First Advisor

Patricia Schechter

Date of Publication

Fall 12-13-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in History






Women slaves -- United States -- 19th century -- Social conditions, African American women -- United States -- 19th century -- Social conditions, Slaveholders -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- 19th century, Slaves -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- 19th century, Slavery -- United States -- History, Women slaves -- Abuse of -- United States -- History, Rape, Abortion, Infanticide



Physical Description

1 online resource (ix, 130 pages)


During the antebellum period of U.S. slavery (1830-1861), many people claimed ownership of the enslaved woman's body, both legally and figuratively. The assumption that they were merely property, however, belies the unstable, shifting truths about bodily ownership. This thesis inquires into the gendered specifics and ambiguities of the law, the body, and women under slavery. By examining the particular bodily regulation and exploitation of enslaved women, especially around their reproductive labor, I suggest that new operations of oppression and also of resistance come into focus.

The legal structure recognized enslaved women in the interest of owners, and this limitation was defining, meaning that justice flowed in one direction. If married white women were "civilly dead," as famously evoked by the Declaration of Sentiments (1848) then enslaved women were civilly non-existent. The law controlled, but did not protect slaves, and a number of opponents to slavery denounced this contradictory scenario during the antebellum era (and before). Literally, enslaved women were claimed by their masters, purchased and sold as chattel. Physically, they were claimed by those men (both white and black) who sought to have power over them. Symbolically, they were claimed by anti-slavers and pro-slavers alike when it suited their purposes, often in the domains of news and literature, for the sake of advancing their ideas, a rich record of which fills court cases, newsprint, and propaganda touching the slavery issue before the civil war.

Due to the numerous ways that enslaved women's bodies have been claimed, owned, or circulated in markets, it may have been considered implicit to many that others owned their bodies. I believe that this is an oversimplified historical supposition that needs to be re-theorized. Indeed, enslaved women lived in a time when they were often led to believe that their bodies were not truly their own, and yet, many of them resisted their particular forms of oppression by claiming ownership of their bodies and those of their children; sometimes using rather extreme methods to keep from contributing to their oppression. In other words, slave owners' monopoly of the legal, economic, and logistical meanings of ownership of slaves had to be constantly reaffirmed and negotiated. This thesis asks: who owned the enslaved woman's body? I seek to emphasize that enslaved women were valid claimants of themselves as can seen in primary sources that today have only been given limited expression in the historiography.


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