The Role of Women in Slave Communities

"Am I not a woman and a sister?"


Understanding the role the women played in the slave trade and community is important to offer a new dynamic to the study of slave culture in general. Not only were slave women subordinate because of race but they also shared the trials of the oppression of the female gender. Women slaves played a key role in the development of slave communities through the development of African Sexuality, Family Structure and Economic Productivity. It is therefore infinitely important that we must understand the slave trade from a female perspective to understand the development of these slave communities.

   African Sexuality

"Sable Beauties and Ebony Queens"

The African female was ascribed not only economic responsibilities when purchased as a slave. Often sexual duties and childbearing were of primary importance to the plantocracy and white men were inexplicably drawn to the ‘exotic charms’ of African womanhood. Throughout the slave trade, black women often were represented and observed through the sexually repressed European perspective that viewed them as immoral and promiscuous.


Many viewed black female’s lack of modesty as a sign of their impaired moral nature and increased sex drive. The view of the African female as a manipulating temptress thus emerged and it was believed that she used it to her advantage to achieve favors and obtain prestige. Another emerging view of black women was promoted by the religious faction. These opponents of slavery saw the black woman as an innocent victim of white male brutality and lust. They sought to defend the “violated chastity” of “sable females.”


Not all images of African women were so negative; in fact there were many favorable accounts of black women’s attractiveness. Abolitionists and others of the time romanticized and idealized African femininity by referring to them as “Ebony Queens” and “Sable Beauties.” One European slave holder, John Stedman, contested that white men preferred black women over white women. The picture featured above, is a portrait painted of Stedman’s beloved slave mistress, Joanna. Evidence indicates that Stedman respected her and bought her freedom.

Unfortunately, however, this idealized view of the black woman did not dominate conceptions of the time. Many European observers saw African women as rugged and animal-like because they were physically capable of doing the same work in the fields as their male counterparts. White female servants were not capable of performing the same tasks and so the "robustness of form" of black females was negatively compared to European women. There is also evidence of numerous affairs between white men and black women creating a large mulatto population and greatly inciting the anger of a small European female population.

                        Family Structure and Fertility



            "A slave family being sold of at an auction"                                                                                                              "An idealistic view of  family structure in slave society"

    There are a few differing views on the formation of marriage in the slave system of the Atlantic World by today's historians and cultural analysts. While structuralists claim that family formation was just another form of domination by the white man, cultural theorists contend that family structure assisted in forming kinship ties and other forms of culture within the community. Slave marriage unions tended to be rather unstable due to the fact that they lacked a basis in social and economic exchange. Although in theory a slave man owned his wife, the truth remained that legally she and the offspring of such a union were the property of the slave holder and were at his will. More often than not, slave families were sold off separately and split up therefore making the family structure of African slave societies weak and unstable. Slave marriage unions were also weakened by the insistence that African slaves were promiscuous which was an effect of the institution of slavery. Slave owners frequently engaged in affairs with their female slaves and whites often mistook polygamy in African societies to be a sign of promiscuity.

Family Patterns

Slaves Alone

    In the later stages of the slave trade there was some evidence of single residence when slave families were separated by sale or plantation-directed living arrangements. They would often consider themselves married if they were living as part of an extended family unit, however slaveholders only counted those with mates on estate as "married."

Matrifocality and the Matrideme

    Slaves with children often lived in matrifocal or "mother-centered" family units in which a mother's ties to her children is the building block in kinship formation. This West Indian family system is referred to as a "matrideme" and the role of the father in these systems was greatly diminished because men were not bound emotionally or economically to their children. Also, because the mother's relatives generally lied on the plantation, the mother's significance in the family was of great importance. Economically speaking, these mother-child bonds were the classification used in the trade of slave families. By the mid 1700s, plantation lists only recognized the mother-child couple. This family structure was fairly common in the sugar plantations of Trinidad, where in 1813, 22.1 percent of slaves belonged to this distinction.

The Nuclear Family


                       "five generations of a family born into slavery on a South Carolina plantation"   

Newly found evidence suggests that conjugal unions among slave relations was more common than previously recorded. Against the difficult conditions of the slave community, slaves were able to engage in marital unions by choice rather than to satisfy planters or church officials. Marriage was the most common in the West Indies in the 1600s, declining thereafter. In few cases, some slave owners forced their slaves into marriages to prevent them from union with a slave from another plantation. Also, efforts of Christian missionaries created many marital unions of slaves into nuclear family units that were often broken up due to the breakup of couples for sale. The breakup of family units in sale become less frequent with the decline of the slave trade in the Caribbean and soon colonial legislatures enacted laws to prevent the separation of families in sale. In Caribbean colonies it is also important to note that slave marital unions were protected by the church. In North American colonies, however, slave marriages did not receive this protection.


    Due to their traditions from Africa and highly imbalanced sex ratios on the plantation, marriages of one man and several wives (and vice versa) was not too uncommon in slave society. Women thus became a commodity in slave societies where only skilled slaves and artisans were able to amass several wives. Although polygamy was the preferred union of African slaves, due to plantation conditions and the rapid conversion of many slaves to Christianity, it became less and less common towards the later part of the slave trade. The origin of polygynous unions lies in African heritage where the concepts of bride wealth (the sums males paid to acquire their economically supportive wives) and female dowry (the sum paid to the groom from the brides family in marriage). However, it was not advantageous for a female to join a polygamous union unless a man's resources were great enough to raise her standard of living significantly. Usually in West Africa, men who engaged in polygamy were seeking to expand their land wealth and thus needed multiple wives to acquire and maintain this territory. Under different circumstances in Caribbean, however, these types of unions were only occasional.

.                                          Economic Productivity

Women slaves worked in two distinct areas that benefited slaveholders directly; these being domestic work and field work where they performed primarily unskilled agricultural tasks. Women were often not admitted to work in the skilled divisions of labor that offered more food and resources. Although the female influence in productivity is somewhat unremarkable it is notable that women fulfilled the roles in the feild because young male slave grew increasingly unavailable.

Women as Domestics


    In slave societies of the Caribbean in the late 18th century domestic female slaves were more common on plantations where sugar production was the most rapid. Although this is somewhat true, more often than not slave assignments were based according to what was the most profitable for the slave owner. Domestic slaves were usually Creoles but were often Mulatto and African as well. Although domestic work did not hold the same status of skilled labor, some benefits were received as domestic slaves. Clothes, medicine and food were often provided to domestics and women slave often used domestic labor as a means of gaining freedom. There are many instances where personal slaves were informally freed while abroad with their masters and the personal relationships with slave masters rewarded them such privileges. In many cases slaves often preferred domestic labor to field labor but as time wore on the trend was to move women into the fields to replace the declining total of young male slaves.

Women in Field Labor



                          ""Female laborers in the coastal cotton plantations where they constituted nearly 60% of the labor force"

    Most field work on Caribbean plantations was organized into a three-tiered gang system. The first tier was composed of adult slaves that performed heavy work like digging holes for sugar which was said to be the most demanding of field tasks. The second tier was made up of older and younger slaves that did the lighter work on the plantation. These tasks consisted of planting cane, bundling it and carrying it to the carts. The younger children on the plantation covered the cane with dirt, this "little gang" would most likely make up the third tier of production. As the influx of young African male slaves decreased, women slaves were moved from the house to the field where they composed nearly 60% of the labor force. Women slaves, however tended to compose the second gang of sugar production while the male slaves dug the holes. The fact that female African slaves were versatile in both areas, domestic and agricultural, created the popular image of them as the time as somewhat animalistic because of their unparalleled female strength.

Artisan and Skilled Positions for Women

    Female salves were rarely allowed to enter skilled positions as craftsmen or artisans but a few skilled positions prevailed among domestics. In particular, only those positions of seamstress and cook were considered skilled positions held by female slaves. Other semi-skilled positions included nurses, nursery heads and animal keepers. Many benefits were associated with these skilled positions, one of them being increased respect among fellow slaves and their masters. There is record of many skilled slaves earning widespread respect and sometimes deferential terms of address.Also in addition to this, skilled slaves benefited from cash payments from which they could purchase their freedom.