American slavery wasn't only a white issue – latest research shows that white women also benefited from it

As the United States continues to grapple with the realities and legacy of slavery, Americans proceed to challenge myths in regards to the country's history. One persistent myth is that slavery was a primarily male affair—that the buying, selling, trading, and taking advantage of slavery was largely done exclusively by white men.

While white women actually interacted with enslaved people in housekeeping and on a regular basis tasks, historians once argued that they weren’t lively owners and had very limited involvement in transactions. This was once widely seen as one reason why white women within the South supported the institution—they were believed to be blind to its dark side.

As an authority on the economic history of slaveryI do know the story is way more complex. In fact, slavery was unique by way of women's economic empowerment. Essentially, it was an early feminist institution – but exclusively for white women.

An advertisement from 1853 announced that a slave trader from Kentucky was buying “Negroes” for $1,200 to $1,250.
Slavery was big business.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A long-lasting myth

The myth that ladies didn’t profit from slavery has continued for several reasons. First, married women generally owned nothing of their very own before the American Civil War. The legal institution of Coverage made the property a lady brought into her marriage the property of her husband. This also meant that if a person was in debt, a creditor could demand the lady's property for payment.

Furthermore, there are only a few surviving records showing that white women within the South discussed the slave trade. Finally, in cases where women owned slaves – similar to through the death of their husbands – they often hired agents or male relatives to administer their affairs. In sum, there could be very little to suggest that white women were deeply involved within the slave trade.

Researchers have begun to challenge this view by transcend traditional archival sourcesThe revolutionary historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers has documented how incessantly white women were seen in all points of American slavery. Their most compelling evidence comes from interviews with the previous slaves themselves, who identified who they belonged to and explained how belonging to the “Frauleins” affected every aspect of their lives.

The “white feminism” of American slavery

Historians have also grappled with how American slavery was uniquely gendered—a minimum of for white women. While women within the North were trapped in marriage, within the South it was circumvented to provide married women the fitting to own slaves.

The first law of this type within the United States was the Mississippi Married Women's Property Act of 1839This law explicitly granted married white women ownership of enslaved individuals. Slavery was the driving force behind this modification: 4 of the five sections of the law refer only to ownership of enslaved individuals.

Other southern states passed similar laws within the pre-war period to free married women from responsibility for his or her husbands' debts and in addition to enable women to build up wealth independently during marriage.

Of course, the laws don’t necessarily reflect people’s actual behavior. latest research shows that white women were very heavily involved within the slave trade. In states where slaves were property – like a house or a automobile today – sales were recorded with the names of the buyers, sellers, and the enslaved individuals within the transaction. White women in states where their ownership rights to enslaved property were protected by law were way more more likely to be lively available in the market.

Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images
A print commercial from the time before the American Civil War broadcasts the sale of “valuable slaves.”
Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

A more in-depth evaluation of those records shows that white women were involved in almost a 3rd of all transactions, with buying and selling occurring equally. White women were particularly more likely to buy and sell female slaves, making up almost 40% of buyers and sellers.

Female slaves were particularly worthwhile economically because whoever owned a female slave mechanically became the owner of all her children. For slave owners, owning a female slave meant creating wealth that may span generations.

A historical irony

We must face a profound irony of American history. Slavery gave white women within the South significantly more economic independence than those within the North, they usually used this freedom with remarkable regularity. Women in slave states had legal rights to property, which half of the wealth within the South of the USA. Women within the North could only dream of such economic independence.

While historians once claimed that white women supported the Confederacy because they were blind to the fact of slavery, researchers now know that they could have been motivated by the identical economic impulses as their husbands. Slavery was actually a more gender-equitable institution than other types of property or wealth creation, so it's not surprising that white women had a vested interest in it.

Slavery was a matter for white men and ladies.

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