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Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South

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Living with the dual burdens of racism and sexism, slave women in the plantation South assumed roles within the family and community that contrasted sharply with traditional female roles in the larger American society. This new edition of Ar'n't I a Woman? reviews and updates the scholarship on slave women and the slave family, exploring new ways of understanding the intersection of race and gender and comparing the myths that stereotyped female slaves with the realities of their lives. Above all, this groundbreaking study shows us how black women experienced freedom in the Reconstruction South — their heroic struggle to gain their rights, hold their families together, resist economic and sexual oppression, and maintain their sense of womanhood against all odds.

256 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1985

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Deborah Gray White

65 books23 followers

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5 stars
574 (43%)
4 stars
494 (37%)
3 stars
192 (14%)
2 stars
47 (3%)
1 star
23 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 65 reviews
Profile Image for Cynda .
1,253 reviews141 followers
February 6, 2017
I hated this book. I devoured this book. I respect the writer Deborah Gray White (African-American) for touching on delicate subjects related to the sexualization/de-sexualization of black women, the generation of black slaves in what was too often temporary or unwanted relationships. Some marriages lasted for decades at the whim or ability of the slave master whose crops were subject to droughts and whose plantation (or farm) was broken up after his death. All these things I knew. I chose to to read this book because I have read books about the mistresses of large farms and plantations; about mistresses and houseslaves; about slavery in general (meaning mostly about men); memior of former slaves (men and women),but I had yet to read a book that focused on the experience of slave women of the American South. A rather general book. Gray White does say this in more than one place. This book is a seminal book (1985). Others have taken the topics and done more with them, such as describing the mistress and house slaves and their relationships and other books I have not yet read.
An excellent beginning place to start the study of slave women of the American South.
Profile Image for Elia Princess of Starfall.
124 reviews14 followers
October 25, 2016
“Slavery is terrible for men: but it is far more terrible for women.”
Linda Brent, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.


In the days of Antebellum America, when slavery ruled over the plantations, the farms, the classical manors and, of course, the inhabitants, there arose concerns about the growing threat of abolition, the mounting strength of the Free North and how to justify slavery in the best light. From such worries, there lay a particular anxiety; the position of the enslaved black woman and how she was treated within the Deep South. It was universally acknowledged that white men routinely and often forcibly made female slaves their concubines. This resulted in the birth of mixed-race children. Southerners were painfully aware of the hypocrisy and immorality that surrounded such relations, but such relationships were inescapable; they bled through every facet of Southern society, black and white. These relationships could not be stopped; legality and morality could not defeat them.

Instead, could they be justified?

With a vengeance, slave holders and pro slavery advocates devised the perfect black slave woman stereotype: Jezebel. Seeking to excuse white men’s lust for black women and to designate such relations as consensual, Jezebel was flawless archetype for such a cause. Promiscuous, pleasure loving, sultry, insatiable, shameless and deeply carnal, Jezebel is all this and more. An unrepentant slut, she and all her sisters enticed innocent white men to their doom. To the Southern mind, the white man was blameless, a victim of Jezebel’s wiles. Therefore, how could one condemn the white man when it was the slave women and her sinful ways that gave birth to immoral situations? Jezebel served her purpose beautifully. Convinced by their moral and racial superiority, white men continued to coercer their female slaves in whatever ways they saw fit and, indeed, as Ar’n’t I a Woman shall show this proves just how wretched the depths female slavery could reach.


In Deborah Gray White’s monumental and engrossing study on the lives of female slaves in the Plantation South, we encounter a world where the black enslaved women were condemned to the lowest rung in a society where white was better that black, male was better than female and to be a slave was the worst lot of all. Divided into five parts, White extensively and meticulously explores the key aspects of female slavery and how it brought its own challenges and hardships to slave women. The first part is female slave mythology and the impact of the stereotypes of wanton Jezebel and devoted Mammy. The second part is the nature of female slavery and the reality behind life for a female slave. The third part is the life cycle of a female slave and how they transitioned though each of life’s thresholds. The fourth part is the female slave network and how female slaves supported and cared for one another. The final part concerns slave families and the role of women. In each section, White brings insightfulness and a critical eye on gender and race in examining female slavery and how it impacted on the individual. Through primary documents and secondary sources, White has crafted an exceptional and engrossing study. One that is sure to pique the interest of any lover of American history.


This is a well-written, well thought out and carefully researched book. Even though it has been over 20 years in print, “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” stands out as an exemplary treatise on female slavery in plantation America. White has gone above and beyond in gathering and critiquing evidence, in researching the stories of slave women and in examining the crucial aspects of female slavery through racism, sexism and classism and how these impacted daily upon their lives. Her research is diligent, her theories sound and her conclusions, although disheartening, without fault. She looks upon the slavery era in Antebellum America through contemporary and modern eyes. This allows the book and female slavery in general to be seen through two opposing perspectives. Despite this, there one way in which “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” can be improved upon. A reprint or revised edition to the book would be greatly appreciated. Taking into account twenty years’ worth of research and further books on the subject would aid greatly in bringing the book up to date with new developments to include additional much needed research.


“Ar’n’t I a Woman?” begins and ends with a plaintive request from the Sojourner Truth. Is she worthy of being called a woman? Were black women deserving of being called the equal of white women? In the worlds of both the Free North and the Slave South, Sojourner Truth received her answer. She was not to be considered to be equal of anyone excepting her fellow black women. In her lies the importance of “Ar’n’t I a Woman; to understand how the lives of enslaved black women were ensnared within the twin grasps of racism and sexism. It is lofty and depressing mission but it remains this reviewer’s firm opinion that White has devoted time, respect and excellent historical knowledge to create a book that looks at female as it was in reality.
489 reviews36 followers
April 16, 2012
Visiting a friend born in Mississippi recently, I once again heard that odd myth of the white Southerner, that slavery produced some genuine relationships between master or mistress and slave. My friend insisted that the act of owning another human being by itself destroys any pretense at relationship. Yes, his sister agreed, some terrible things happened, but there were cases of genuine relationship. It is a puzzling thing to me, this latter-day need to justify the unjustifiable, to defend the indefensible, to humanize the inhumane. Among other achievements, Deborah Gray White in this book punctures that argument with ample documentation from both slave narratives and plantation records. Her focus is on female slaves, what roles were forced on them (the mother surrogate Mammie, or the sexual Jezebel--often enough suffering at the hands of the mistress for the sins of the master), and how they tried to manipulate their masters and mistresses to marry, lighten their workload, or manage reproduction. That last item was of keen interest to the masters, even when the children were not their own; they expected slave unions to produce their future labor force in a timely manner. Some slaveowners were of course Simon Legree. However, if, as one of my teachers argued, that some owners must have behaved well because the slaves were property--he likened owning a slave to owning a Cadillac--well, property isn't generally encouraged or even forced to reproduce. Although it is disposed of without much remorse when no longer useful, as White notes. In a chagrined prologue, White acknowledges that Sojourner Truth never uttered the words that make the title, but she comes down on the side of, in the words of Jimmy Stewart, printing the legend not the facts.
Profile Image for Michael.
265 reviews12 followers
January 15, 2018
Major contention of this work is that black slave women in the American south "were not submissive, subordinate, or prudish and that they were not expected to be so." She attacks the black power generation of the 1960s and 70s which put black slave woman in her place to retrieve the black man from "Samboism". She attempts to demonstrate that black slave families were characterized by an admirable equality of the sexes. She is insistent that "slave women has a high degree of sex consciousness and that it was encouraged by the plantation regime (p. 22).

She begins by sketching the two polar elements of the myth of the black woman in America. One is the Jezebel, "a person governed almost entirely by her libido" (p. 29), and the other was the Mammy, who was "surrogate mistress and mother" (p. 49). She spends considerable effort showing how the two myths arose and how they did injustice to real slave women, The Jezebel image degraded the slave woman without basis in true excessive sexuality. The Mammy exalted her excessively, when in reality she was still -- like the white woman -- ultimately subordinate to the white male (p. 61).

She then goes on to show how "black males and females did not experience slavery in the same way" (p. 62). Both used intransigent behavior as a means of resistance, but women could use their status as "breeders" (mine) for the plantation owner by "playing the lady (p. 79). She describes the life cycles of the female slave as follows: lack of gender differentiation in childhood (p. 92); gender model differentiation by participation in the "trash gang" (p. 94); marriage and motherhood; middle age and the hardest physical work (p. 114); and finally old age and increased respect amongst the black community because of knowledge and experience (p. 115). Much of the traditions of marriage and motherhood for female slaves can be traced back to Africa, according to White (p. 106).

White points to the development of a mutually supportive female slave network which fostered a strong sense of gendered identity and helped strengthen slave women in their resistance to the system. For instance, female slaves cared for each other when sick (p. 125) and helped out with child care activities (p. 128). Slave women could expect little protection from their husbands, who were themselves abused if they interceded on their wives' behalf (p. 153). Nor did marriage confer any leverage of men over women in the way it did for whites. The sum total of the factors leading to the tenuousness of slave marriage was increased female autonomy.
215 reviews15 followers
November 23, 2015
"Slavery women suffered from the malevolence that flowed from both racism and sexism.

They were dragged from Africa against their will because they were black, Because they were black and slave they lost their rights, and under penalty of death and the whip, worked for someone else's profit. As black slave women they were used sexually; they shouldered the dangerous burden of childbirth, the laborious chores of child care and domestic work, and they were tied to the plantation with less chance than their men for a change of environment.

Black Women developed the wherewithal to cope with their predicament, but they did so as victims of a racist and sexist society."
Profile Image for Sarah Adams.
14 reviews
January 24, 2022
This book was really well researched and engrossing to read. My only wish is that they'd make a third printing with alterations for today's language. The last edition came out in 1999 and language surrounding enslavement has changed.
2 reviews
February 18, 2023
Such a good read. Author does a great job of explaining the hard, gruesome truths of slave women in antebellum America. Heart breaking but really really worth the read.
Profile Image for Sa Schmidt.
112 reviews4 followers
January 12, 2018
It was a very interesting read. It wasnt eye opening to me because I knew it was bad and they were on a regular basis raped, tortured and dehumanized by slave owners. I was glad I read it though. Then it went and talked about some of the plantation families like the Balls and Chestnuts and a few of our u. s. presidents who owned them. That Ball plantation I had heard was really a bad place, some of their living relatives today sit ashamed of their ancestors. It's a worthy read to know the truth.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
184 reviews1 follower
August 17, 2018
Really informative book that does an in-depth analysis of the varied experiences of black women in the South during and shortly after slavery. I learned a lot, but my only complaint is that sometimes I felt like the past was romanticized a bit. Also, the author discusses marriage between slaves without noting until almost the end of the book that those marriages weren't legally recognized.
3 reviews
March 4, 2023
This book serves as the first gendered analysis of slavery as an institution by exploring new ways to understand the intersection of race and gender. This book explored enslaved Black women's unique challenges and experiences, comparing and contrasting their oppression to that of White women and Black men. White establishes a disturbing lack of research on Black women during slavery, making them almost invisible to America’s social, political, and economic development.
The book discusses the contrasting Jezebel and Mammy mythologies: the two characterizations of Black women throughout and beyond slavery. The Jezebel is this overly sexual and seductive character used to explain the sexually exploitative behaviors of White men toward Black women. Contrastly, the Mammy character was the asexual slave mother figure loyal to the master and kept the slaves in line. Along with stereotypical caricatures, the book covers how slavery and resistance looked different for Black women than men. The ability to rear children was increasingly important after the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and it became one of their primary functions on the plantation. For this reason, marriages were sometimes encouraged as the Master would expect a growth in the value of his property from the children derived from that marriage. Children also made it more difficult for women to escape, and many had to leave their children behind, some even committing infanticide to spare their children from a life in slavery. The relationships between enslaved women are explored at length, finding that relationships with other women were vital for an enslaved woman's survival, childrearing, and well-being. Black women’s romantic relationships also looked very different from those of White women. Since men were not providing financially, the two genders were more equal. White women were almost entirely economically dependent upon their husbands, creating inherent inequality in the relationship. These female networks, family, and religion worked as buffers against internalizing the infantile role of enslavement. Even after emancipation, these buffers persisted and are still of widespread importance to many Black women today.
Ar'n't I A Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South presents historical accounts from Black enslaved women and various first-hand accounts that tell the story of the Black woman’s experience in slavery. White makes it apparent that not every woman’s story is covered by the themes and experiences discussed in the book. However, it does allow for a more detailed analysis of slavery through the female lens and how feminity, motherhood, and oppression shaped their lives in a way that is so often grouped with Black men. The title is an homage to Sojourner Truth’s famous speech in which she puts her womanhood at the forefront; this book honors that by also comparing how vastly different the lives of White and Black women were due to intersectionality. Black women's experience in bondage did not change that they were too women. Although intersectional analysis was not credibly conducted on enslaved women during the 18th century, this book does an amazing job at retrospectively honoring the unique system of oppression Black women faced
Profile Image for Clarissa.
45 reviews21 followers
October 3, 2022
my friend called me a masochist for reading this and i rly wasnt sure at first what the value would be in reading a book that was sure to detail the dehumanization of Black women... i dont need any convincing that slavery was horrible and uniquely horrible for women

but im very glad that i did, as it struck me a chapter in that i had never read a nonfiction book about slavery and it became clear that the fact that our nation/national discourse generally recognizes slavery as a shameful past with lasting impacts, does not take the place of learning about the details and dynamics of it as a historical period.

i didn't know how little we knew about the experience of women in slavery, and how historians have obscured the reality through their own biases, in some cases to "defend" the femininity of Black women, but at the expense of accuracy. so even learning about the history of historians of slavery was revealing

this part of the review is kind of notes for my retention...
the book was about the experience of enslaved Black women, learning about the way the role of Black women in their community was impacted by slavery (ex the ways in which it was more egalitarian, the importance of motherhood over marriage) & the myths about women who were slaves (jezebel, mammy), and then a bit about how those have all had a lasting impact on American society in a continually evolving way (evolving into the Sapphire stereotype for ex.).

it ends with the thesis, that Black women "have been given more myth than history. The myths have put black women in a position where they must, as Sojourner Truth did in 1858, prove their womanhood. Despite all that she has come through and accomplished, the American black woman is still waiting for an affirmative answer to the plaintive question over a century ago: 'Ar'n't I a woman?'"

the bits about Sojourner Truth were rly powerful, I have to read more from and about her

i didnt read the revised version but its the only one on goodreads
Profile Image for Cathryn Conroy.
1,002 reviews30 followers
November 11, 2021
This is a formidable book. I mean that in two very different ways: It is powerful in its message, as well as intellectually challenging.

Written by Deborah Gray White, an esteemed college professor, this book began as her doctoral dissertation. While the subject matter is absolutely fascinating, be prepared for writing that is more academic than colloquial.

The book describes with extraordinary depth and feeling the life of female slaves in the Southern states—from myths to facts. It begins with an examination of the ultimate dichotomy of how so many whites viewed slave women: They were either a Jezebel or a Mammy. Were they overly sexual and promiscuous creatures? Or were they the idealized slave who was a beloved part of the family?

Other topics:
• Find out why men and women slaves were treated so differently and how this affected the female slave's pattern of resistance.

• Learn about the moral code of sex, marriage, and motherhood in the slave cabins.

• Discover why slave women had more stable relationships with each other than with their husbands.

• Find out why men and women were equal in slave society while the white mistress was totally subjugated by her husband.

• Learn the sad fact that slave women were the only women in America who were sexually exploited, beaten, whipped, and worked from dawn to dusk and then some.

• Find out how Southern whites brutalized freed female slaves. This chapter is so horrific it's very difficult to read.

This not an easy book to read both because of the disturbing, tragic subject matter, but also because of the academic-style of writing; however, it is a remarkable, insightful, and very personal look at a shameful part of our nation's history. And that makes it very important.
Profile Image for Adrienne.
89 reviews13 followers
June 18, 2017
This was the kind of book that made me search eagerly through the footnotes and endnotes and propelled me on to find the original sources. The anecdotes are so chilling and intriguing that one can't help but follow the information trail back to the beginning. The scholarship is incredibly solid--not that I ever called it into doubt--and White's eloquence in telling the stories of women oppressed by generations of Americans would tug on the heartstrings of any normal human being in the 21st century.

Of course, the struggle is not yet won--as part of my graduate course on Women's Studies, we examined the ways in which white Americans continue to perpetuate stereotypes of black women. We examined tweets, music videos and books that rely heavily on tropes and reductive techniques to subdue strong black women. Whites have long attempted to mold black women into forms that they recognize--the "Mammy" figure (Gone With the Wind) or the "Jezebel" (seductress, femme fatale, morally bankrupt young women who exist solely for bringing helpless white men to their knees in epic coupes d' grace).

I loved reading this book, even if it made me wince at times to recognize the ways in which I have tacitly and unconsciously been part of perpetuating these stereotypes and stigmas.
Profile Image for Dan Rheingans.
239 reviews1 follower
February 3, 2022
An excellent and thoughtful examination of the lives of female slaves in the plantation south. Book covers everything from perceptions of black women by whites and blacks, to their roles withing plantation society with both whites and blacks, their transformation in the post-Civil War period, the complexity of their jobs and the differences in their lives vs. white women. A lot of good topics covered and well researched. Definitely worth the read.
Profile Image for Michael Bell.
438 reviews4 followers
September 19, 2022
This book reminds me why I rarely read non-fiction anymore. The repercussions of slavery and persistent racism has affected women of color in a major way in this society. We couldn't drink from the same water fountains but white men sure could take full advantage of our women. Women were made to work in the field and nurse white babies. There was a fictionalized creation of a happy "Mammy" who was no longer happy when slavery ended. It was a difficult read. Back to fiction for me.
28 reviews
July 12, 2019
A ground breaking and fascinating work. Very readable and thought provoking. Apart from being a valuable discussion of Black American women’s history, it provides a strong argument for intersectionality. Really glad I’ve re-read this.

Thanks to my ex-in-laws, Jo and Joe for the gift of this book many years ago.
Profile Image for Emily C. H. Adams.
35 reviews1 follower
July 5, 2020
A quick but comprehensive research into the livestyles and myths of black slave women, this book is a must-read for anyone beginning or expanding their racial history understanding. The format is clear and concise, digestible, but still powerful in examining and dismantling harmful stereotypes and prejudices that black women have endured.
37 reviews
April 16, 2021
My cousin owned this book and I finally sat down to read it. I appreciate the author spending time focusing on the lives of enslaved women in the US. She discusses what their lives were like, the struggles they endured as well as dissecting some of the stereotypes about black women that existed back then and how they've carried and changed in time. I have a later edition it seems and I would encourage reading the intro if you usually skip it. She talks about some corrections in the story there that is nice to know ahead of time.
Profile Image for Kimberly.
67 reviews
November 6, 2022
no rating on account of i only read the first chapter for a book club, but that chapter was very illuminating. i think i was already familiar with the concepts it introduced, but i enjoyed learning about them more formally. id like to read the rest of the book, especially for something so academic. sadly i also missed the book club that discussed this 🙃
Profile Image for Regina Leslie.
18 reviews1 follower
September 1, 2017
White centers the imagining & construction of black womanhood in the face of white exploitation, abuse, & terror. With nuanced anecdotes & statistics, she sheds light on the "myriad subtleties" underlying black women's sensuality, socialization & labor throughout enslavement toward Reconstruction.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Vanna.
850 reviews14 followers
December 9, 2019
So, with these books, I tend not to rate because its subjective. I did think it was very interesting but I did wish there was more information of life before slavery to truly understand the life that was taken away from them.
Profile Image for Shannon Cooper .
7 reviews2 followers
November 30, 2020
Such a good read! It really shows the dynamics between races and sexism. While race has always been an issue in America, it was an even bigger issue back during the 1800's. Being a black woman and a slave basically had to feel like having "rights" was non-existent.
Profile Image for Leah.
5 reviews
March 2, 2019
This book was an INCREDIBLE read! Very, very, very enlightening and informative!! Definitely a book I will share with others.
365 reviews1 follower
Want to read
March 4, 2020
On a reading list provided by the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, SC.
Profile Image for Jamie.
125 reviews
October 30, 2020
This was an excellent book. It was well written and contained really interesting source material.
Profile Image for Bridget.
355 reviews12 followers
November 23, 2020
Good narrative on the plight of African American women inn the south. The research and explanations are thought provoking.
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