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Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery

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When black women were brought from Africa to the New World as slave laborers, their value was determined by their ability to work as well as their potential to bear children, who by law would become the enslaved property of the mother's master. In Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, Jennifer L. Morgan examines for the first time how African women' When black women were brought from Africa to the New World as slave laborers, their value was determined by their ability to work as well as their potential to bear children, who by law would become the enslaved property of the mother's master. In Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, Jennifer L. Morgan examines for the first time how African women's labor in both senses became intertwined in the English colonies. Beginning with the ideological foundations of racial slavery in early modern Europe, Laboring Women traverses the Atlantic, exploring the social and cultural lives of women in West Africa, slaveowners' expectations for reproductive labor, and women's lives as workers and mothers under colonial slavery. Challenging conventional wisdom, Morgan reveals how expectations regarding gender and reproduction were central to racial ideologies, the organization of slave labor, and the nature of slave community and resistance. Taking into consideration the heritage of Africans prior to enslavement and the cultural logic of values and practices recreated under the duress of slavery, she examines how women's gender identity was defined by their shared experiences as agricultural laborers and mothers, and shows how, given these distinctions, their situation differed considerably from that of enslaved men. Telling her story through the arc of African women's actual lives--from West Africa, to the experience of the Middle Passage, to life on the plantations--she offers a thoughtful look at the ways women's reproductive experience shaped their roles in communities and helped them resist some of the more egregious effects of slave life. Presenting a highly original, theoretically grounded view of reproduction and labor as the twin pillars of female exploitation in slavery, Laboring Women is a distinctive contribution to the literature of slavery and the history of women.


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When black women were brought from Africa to the New World as slave laborers, their value was determined by their ability to work as well as their potential to bear children, who by law would become the enslaved property of the mother's master. In Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, Jennifer L. Morgan examines for the first time how African women' When black women were brought from Africa to the New World as slave laborers, their value was determined by their ability to work as well as their potential to bear children, who by law would become the enslaved property of the mother's master. In Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, Jennifer L. Morgan examines for the first time how African women's labor in both senses became intertwined in the English colonies. Beginning with the ideological foundations of racial slavery in early modern Europe, Laboring Women traverses the Atlantic, exploring the social and cultural lives of women in West Africa, slaveowners' expectations for reproductive labor, and women's lives as workers and mothers under colonial slavery. Challenging conventional wisdom, Morgan reveals how expectations regarding gender and reproduction were central to racial ideologies, the organization of slave labor, and the nature of slave community and resistance. Taking into consideration the heritage of Africans prior to enslavement and the cultural logic of values and practices recreated under the duress of slavery, she examines how women's gender identity was defined by their shared experiences as agricultural laborers and mothers, and shows how, given these distinctions, their situation differed considerably from that of enslaved men. Telling her story through the arc of African women's actual lives--from West Africa, to the experience of the Middle Passage, to life on the plantations--she offers a thoughtful look at the ways women's reproductive experience shaped their roles in communities and helped them resist some of the more egregious effects of slave life. Presenting a highly original, theoretically grounded view of reproduction and labor as the twin pillars of female exploitation in slavery, Laboring Women is a distinctive contribution to the literature of slavery and the history of women.

30 review for Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery

  1. 5 out of 5

    Alok Vaid-Menon

    Black women continue to have the highest maternal mortality rates in the US. Data from the CDC’s Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System indicate that from 2007 to 2017, Black mothers died at a rate of 3.2 times that of their white peers. Black feminist historian Dr. Jennifer Morgan’s research on the experiences of enslaved Black women shows how since the 15th century there has been an ongoing colonial project of imagining Black women as possessing super human strength: incapable of experiencing Black women continue to have the highest maternal mortality rates in the US. Data from the CDC’s Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System indicate that from 2007 to 2017, Black mothers died at a rate of 3.2 times that of their white peers. Black feminist historian Dr. Jennifer Morgan’s research on the experiences of enslaved Black women shows how since the 15th century there has been an ongoing colonial project of imagining Black women as possessing super human strength: incapable of experiencing pain, especially during childbirth. From the 15th century as European explorers visited communities across Africa, they began a sustained process of homogenizing millions of Indigenous African people into newly minted racial categories. Their agenda was to “prove” that there were immutable differences between Europeans and Africans in order to justify chattel slavery. As part of this process, European writers and artists would create literary and visual depictions of African people for their audiences back home. Their renditions became prioritized over the reality of African people. Even before Africans became defined by skin color, European colonists began to construct racial difference by emphasizing (presumed) differences of gender, sexuality, and reproduction. In 1502 Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci wrote that Africans were different because they were “without shame” and practiced non-monogamous kinship. He argued that African women were “fruitful” and did not experience pain during childbirth because they were able to work immediately after giving birth. In 155 when British explorer William Towrson went to Guinea he wrote that Indigenous men and women were indistinguishable except for women’s long breasts. Dr. Morgan notes that descriptions of African women “almost always highlighted their fecundity along with their capacity for manual labor” (36). These “erroneous observations” of African women’s “mechanical and meaningless childbearing” (40) allowed Europeans to imagine African people as ideal for slavery because of their supposed intrinsic and infinite fertility and ability to work. The racist mythologies colonists wrote about African women continued to be prioritized over the actual experiences of African women, especially during childbirth. Dr. Morgan argues that from the 16th century on, the image of the “long-breasted” Black mother became the symbol that Europeans used to define African peoples as savage and inferior. Europeans turned to Black women as “evidence of a cultural inferiority that ultimately became encoded as racial difference” (49). African women’s bodies became used as evidence of “tangible barbarism,” and her “unwomanly” behavior “evoked an immutable distance between Europe and Africa on which the development of racial slavery depended” (49). In centering enslaved Black women’s experiences, Dr. Morgan shows ow gender has always been foundational to the construction of racism. In other words, racism is a gendered project. She also challenges the whiteness of women’s history for erasing the reality of slavery, arguing that unlike white women, Black women were never permitted access to domesticity and were never understood as weak or frail. Instead, they were forced to reproduce and conduct constant manual labor. The system of racial slavery made all Africans, regardless of reproductive capacity, “work in ways the English could not conceive of working themselves” (145) Some Initiatives Working Against Black Birth Mortality: Ancient Song Doula Services Black Mamas Matter Alliance (@blackmamasmatter) Black Women Birthing Justice (@birthingjustice) Groundswell Fund Birth Justice Fund Growing & Glowing (growing_glowing_moms) National Birth Equity Collective (birthequity.org) Sista Midwife Directory (@sistamidwife) SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective (@sistersong_woc) Spark Reproductive Justice (@sparkrjnow) The Black Maternal Health Caucus

  2. 5 out of 5

    Tortla

    I like the historiographic, feminist, multivalenced-and-constructed-identities elements of the text. But it was so frequently bogged down with statistics and dry charts that I had a tendency to skim. (I guess they were convincing bits of evidence for Morgan's points on the exploitation of women for hegemonic, race-defining, labor-providing ends...but only if you actually read them.) Overall, it's an interesting and convincing read. I'm not keen on the amount of technical evidence, especially sinc I like the historiographic, feminist, multivalenced-and-constructed-identities elements of the text. But it was so frequently bogged down with statistics and dry charts that I had a tendency to skim. (I guess they were convincing bits of evidence for Morgan's points on the exploitation of women for hegemonic, race-defining, labor-providing ends...but only if you actually read them.) Overall, it's an interesting and convincing read. I'm not keen on the amount of technical evidence, especially since it gets depressing to read for pages and pages about the objectification of women (e.g. being equated to cows, paired off in presumable breeding couples, set aside in wills with implicit hopes that they will accrue a sort of interest by reproducing). That said, some of the statistical information was revealing (such as the surprising amount of female slaves brought to the Americas, and the contrary-to-presumptions-of-domestic-work tendency for women to work in the fields). There were several other little nuggets of information for which I'm thankful to have read this little book. It certainly reinforced my liberal artsy appreciation of historical complexity, constructed identities and a pervasive hegemonic force against which our enlightened understanding of these complex issues has had to struggle. I'm sure there's a more succinct way of addressing my response to this book. I guess I just found it really repetitive and its arguments somewhat obvious, so I'm having a hard time pinpointing what makes it a valuable read. The analysis of iconography of African woman was revealing. And such detailed accounts of intellectual hypocrisy used to rationalize the institution of slavery is always comforting to read in that whole look-how-far-we've-come, we-can-fix-things kind of way. Plus, the historical nature of this text makes this sentiment more valid and less pandering/self-congratulatory than feelgood fiction addressing the oppression of black women might (*cough* The Help *cough*)...

  3. 4 out of 5

    Danielle Butler

    While Morgan's thesis is thought provoking, she fails to definitively connect reproduction as an integral part of life for the African slave woman. She stretches the limited source material and statistical data to represent the argument she is presenting. Overall a good read, but not fantastic scholarship. While Morgan's thesis is thought provoking, she fails to definitively connect reproduction as an integral part of life for the African slave woman. She stretches the limited source material and statistical data to represent the argument she is presenting. Overall a good read, but not fantastic scholarship.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Andee Nero

    This is a really short book because, as Morgan points out, a lot of what she says should be fairly obvious. Sometimes this comes off as redundancy. As she explains, if anything, the biggest point of her book is that "African women were there." She definitely accomplished this goal. I've read several books that claim to be specifically about the experience of African women, or that hope to emphasize their experience, but they fail whereas Morgan actually pulls this off. This is a really short book because, as Morgan points out, a lot of what she says should be fairly obvious. Sometimes this comes off as redundancy. As she explains, if anything, the biggest point of her book is that "African women were there." She definitely accomplished this goal. I've read several books that claim to be specifically about the experience of African women, or that hope to emphasize their experience, but they fail whereas Morgan actually pulls this off.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    Overall, I thought this was well-written, well-researched, and well-presented. I think Morgan could have focused more on sexual assault by slaveowners, as unfortunately that was pretty central to many enslaved women's repro experiences, but overall great book that makes a much-needed contribution to the field. Overall, I thought this was well-written, well-researched, and well-presented. I think Morgan could have focused more on sexual assault by slaveowners, as unfortunately that was pretty central to many enslaved women's repro experiences, but overall great book that makes a much-needed contribution to the field.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Allysa Khan

    A good historiographic depiction of the middle passage and Slavery in Imperial Britain. A refreshing argument on women's doubled labour power; one of reproductive labour and the other physical enslaved labour. A good introductory text for those interested in learning more about enslaved women's role in imperial expansionist efforts. A good historiographic depiction of the middle passage and Slavery in Imperial Britain. A refreshing argument on women's doubled labour power; one of reproductive labour and the other physical enslaved labour. A good introductory text for those interested in learning more about enslaved women's role in imperial expansionist efforts.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Christy

    An excellent example of how racism and sexism combine against Black women enslaved and used in the US South economy.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    * Understanding Oppression: African American Rights (Then and Now)

  9. 4 out of 5

    Joanna

    I read this as a textbook for one of my history classes. It presented a different perspective I had never considered and I was always eager to read sections from it.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ying

    Really liked her take on resistance within communities of laboring women of color. Also on temporality and the idea that the master's future is vested in her womb. Really liked her take on resistance within communities of laboring women of color. Also on temporality and the idea that the master's future is vested in her womb.

  11. 5 out of 5

    J

    A horrifying but relevant survey of the ways in which the West normalized slavery and colonization, through their burgeoning ideas of gender and race.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Inbetweendimensions

  13. 4 out of 5

    Liz

  14. 5 out of 5

    Tania

  15. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  16. 4 out of 5

    Nashira

  17. 5 out of 5

    Melanie Reimann

  18. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

  19. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kiron

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ella

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ali Olomi

  23. 5 out of 5

    Nicole Deshazer

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lynne

  25. 4 out of 5

    Rochelle Davidson Mhonde

  26. 5 out of 5

    Alison DeWitt

  27. 5 out of 5

    Catherine Flusche

  28. 5 out of 5

    Grace Mc

  29. 4 out of 5

    Sharmilah Singh

  30. 4 out of 5

    Philip

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