote; it's in serious need of data to support its claims. How many women were slaveowners? Was it common or exceptional? We don't know, and Jones-Rogers theorizes beyond what the weight of the evidence bears to the extent that her assertions become suspect.

Moreover, it's seriously flawed as a book. It's poorly organized and irritatingly repetitive to the extent of seeming padded; Jones-Rogers makes the same assertions over and over and doesn't use one word when she can employ three or four cognates.

Still worth reading, but her theories need critical examination. A decent start in a seemingly fruitful line of inquiry.

Profile Image for Randall Wallace.
524 reviews379 followers
March 17, 2019
In school, we were taught about white slaveholders and white overseers; this book shows that white women were also daily a visible part of slaveholding and slave trading, and not some anomaly. Stephanie shows us these women at the slave auctions, even selling slaves from the home, and beating slaves – white mistresses could be as sadistic as any white master. I remember worrying about southern women before the Civil War – white women could be raped by their husbands and had no rights back then so why would they protect/support a system of oppression against their best allies, other people even more oppressed by dull-witted white men? Reading this book removed my remaining empathy for southern white women before the Civil War. Now I think of slavery as physically lazy southern whites of BOTH genders coming together through violence and sadism to turn other fellow humans into non-electric appliances to do all their actual work – actual energy slaves.

Think of Master and Mistress as the same – if you were a slave, either of them could maim or kill you, and probably get away with it. One female slave who didn’t refer to the three-year-old son of the Master, as also “the Master”, had her leg broken and was beaten in a stock by her mistress until “the point was made.” Mistresses saw that enslaved women were more valuable because they could produce offspring and many properties became in essence breeding factories when the land’s soil became too tired through monoculture. Breastfeeding was a full-time job for many female slaves often nursing multiple infants including white ones. Then imagine the Southern long-time thrill of separating a non-white child from its parent in order to sell it. Thank right-wing Jesus that separating non-white children from their parents, a la Trump, is still the southern aphrodisiac and petty joy of choice.

Southern women knew nettle weed branches were the way to punish slaves that caused all the pain w/o those nasty permanent marks normal cowhide whips would leave that could lower a slave’s price. Stephanie tells of a rare somewhat moral southern man who had to beat down his own door, but was too late to stop his wife from beating two slave boys to death. Ah, true southern charm – it’s just like a scene from Gone with the Wind! Vivien Leigh beating two boys to death in a fabulous dress with the MGM filming it. One Mistress mentioned would tie up her slave and beat them with rawhide and get tired and have to take a break in order to continue. Let’s see, you could enjoy a Mint Julep, or you could sadistically beat a person in bondage who is slightly disappointing you. And, in case any slave holder in the South developed ANY proper moral qualms, “communities sought to sanction slave holders who refused to punish their slaves or allowed their slaves too much freedom.” Remember that Southern judges and juries were largely also slaveholders. Jeez, the more history you read, the worse the ENTIRE pre-Civil War South looks. Southern women complained about their husbands being away, far more often than about using violence to restrain humans for profit. One enslaved woman is raped to make a baby for sale but the baby dies and the enslaved woman is forced to breastfeed a white baby while grieving. When you were being sold at an open auction, you know you’ll be smacked around if you don’t smile, act contented, or Uncle Tom for the white man. Show actual trauma or sorrow on the block and you’ll pay dearly. One white woman enjoyed selling a slave whenever she wanted a new dress - Hey, stop crying about your lost daughter and just look at this new frock!

When slavery became outlawed, some slave holding women continued to hold slaves against their will and one female slave holder told her legally leaving slaves she hoped they would “all starve to death”. I’m so through with the myth of southern charm. Another mistress would “hide her little niggers” in the back of her wardrobe when Union soldiers inspected her place for slaves. Did you know that the final Emancipation Proclamation still kept slavery alive in “Missouri, Maryland, Delaware and Kentucky”? Wow. And justice for some. Historically, former slaveholders never mentioned in memoirs: brutality, privation, agony, loss, sweat or blood. What a surprise. In the end, Stephanie says we should see white women in the South back then not as “passive bystanders” but as “co-conspirators”. Great book.
Profile Image for Mark.
947 reviews90 followers
October 28, 2022
Coverture is a legal doctrine in which, upon marriage, a woman’s legal identity is subsumed within that of her husband’s. Originating in English common law during the Middle Ages, it was brought to America by English colonists and retained as part of the common law inheritance after the United States won its independence in 1783. Where this proved particularly important was with regard to any property a woman brought into a marriage, the right to which under the terms of coverture was transferred to her husband. Because of this doctrine, it was long assumed that married women in America in antebellum America generally lacked the right to own enslaved persons, and that they exerted little authority over them outside of the household as a consequence.

In this book, Stephanie Jones-Rogers draws upon a wide range of evidence, including legal documents, newspaper advertisements, and oral history interviews, to expose the flawed nature of these assumptions. As she demonstrates, there were numerous examples of married white women owning enslaved people in their own right, and that they regularly exerted authority over them as their owners. This relationship, she argues, was fundamentally an economic one, as these women viewed the enslaved people they owned not just as servants but as investments from which they expected to profit – an expectation which defined their relationship to them, and which shaped the institution of slavery in ways which it might not have been had ownership remained exclusive to men.

As Jones-Rogers explains, white women in the antebellum South learned over the course of their childhoods how to be slave owners, as their parents relied on enslaved people to raise them and even gave their daughters enslaved people of their own to control. Though some of these parents shielded their daughters from the more brutal aspects of slave owning, others introduced it as a necessary aspect of controlling the enslaved people that would be a part of their daughters’ lives. While the enslaved people owned by a woman could become her husband’s property upon marriage, Jones-Rogers shows that many women possessed titles that, under their terms, could not be transferred to their husbands. Others drew up pre-nuptial agreements that carefully delineated ownership, or fought to reclaim ownership from husbands who proved spendthrifts or financially incompetent. That courts regularly granted women these rights illustrates the more flexible application of coverture that maintained their rights as slaveowners.

This was more than a matter of title, however, as these women also played an active role in managing enslaved people. This takes up the bulk of Jones-Rogers’s book, as she shows how women slaveowners were involved in every facet of the economic process. Not only were women present in slave-trading markets, but they made business decisions and even participated in disciplining them as well. Often these women worked through proxies, or white male employees, but their authority and rights generally were unquestioned – and when they were questioned, the courts often took the side of the women in their judgments. Women who owned enslaved people faced the same challenges as their male counterparts when emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment ended legal slavery in the 1860s, and while some were impoverished by the loss of their property, others proved surprisingly adept in transitioning from slaveowners to employers and landlords who had their former slaves farm the land as paid laborers or tenant farmers.

While Jones-Rogers describes some of the oftentimes creative ways in which white women operated as slaveowners, she makes clear that ultimately they were no more virtuous or humane than their male counterparts. It’s a conclusion that is a depressing affirmation of their ability to exploit enslaved people, and a testament to their success in an economic role typically dominated by men. While her arguments would have benefited greatly from some quantitative analysis that could have indicated the extent to which such ownership was commonplace in the antebellum South, it is nonetheless an enormously valuable study that changes permanently our understanding of the role white women played in the “peculiar institution.” Nobody seeking an understanding of Southern women or antebellum slavery can afford to neglect this important book.
Profile Image for ColumbusReads.
401 reviews59 followers
July 13, 2020
Extensively researched and quite powerful. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers presents here in vivid and unsparing detail how white women were not only complicit but in many ways leaders in slavery in America.

In writing these accounts, former slave-owning Women offered three primary reasons why they have supported the institution of slavery. First, as noted, it was a positive good for the African savages, whom slavery had civilized. Second, slavery was “God’s own plan” for helping these inferior people, and white women were following His divine instructions in furthering it. And finally, they “were born to it, grew up with it, lived with it, and it was {their daily life}”; how could they help supporting it?

Every chapter in this book offered revelatory information on slaveholding white women (mistresses as they are called throughout the book) and additionally the civil war and capitalism.

The Slave Narrative interviews from The Federal Writers Project (FWP) was some of the most interesting and powerful material in the book. The FWP was part of the Works Progress Administration under FDR’s administration. Many slaves were interviewed and their accounts documented between 1936-38. The results are quite powerful.

This book is painful and difficult to read for sure in many ways. But a must read indeed.
Profile Image for Sahitya.
1,021 reviews203 followers
October 9, 2020
I think I saw this on one of my fellow Twitter mutual’s currently reading shelf and thought it seemed like an interesting part of history to get to know more about. I did have to wait a bit to get it from the library waitlist and it took me even longer to finish the book, but it was definitely worth it.

This book is written in a very dry manner, almost like an academic exercise citing sources and testimonials, lots of legal cases from the 19th century and how the law worked in those days. So, it could be tedious to read sometimes because of the writing style, but once I decided that remembering the names mentioned in the book was not important but what actually happened was, I could get through it much more easily and the audiobook helped as well. But what I found most surprising about the book is how dispassionate it feels sometimes despite containing page after page of stories about the brutal ways in which slaves were sold, separated from families, assaulted, maimed and murdered. But I guess it could be very difficult to get through it otherwise if we are not able to maintain a bit of that distance as a reader.

And then comes the whole point of the book - the role of southern white women in the business of slavery. It’s a common misconception that women in the 19th century were subservient to the men in their family and only took care of their household and kids. But the author dives deep into first hand testimonies from former slaves, newspaper clips from the era and lots of legal documents to prove that this is indeed a false perception. White women were indeed a part of the slave economy, being taught from their childhood by parents how to treat and punish the people they owned, slaves being given as gifts and dowries so that their daughters could have their own independent source of income even after getting married and not having to depend on or get cheated by money hungry husbands. And the author shows with overwhelming evidence that white women exercised their ownership over their slaves fully - whether it came to punishments, buying or selling them, suing their husbands or creditors when they believed that their independent property was being co-opted to pay off the debts of their husbands or being mismanaged by their trustees - women were very much a part of the southern slave driven economy. I truly don’t want to recite the horrors this book contains about the treatment of the Black people, but what’s more sickening is how callous and indifferent the white women were to their plight and just considered the subjugation of an entire race of people their god given right, exercised it to the full extent of the law, and taught the same to their kids. The commodification of every single aspect of the Black body is nightmarish to read about, but the true atrocity is the complicity of the whole system, irrespective of men or women.

In the end, I can only say that this was very informative and eye opening, teaching me a part of history I didn’t know much about, making me realize that when we say women and men are equal - it also means that women can be equally cruel and barbaric when given the power to oppress someone for the sake of their own profit. This is a hard read and can even come across as boring, so try and read it in short intervals or maybe through the audiobook - but do give it a try because it’s an important and often neglected part of history, while also giving us lessons on the importance of promoting intersectional feminism separated from the clutches of white supremacy because otherwise, there will never be true equality.
Profile Image for Bri.
Author 1 book175 followers
July 6, 2020
I only listened to about 50% of this before I had to return it but I learned so much about white women’s role in upholding slavery. Lots of mainstream history paints white women as docile beings who were at the whims of their husbands, perceived to be the more brutal and primary slaveowners. But this well-researched book proves otherwise. Effective use of historical documents and testimony from enslaved people. A must-read for anyone who wants an accurate understanding of white supremacy in the antebellum South.
Profile Image for WellReadNegress.
34 reviews25 followers
June 16, 2019
This book should be required reading for all Americans, but especially white women. It's a dense, college text read but there isn't a boring page.
Profile Image for Sarah Cavar.
Author 11 books127 followers
June 24, 2021
This is one of those books that draws countless threads from seemingly-disparate, or, at least, not quite so connected, threads of everyday life and individual behavior, and ties them together with skill and immaculately thorough research. Jones-Rogers provides a historical narrative that balances individuals' voices and scholarly text perfectly, and facilitates readers –– including me! –– as we explore the history of southern, slaveholding women. I'm impressed with a million things about this book, not least of which was the way Jones-Rodgers portrayed historical actors as full, complex persons, while remaining unequivocal in her condemnation of slaveowners: rarely do I see it acknowledged so clearly that "complex" people can still, indeed, be *bad* people, and Jones-Rodgers comes to this conclusion so easily she need not even write it explicitly.

Also: The concluding chapter, which focused on postbellum southern white women reckoning with the emancipation of enslaved people, was particularly insightful, and should be required reading for conversations about white womens' weaponization of emotion / "white [womans'] tears" as a racist weapon.
Profile Image for Mtume Gant.
45 reviews5 followers
May 21, 2019
This was one of the toughest reads I have ever had. Not because it was written poorly, it’s written incredible detail and insight or because it was not engaging in any way - Jones-Rodgers paints a vivid powerful portrait of our history backed up by endless bits of facts that you can’t help but get lost in it. No the difficulty is she does her job so well in showing us how much more complex the institution of slavery was and how horrifying it was to Black people that after each chapter you can’t help but need a break. This book is a necessary in the need to properly contextualize American history because our present has become so distorted in how we understand the nature of race and how concepts of gender have left from understanding our missteps in reading the history of power. This book needs to be read by everyone in order to understand that white supremacy is not simply a white MALE game alone.
Profile Image for Sanjida.
381 reviews29 followers
March 26, 2023
I put off reading this because I already assumed "white women bad". But what this extraordinary book revealed to me was how much enslaved people were normalized in the antebellum US as just another type of market commodity. Buying, selling, and owning was a quotidian activity. It was all about money. While the book ends at Reconstruction, I kept seeing through lines to racialized labor relations in Jim Crow and beyond. Capitalism, am I right?
Profile Image for Melissa.
Author 19 books844 followers
July 3, 2019
This one was a bit of a tough slog, mainly because it was repetitive. It could have been condensed quite a bit. You'd get a lot of anecdotes clearly showing the point the author was making, then paragraphs saying the same thing. One chapter (Wet nurses) could have easily been cut down to a section and added to the previous chapter. However, the book was well researched, the strength being in those anecdotes, actual stories that would take forever for you to find yourself if you were researching for evidence to back up the fact that white women before the Civil war weren't empty headed, naive, with delicate constitutions who were sheltered from the awful aspects of slavery because they couldn't handle it. I've never bought that, because really, how many women do you know now are delicate wilting flowers that just can't handle knowing what's going on? I've always thought that was a ridiculous attempt to downplay guilt with a reframing of their motives once their consciences were pricked and they didn't want to admit they were wrong. And this book pretty much proved it.
Profile Image for Jamise.
Author 2 books150 followers
December 12, 2020
THIS BOOK RIGHT HERE, is why I love nonfiction!! I have nothing profound to say other than everyone and I mean EVERYONE should read #TheyWereHerProperty: White Women as Slaves Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers⁣⁣
I've seen many of you in the bookstagram world talk about this book and you were 110% correct. WOW, I was not ready!!! A journey of this nature, although painful at times, is necessary. This was an eye-opening account of white women and their active & brutal role in owning slaves. This is a history lesson that we all need. It provided me additional context and also gave me an adjusted insight on why things are the way they are today, as it pertains to who is valued and has power. ⁣⁣
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,906 reviews1,234 followers
December 3, 2021
Back in the summer, I participated in a book club for educators where we read White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color . Ruby Hamad cited this book once or twice, and I was intrigued. Hamad wanted to make the point that white women benefit from both patriarchy and white supremacy, that in colonial situations like this they will uphold the existing racist structure rather than work against racism because it benefits them to do so. (Ijeoma Oluo touches on this in the context of women's suffrage in Mediocre .) Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ book here delivers a more thorough treatment of this subject in the specific period of nineteenth-century America.

Jones-Rogers specifically wants to challenge some prevailing views among previous historians that constructed white women's relationship to slavery through sociological assumptions about women's suitability for the business of owning people. These historians, Jones-Rogers contends, often interpreted absences from the historical record—for example, when it comes to the transactions of selling and buying people—as evidence of the absence of women as independent slave owners. She uses oral testimony from former enslaved people to reconstruct a fuller picture of domestic goings-on that contradicts this view of white slave-owning women: not only were they keenly aware of the economic aspect of slavery, but they fought fiercely, in the courts and at home, to protect their interests.

On the legal front, Jones-Rogers challenges the notion that white slave-owning women just gave up all their interest in their slaves the moment they married. On the contrary, numerous legal records demonstrate the lengths to which these women would go to ensure that their slaves remained under their control as opposed to their husband’s. Similarly, although these women would often delegate the buying and selling of their slaves to their husbands, they also took care of that themselves or directly hired third-party agents. Jones-Rogers also points out that the written historical record often misses the informal arrangements that white slave-owning women would make to hire out enslaved people to other women, either for routine domestic labour or as a trial before purchase.

In all of these ways, Jones-Rogers contends that these women were complicit in enslavement, active participants as opposed to merely disinterested witnesses to a male-dominated phenomenon. White women in the American South often owned slaves, either ones they inherited from family or were given at marriage time, or ones that they bought, sometimes themselves. As Jones-Rogers traces all of these paths, she also reconstructs a very full picture of enslavement in the American South, from the nature of labour on a plantation to slave markets. I think I’m not alone in confessing that my understanding of slavery is so removed from this time period that I don’t really know what life was like during this period. The idea that enslavement was just a given, and part of how society functioned, is as alien to me as our reliance on wireless technology and electricity would be to these women. Most popular media focuses on the overt horror of enslavement, on using slavery as a form of shock entertainment—and while there are lessons to be derived from that, I appreciate that Jones-Rogers takes a tack that, while drier, is also incredibly eye-opening.

The book closes with the end of the American Civil War and reconstruction. I learned a lot about this period from The Impeachers , including the delightful tidbit that a lot of slave owners actively concealed emancipation from their slaves. So when Jones-Rogers discusses how many white slave-owning women did everything they could to hold on to enslaved people on their land, either through deceit or simply trying to hire them back as labourers, I was not surprised. But as with the rest of the book, she provides detailed and specific accounts that really drive home the attitudes and possible motivations of these people.

Last summer I read The History of White People . It is a macroscopic view of the origins of whiteness, and from there racism and white supremacy. They Where Her Property is a much more focused book, taking a small slice of whiteness and putting it under a microscope for us to examine very closely. In both cases, however, the conclusion can’t be any clearer: anti-Black racism (with enslavement as a particularly acute example) is correlated with the economic engine of capitalism. White women in the American South backed slavery and owned slaves because it was economically beneficial to do so. Yes, you had a minority who truly viewed Black people as mentally inferior. But many of these white women understood that Black people were just as human and capable as they were, yet they willingly erased that humanity for the sake of economic gain.

Why did I, a Canadian in the twenty-first century, both reading a book about white American slave-owning women in the nineteenth? Jones-Rogers ends the book by labelling white women as “co-conspirators” in slavery. Well, we might not have slavery in a legal sense here in Canada in 2021, but, as Hamad demonstrates in White Tears/Brown Scars, white women are still co-conspirators when it comes to upholding whiteness and white supremacy. I wanted to understand this in an historical context and see the line from white slave-owning women then to white feminists now. For it is common for white feminists to move to innocence by falling back on a manufactured universal sorority: “all women” struggle against patriarchy. This is an amnesiacal reading of history, a white supremacist reading of history, that deliberately erases the harm white women have done in service to patriarchy because they were promised a form of power (in this case, ownership and control over enslaved people for labour and profit) in return. Not only do I want to challenge my fellow white women when they exhibit white fragility or privilege, but I also want to challenge these kinds of assertions and do so in a knowledgeable way.

As a more academic volume, They Were Her Property won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, so I can’t give a blanket recommendation. But if, like me, you enjoy deep dives into these pockets of history, then I suggest you check out this book!

My next goal is to learn more about the history of anti-Blackness in Canada, including slavery while it was legal in British North America, along with Canada’s complicity in upholding enslavement in the United States following that! Book recommendations to this end are welcome.

Originally posted on Kara.Reviews, where you can easily browse all my reviews and subscribe to my newsletter.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
Profile Image for Jorie.
253 reviews27 followers
March 12, 2023
I don't give star ratings to non-fiction works

A worthwhile, but very harrowing read.

In They Were Her Property, Professor Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers compiles record after record, account after account of white women's role in American slavery. These sources not only confirm participation but, in many cases, demonstrate the multiple ways white women perpetuated the slave trade. Many of these accounts come from reflections of formerly enslaved people on their white 'mistresses'. Many more - a shocking amount, even - come from the slave owners themselves. Here, these women speak and write of their benefit from slavery so openly, so unashamedly because, once, an entire system enabled them to do so.

Professor Jones-Rogers makes it known from the jump that she has no intention of censoring the period language in any of the historical accounts, nor does she hold back from describing the cruel realities of the slave trade. This is particularly necessary for this subject matter as there are several enduring myths about white womanhood, one allowing us a degree of separation from slavery. This book makes it very clear how much a falsehood this is.

As a white woman, I benefit from such myths about white womanhood to this day. Not only is this book important for a comprehensive understanding of American history, it uniquely demonstrates white woman privilege, and challenges it. We can talk all we want about equality, but it means nothing when our white womanhood, our perceived innocence, is still being weaponized against POC. Knowing that this is a status quo that must change is just the beginning; we must also recognize in ourselves our capacity to abuse this status quo for our own gains, even at the expense of others, as historically evidenced.

Highly, highly recommended anti-racism book.
Profile Image for Maggie Duval.
53 reviews1 follower
January 11, 2020

No “moonlight and magnolias” here.

Should be required reading, and I highly recommend this book.

It’s a well researched, documented, and written book by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers that lays the case that, “Former slave-owning women’s deeper and more complex investments in slavery help explain why, in the years following the Civil War, they helped construct the South’s system of racial segregation, a system premised, as was slavery, upon white supremacy and black oppression. Understanding the direct economic investments white women made in slavery and their stake in its perpetuation, and recognizing the ways they benefited from their whiteness, helps us understand why they and many of their female descendants elected to uphold a white supremacist order after slavery ended. If we acknowledge that white women stood to personally and directly benefit from the commodification and enslavement of African Americans we can better under their participation in postwar white-supremacist movements and atrocities such as lynching—as well as their membership in organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Southern white women’s roles in upholding and sustaining slavery form part of the the much larger history of white supremacy and oppression. And through it all they were not passive bystanders. They were co-conspirators.”
83 reviews5 followers
April 18, 2019
I am interested in this topic and REALLY wanted to love this book. There's no doubt that it's exhaustively researched and presents new and important information. However, it's not organized well, is unnecessarily repetitive, and why limit yourself to three illustrative anecdotes when seventeen would be so much better? I appreciate the work that went into it and the things I learned, but also found myself skimming large portions.
Profile Image for musa b-n.
109 reviews5 followers
November 4, 2020
This took me a long time to read all the way through! I feel like going through academia has extremely harmed my ability to read research-y text without shutting down completely. But this book was especially validating given one of the last classes I took in school, about feminism in colonial studies. That class in particular was taught by a professor that was really insistent that white women were basically faultless under colonialism. She didn't say it in so many words, and when asked directly she would say of course white women were culpable in racism, but just the way she taught readings and lead discussion always circled around this idea that white woman were bound to racism because of patriarchy, and it really was more like they had no choice in the matter, even at one point claiming that white women had the most 'complex' and 'interesting' relationship to power in colonies, because of the amount of surveillance they were under. When students of color in the class pointed out that Black and Indigenous women actually deserved that level of engagement more, she got really frustrated with the implication that her race might affect what she chose to highlight in history. So this was validating to read, and to be able to cite in the future.

Nothing is hugely surprising, just well researched and presented. The flow of the entire book is sensible, and made it easy to resume where I left off even when I would take a break from reading for a few weeks while I would wait for the ebook to become available from the library again. I liked the direct frankness of the author's voice, and the commitment to the uplifting of first person sources of formerly enslaved people's experiences.
Profile Image for Melania &#x1f352;.
530 reviews85 followers
June 14, 2021

This is a very interesting view on slavery that I've never considered before: what was the white women's role in perpetuating and benefiting from slavery? Answer: a big one!
The writing may be a bit stiff and impersonal, but it's not overbearing and the fact that you can tell how much research and attention to details went into it, is compensating for the occasional dryness. I would 100% recommend this especially to white women. One of the best books I've read all year.
960 reviews7 followers
December 12, 2019
This is one of those books that really sits with you. It was two-fold powerful as an academic history analysis and as a big picture societal explanation. First, her use and depth of sources is amazing - the combination of interviews and legal documents and correspondence shows an incredible amount of research and the primary sources themselves play heavily throughout the book. The first-person narratives of formerly enslaved people combine with the written perspectives of slave owners in fascinating ways.

Second, the main argument that white women were slave owners in their own right is the same historical narrative that ties directly into white women voting for Trump. She lays out over and over again all of the ways that white women prioritized their own economic benefit and interests over the lives and bodies of the people that they owned. White women slaveowners are the original non-intersectional feminists who stood up to men for their own independence and economic interests but at the cost of the lives and livelihoods of African Americans.
Profile Image for Renée | Book Girl Magic.
91 reviews205 followers
April 23, 2019
This book deserved every bit of the 5 stars I gave it. I’m just at a loss for words. Through watching many movies and reading snippets on slavery, we are never shown the role that white women had. In fact, they had a MAJOR hand in slavery. I mean, MAJOR. They were involved in trading, disciplining and even holding free slaves captive for their own benefit. My mind is truly blown with all that I learn. I always assumed that their husbands powers the enforcers of the things mentioned and that they simply just followed their direction. Boy was I wrong. In fact, a lot of times women owned more slates coming into a marriage than their soon to be husband did. Simply because their family gifted them slaves. White women even took to signing prenups to protect their property.

This is definitely a piece of history that everyone needs to read and be aware of. It’s a book that took me a while to finish but that’s only because there was so much information to consume. Highly recommend this one.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Stacey.
530 reviews
April 10, 2019
This is an extensively researched account of the role women played in buying, selling, and often mistreating slaves. I was interested to learn that even though women had few, if any, legal rights, they could own slaves who would not become their husbands’ property upon their marriages. That said, it was also repetitious with the author making the same points over and over again. I don’t want to reduce the author’s work but I think I could sum it up in one statement: Women were complicit in perpetrating all the ugliness of slavery, just as men were, and in many cases exercised more control over slaves than their husbands.
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