Female Slaves And Their Families Essay, Research Paper
Slave families had a tendency to be unstable, due to the nature of the institution of slavery. Masters could sell members of the family away if they desired, or could separate the family on the plantation, making them work in different areas. Despite this instability, the family tended to be a central part of a slave’s life, and women played a significant role in the development of this family.
Slave owners often did not differentiate between genders on the field, and thus the women often ended up working alongside men in fieldwork. However, within the slave community, there was a more marked gender differentiation. The men usually did chores such as trapping and hunting animals for food, while the women did more of the domestic duties. While these domestic duties tended to add more work to the slave woman’s day, the domestic work was a way for women to rebel against the master to a degree. Women did this work to keep themselves and their families healthy, and would on occassion help a runaway slave by providing for him or her. These responsibilities were in some ways a joy to slave women, since they “offered a degree of personal fulfillment.” One slave woman, Mary Colquitt, remarked that her grandmother and mother had often stayed up late sewing clothes for the children, saying, “Dey done it ’cause dey wanted to. Dey wuz workin’ for deyselves den.” (Jones, 29) Ironically, this work caring for themselves and their families also benifitted the slave owners, since healthy slaves meant that the masters could get more work out of them, and thus make more money when the crops were harvested.
The family was important to most slave women, and they had ways of making sure that they stayed together, though these weren’t foolproof. A woman assigned to the Big House when the rest of her family was on the fields could rebel, thus making “a mistress’s life miserable by literally doing nothing.” This would often cause the mistress to send the woman to the fields, which is what she wanted anyway, so she could be with her family. (25) Another way a young female slave could make it possible for herself to stay with her family was by getting pregnant at an early age. Masters refrained from the selling of women that demonstrated fertility, because they would be able to get a larger labor force from these women. Also, slave families with young children were more likely to be kept together. In these ways, women gained some control over keeping their families together as a unit.
Women slaves also represented an authority figure within their families and communities. Wives were often able to provoke otherwise nonaggressive husbands into acts of rebellion against the master. In addition, mothers often educated their children, teaching them how to sew or do other household chores that they would need to be able to do for their families. Elder women often held important positions within the community as well. These women often learned herbal medicine, and were viewed as the ‘doctors’ within their communities, which was especially important since the white doctor did not visit often. Ned Chaney said of his Granny Silla, “Ever’body set a heap of sto’ by her. I reckon, because she done ‘cumullated so much knowledge an’ because her head were so white.” (40-41)
Female slaves understandably did not want their children to become slaves, if it was possible at all to avoid it. Thus many women tried to escape with their children. Some felt that they’d rather kill their children than have them become slaves. A good example of this is Margaret Garner. She and her husband and children escaped with a group of other slaves in the winter of 1856, when the Ohio River was frozen over. They made it to the other side of the river (into freedom), but there their pursuers caught up with them. When it became evident to Margaret that they would not remain free, she attempted to kill her children and herself. She slit the throat of her little daughter (possibly her favorite), but was restrained before she could complete the task. She was then returned to her master, after a Commissioner decided that she was still legally a slave, but she drowned in a shipwreck while being sent back to Kentucky.