They Were Her Property

Yale University Press, 320 pages, $30

Topics now at the forefront of the American consciousness, such as white privilege, minority invisibility, and affirmative action, point to a cultural trend of becoming awakened to the residual side effects of systemic racism — that is, the idea of seeking accountability without relying on preconceptions and stereotypes. In the case of They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, Stephanie Jones-Rogers holds that women have always been fully capable of committing acts of ruthlessness and cruelty related to slavery, and that this difficult fact ought to be included in any serious discussion about the foundations of the American institution. The role of white women in relation to the barbarity of the American slave economy has long been sidestepped, Jones-Rogers contends.

The author’s disruptive work opens by discussing reasons that students of history may have come to assume that Southern white women didn’t participate in or even grasp the true savagery of slave ownership. Quickly, though, the author suggests that from the get-go, most white women in the antebellum and Civil War eras were aware economic actors who engaged in and benefited from the slave market in the American South. Enslaved people, Jones-Rogers says, were the primary source of wealth or power for white females.

At the time, legal doctrine held that a woman’s assets automatically became her husband’s property when she married, but slaves could be held as her separate and personal property. They Were Her Property explores narrative sources, legal documents, military records, and financial records to build a case that white women’s investment in the institution shaped their gender identities and placed them at the center of 19th-century America’s most callous method of economic dealing. (The author also holds, in her epilogue, that their investment in slavery led many white women and their descendants to participate in a white supremacist order after the war.)

Jones-Rogers sees as a false narrative the view that white women often acted out of jealousy at the rape of slave mistresses by their husbands. The author rejects this notion and instead turns to previously unplumbed sources, showing that most slave-owning women were knowing participants in the slave market. Finding new primary sources, or in some cases re-evaluating sources (such as the testimony of formerly enslaved people), is Jones-Rogers’ most impressive scholarly strength. She has little patience with what she sees as a long-perceived but incorrect assumption that white women played anything but a central role in slaveholding America, and she makes this point convincingly.

One complexity at the core of any such discussion is the relationship people have had with power and personal survival. Feminists are sometimes seen as skirting this subject, partly because, in American history, white women themselves lacked significant legal and economic power. Historical discussion often takes a positive view and centers on white women as abolitionists, friends of the Underground Railroad, and as people who ultimately organized one of the great political sea changes: gaining for women the right to vote. However, that view is complicated by the fact that most suffragists did this, although often at great personal cost, for white women alone.

Scholars often overstate or repeat a thesis many times to make their point. This book does exactly that. And Jones-Rogers expects historians to accept her dramatically reshaped understanding of white women’s economic relationship to slavery by making it difficult to find excuses for their bad behavior and complicity. They Were Her Property is dense, it’s argumentative, and it skirts the issue of alternative ways for women to fit into a broken, problematic culture. It is least convincing when claiming that white women, from the Civil War era through Reconstruction, downplayed their own direct participation in slavery, obscured their financial motivations, and defended their actions. But these problematic elements are outweighed by Jones-Rogers’ use of innovative research to cast light on an area that may forever change how American history is discussed.