This post accompanies “Motherhood in Early America,” episode 237 of Ben Franklin’s World.
by Emily West
Mother’s Day offers opportunities to reflect upon motherhood in relation to ethnicity and class. Racial discrimination and poverty mean that a narrow conceptualization of biological motherhood associated with domestic care and nurture is not applicable to all in the past or present. This is especially true when considering the lives of enslaved women, for whom motherhood was a double-edged sword and many of whom endured a complex relationship with mothering. Women knew that their babies held pecuniary value to slaveholders and that they might be forcibly separated from their offspring at any time. Maternal love for children therefore co-existed alongside more ambivalent attitudes towards motherhood among enslaved women who rightly feared that their children might be wrenched away or otherwise fail to survive under the slave regime.
Motherhood is associated with nurturing and caring for infants and children, but idealized models of maternal responsibility resting exclusively with biological mothers often fail to convey a wider picture and exclude others who perform the labor of care and nurture. Moreover, racial discrimination has excluded enslaved women from the dominant ideology of private, domestic motherhood and denigrated their ability to mother at the very same time that white enslavers ironically left their infants in the sole charge of enslaved women. Black women’s mothering under enslavement took multiple forms, including non-biological “shared” mothering and the “other mothering” of white children. “Mother is a verb,” notes Sarah Knott, a point lent credence by the arduous nature of enslaved mothers’ work.
Motherhood was essential to the thriving development of slavery because the regime depended upon the reproduction of an enslaved labour force. From 1662 onwards, the Virginia law of partus sequitur ventrem rendered the child of any enslaved woman a slave themselves, and similar legislation spread across the Southern colonies. Slaveholders increasingly began to regard their female slaves as both labourers and potential reproducers for future economic enterprises. By the early nineteenth century, the abolition of the international slave trade meant reproduction became even more profitable as it became illegal to import slaves from abroad. This dual exploitation of enslaved mothers hence grew more entrenched over time.
The nineteenth century saw an increasing separation of “public work” and “private home” and the growing sanctification of biological motherhood as the culmination of women’s allegedly innate caring and nurturing roles. But in the antebellum South enslaved people lived under a unique set of relationships with specific power dynamics. So although enslaved women sought to survive the regime via their motherhood, this was not always a positive, empowering experience due to enslavers’ exploitation of their chattels’ motherhood for their own ends. As well as separating mothers and their offspring, enslavers also forced enslaved women into arduous “other mothering” of white and enslaved infants and children.
Little is known about enslaved women who remained childless through infertility rather than choice. The surviving evidence makes it hard to differentiate between women who were deliberately childless and those unable to bear infants. Childless women obviously missed out on parenthood’s pleasures. Despite the ordeal of slavery, motherhood gave women the opportunity to express maternal love, to receive affection from children, to gain a sense of worth, to give and receive comfort, and to nurture—notwithstanding all the agonies of sale, separation, ill-health, physical punishments and death that enslavement brought. Women without children also remained more vulnerable to sale and separation at the hands of slaveholders who wanted the future profits of offspring, whether they wanted to become mothers or not. Women who desired not to bear children (rather than those unable to have them) used whatever means they could in an attempt to control their fertility. Some chewed cotton roots – readily available to enslaved laborers – believing they had contraceptive properties. Interviewed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, Mary Gaffney described “cheating” her enslaver out of the potential value of her offspring:
I cheated Maser, I never did have any slaves to grow and Maser he wondered what was the matter. I tell you son, I kept cotton roots and chewed them all the time but I was careful not to let Maser know of catch me, so I never did have any children while I was a slave. Then when slavery was over … we had five children.
More rarely, enslaved mothers sometimes attempted infanticide. Lou Smith remembered a woman who bore three children who were subsequently sold when they reached the age of one or two, an experience that ‘broke her heart.” So when she gave birth for a fourth time she refused to relinquish her infant. Once the baby reached two months old, “she got up and give it something out of a bottle and purty soon it was dead.” Such desperately tragic practices denied enslavers valuable future offspring and meant enslaved women would not bring infants into the harsh world of bondage.
The vast majority of enslaved women, however, found that motherhood brought happiness and pleasure despite the hard work it entailed, because women provided each other with vital peer support and cooperation to enable the bearing and raising of children. So the biological process of giving birth could be less significant than helping each other to care for and nurture offspring. Sharing childcare responsibilities in a more communal way than in white society, enslaved women adopted flexible forms of mothering, including relying on the support of step-parents, wider kin networks, and female peers. Women fostered systems of support and “shared” mothering regardless of whether one was a “biological” mother or not. For example, some women shared their breast milk with enslaved babies other than their own. Charlie Davenport said various women breastfed him after his mother died during childbirth: “Any woman what had a baby ‘bout my age would nuss me so I growed up in de quarters en wuz ez well en happy ez any other chile.” In practising such forms of shared mothering, enslaved women conveyed their camaraderie and gendered forms of mutual support. This togetherness represented one of the myriad of ways in which women strove to survive, and hence to indirectly resist, their enslavement.
White Southern women (as well as men) manipulated enslaved motherhood, typically in the more “domestic” sphere of their households (so conveying how this domestic realm stood at the heart of the regime). As “co-masters” of the regime, slaveholding women utilized enslaved mothers as de facto or “other” mothers to raise white children. White women left their infants in enslaved women’s arms to nurture, care for, and sometimes even to suckle. Enslaved in Mississippi, WPA respondent Mattie Logan described her mother’s wetnursing:
Mother nursed all Miss Jennie’s children…. They say I nursed on one
breast while that white child, Jennie, pulled away at the other! That was a pretty good idea for the mistress, for it didn’t keep her tied to the place and she could visit around with her friends most any time she wanted.
Logan’s mother endured the exhaustion caused by simultaneously feeding two babies (her own and that of her white slaveholder) while her mistress enjoyed the liberating benefits of not breastfeeding. The power inherent in slaveholding placed the needs of white infants above those of enslaved mothers and babies in this highly intimate and exploitative intervention into black mothering practices.
Researching the lives of enslaved mothers can be challenging and distressing for historians, yet we have a duty to document the everyday experiences of enslaved women’s lives in the past, lives that complicate our understandings of motherhood’s meanings and manifestations for women across time and space.
Emily West (@emilywestfahey) is a professor of American history at the University of Reading, UK. Her publications include Enslaved Women in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), Family or Freedom: The Expulsion and Enslavement of Free People of Color in the Antebellum South (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2012), Chains of Love: Slave Couples in Antebellum South Carolina (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004). Her writings on motherhood include “Fertility Control, Shared Nurturing, and Dual Exploitation: The Lives of Enslaved Mothers in the Antebellum United States” (with Erin Shearer) Women’s History Review 27, 6 (2018), 1006-1020 and “‘Mothers’ Milk’: Slavery, Wet-Nursing, and Black and White Women in the Antebellum South” (with Rosie Knight), Journal of Southern History 83, 1 (Feb. 2017), 37-68. Some of this post is drawn from these two articles.
 George P. Rawick, The American Slave, Supplement Series 2, Vol. 5. Texas Narratives, Pt 4 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979), 1453.
 WPA Slave Narrative Project, Oklahoma Narratives, Vol. 13, (Federal Writer’s Project, United States Work Projects Administration; Manuscript Division, Library of Congress), 302.
 Rawick, The American Slave, Supplement Series 1, Vol. 6. Mississippi Narratives, Pt 1, 558.
 WPA Slave Narrative Project, Oklahoma Narratives, Vol. 13, 187.
Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Stephanie Jones-Rogers, They were Her Property: White Women as Slaveowners in the American South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019)
Sarah Knott, Mother Is a Verb: An Unconventional History (London: Viking, 2019)
Jennifer Morgan, “Partus Sequitur Ventrem: Law, Race, and Reproduction in Colonial Slavery,” Small Axe 22, 1 (2018), 1-17
“Mothering Slaves: Comparative Perspectives on Motherhood, Childlessness, and the Care of Children in Atlantic Slave Societies,” vol. 1 & 2: Slavery and Abolition 38, 2 (2017) & Women’s History Review 27, 6 (2018).
There must be a clearer way to say whatever this sentence is saying: Racial discrimination and poverty mean that a narrow conceptualization of biological motherhood associated with domestic care and nurture is not applicable to all in the past or present.
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Reply to Christopher Henson. Racial discrimination and poverty are a direct result of slavery in America. It’s a subject systematically evaded because the truth hurts. Kept alive and covertly remanufactured through fear—a mindset of supremacy shared not by all conservatives but enough to create a divided nation. Domestic care and nurturing are applicable in many cases. I am now 78, and I can remember how my mother was treated when I was a child. If you haven’t been there, you don’t know the feeling.
Motherhood when you were a slave was very hard, it was a special source of tension since it combined the use of women labor with control in their most private lives while also allowing for development of bonds necessary for survival. I also think that it was very hard back then, slaves would get heart broken when they had to give away their child after turning 1 or 2, so instead they would kill them after turning 2 month old. Some women would even eat cotton to prevent her from having babies.