By Lucy Prothero and Mary Walters
Historical scholarship on slave owning women during the Civil War emphasizes that many took on new and more public duties after their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons left home to fight in the war. During the antebellum period, in contrast, white female mistresses were understood to tend – rather than rule – their homes. Although white women were not masters of their household, as that job was left to fathers and husbands, they cared for their families by supervising the domestic labor of household slaves. Slave owning is socially constructed, meaning that this behavior was learned.1 Considering the gendered division of managerial labor among slave owners, women most frequently engaged the institution within their households rather than in the fields. This is particularly true of those who owned plantations (typically defined by the presence of twenty or more slaves) as white women did not usually oversee field hands. At the same time, household slaves were not confined to the domestic sphere, and much of their labor served commercial or public purposes. For example, Drury Lacy owned slaves, and Mary Lacy managed them in and around their home and the campus. Few slave owning woman kept records of their experiences, and we are left to make educated guesses about much that we would like to know. Although Mary Lacy’s letters provide insight into her life and Davidson College in the 1850s, they also leave us with unanswered questions about her experiences as a slave owner.
Like that of non-slave owning women, the world of slave owning women centered on their homes and families. They spent the majority of their lives as wives and mothers whose responsibilities included cooking, cleaning, making and mending clothing, nursing the sick, and raising an average of seven children. They both performed this labor themselves or ensured that this work was completed by other women, including their daughters.2 Slave owning women also specifically deployed the labor of enslaved women and children to complete much of this domestic work. For that reason, mistresses must also be considered managers. In her letters, Lacy describes ordering slaves to shop for her family and carry out other household chores. She also relied on enslaved girls to provide care for her small children.
In contrast to popular stereotypes of the Southern belle living a life of perpetual ease and picnics, historians have conceptualized the households of slave owners as work places. Historian Jeanne Boydston, whose research focused on women and work during the nineteenth century, emphasizes that although women’s labor added measurable value to their households, housework and parenting have traditionally been undervalued and uncompensated. Simply put, Americans have long seen women’s work as a “different order of activity from the labor that men performed,” unrelated to the generation of wealth, and limited to the private sphere of their home.3 The ahistorical inaccuracy of this is particularly true of slave owning women. Thavolia Glymph, a scholar of antebellum Southern women, elaborates upon the significance of slave owning women’s labor and cautions us that slave-owning households were not just residential spaces for whites but the sites of wealth generation through the exploitation of unfree laborers. White women oversaw this, and she adds that these households should rightly be considered as part of the public sphere.4
If we understand women’s central role managing slaves, then we also appreciate that slave ownership facilitated economic and social advancement that benefited male and female slave owners alike. Slave owning women, no less than men, were reliant on the production and reproduction of their slaves. Mary Lacy benefited from her slaves because they afforded her social status and enabled her to enjoy a higher standard of living than she otherwise would have. Lacy could not have cared for her family and performed the social duties expected of her as the wife of a college president if she was personally responsible for all of the work that Lacy family slaves performed. By directing slaves to complete household chores, Lacy was able to direct her time and energy elsewhere, including the entertaining of college guests.
Women who managed household slaves on large plantations and women like Mary Lacy, who managed a smaller number of slaves in a town, shared the privilege that their white skin and ownership of black bodies offered them. One of those privileges was the right to use violence against enslaved people without fear of repercussions. No less than men, slave owning women dominated their slaves. Historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers, who wrote about the socialization of white girls in slave owning households, explains that mothers taught their daughters how to be effective slave mistresses from young ages when they were given slaves as presents and when slaves were compelled to defer to white children as their superiors. Slave owning families socialized young girls to coerce, control, and punish enslaved people so that they would grow into women who could effectively do so in their own households. Jones-Rogers thus challenges the stereotype that white women were incapable of brutality. Rather, she argues that slave mistresses often inflicted terrible punishments upon their slaves and normalized violence beginning with the punishment of enslaved children.5 In other words, as Glymph explains, “Male dominance was not the controlling force within the plantation household;” rather violence routinely “came from the hands of women.”6
Early-nineteenth century society idealized white women as pious, pure, domestic, and submissive, but slave owning women, by necessity, had to be forceful, too. The smooth operation of the household depended upon the compliance of enslaved laborers, and mistresses had to ensure the obedience of slaves through a spectrum of violent behavior.7 Slave owners saw no disconnect between their gendered ideals and the realities of slavery. They offered Biblical justifications for enslavement, and like their male counterparts, female slave owners moralized their brutality through their faith.8 Lacy encouraged the violent disciplining of slaves while welcoming slaves into the church through baptism. These were not contradictions to her. We can reasonably assume that Lacy was to some degree violent towards her slaves and adhered to the social norm of her time.
Republican Motherhood also shaped gender roles in the antebellum South as mothers were tasked with raising sons to be upstanding and virtuous citizens.9 This important duty justified women’s education as long as their learning was directed towards the well-being of their families. For Lacy, that family included her own sons as well as the young men attending Davidson College. It was made obvious through her letters that Lacy was very affectionate towards her children. She also mothered some of the students at Davidson, taking a particular liking to Ed Scales and Sam Snow, worrying over them like they were her own. She did not show the same concern for enslaved children, however. For example, she sought to separate a young girl from her family in order to help care for her children. In other words, maternal feelings did not extend across racial lines, and we must understand motherhood in the antebellum South as racialized.
That dynamic extended to their interactions with other mothers. Mistresses worked with enslaved women in their households every day and formed relationships that ranged from pleasant to tortured, perhaps including a sense of shared womanhood and motherhood. Historians today concur that proponents of slavery in the antebellum period exaggerated the extent of any such sisterhood and that slavery created an unbridgeable gap between mistresses and their slaves. This gap is apparent in Lacy’s household in the way she refers to her slaves in her letters. She was often indifferent towards them and their suffering. When a slave of hers fell ill, Lacy was reluctant to believe her, even after the doctor proved otherwise.
Ultimately, slave owning women used their positions to garner respect in the private and public spheres. Without slave labor, the lifestyle Mary Lacy enjoyed would have been impossible. Her identify as a mother, wife, Christian, and member of the Davidson College community was contingent upon fulfilling her duties as a white woman of her class, and that contingent upon owning slaves.