Sexual Relations Between Elite White Women and Enslaved Men in the Antebellum South: A Socio-Historical Analysis
Coupled with the notion of elite white female sexual virtue was that of white female vulnerability—the idea that plantation wives and daughters needed to be protected, defended, and sheltered. Framing women in this way served as a means of patriarchal control. As political scientist Iris Young (2003) explains, “the role of the masculine protector puts those protected, paradigmatically women and children, in a subordinate position of dependence and obedience.”
White women whose affairs with slaves were made known faced varying degrees of public humiliation. When a planter’s daughter or wife was discovered to be pregnant by a slave, great pains were taken to cover up the pregnancy. The resulting child might have been sold into slavery, but infanticide was not an uncommon means of avoiding scandal
Indeed, planter-class women were considered the property of their husbands (Hodes, 1997, p. 51). Their freedom and mobility was severely limited; for example, they were generally not allowed to travel without an older male chaperone (Clinton, p. 136). Spousal abuse was often considered a legitimate method for men to control their wives (Hodes, p. 72). Clinton calls Southern plantation mistresses “prisoners in disguise” (p. 145). This is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but the fact remains that upper class white women, whatever luxuries their privileged race and class status afforded them, faced a unique set of limiting patriarchal dicta.
Indeed, in private, many plantation women were unhappy with their lack of freedom and the expectation that they remain dutiful, obedient, pleasant, and cheerful while their husbands had affairs with or raped female slaves.2 Knowing that the mixed-race slave children who surrounded them were their husbands’ offspring was both humiliating and heartbreaking.
Southern women, who generally married at a younger age than those in the North—not infrequently at fifteen or sixteen years old (Clinton, pp. 85-86)—were often left abandoned on plantations while their husbands travelled for business, pleasure, or military duty (Clinton, p. 103). The life of a plantation mistress was often lonely and sad.
Sex Between White Women and Male Slaves: An Overview
The fact that affairs between planter-class women and slaves were relatively uncommon is unsurprising; white women in the South were sexually restricted as compared to their male counterparts, and nineteenth-century contraceptive techniques were not nearly effective or accessible enough to ward off the possibility of pregnancy. Still, sexual contact between white women and black men did occur in slaveholding societies, more often than perhaps many are aware. The following is a list of factors that did or may have contributed to the incidence of such relations.
First, even though the sexuality of Southern white women was, as stated, heavily regulated, women were not as entirely sexually repressed as one might assume. According to historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1998), “slaveholding culture emphasized control of female sexuality; it did not deny its existence.” She says that white women “had a striking lack of neurotic inhibition.” Like their husbands, Southern women had pre- and extra- marital sex (though not as often).
The dangers of having sexual relations with a black man rather than a white man were enormous in terms of the possibility of producing a mixed-race child. However, although birth control and abortion methods in the nineteenth-century were not as widely used, safe, or accessible as they are today, they existed. Condoms made out of animal skin, membrane, oiled silk, and rubber were used along with other contraceptive techniques to prevent pregnancy (Caron, 2008, p. 16).
For much of the nineteenth-century, abortion was largely unregulated, and it was not limited to poor, immigrant, or black women; upper- and middle-class white women, too, had abortions (Caron, pp. 22-23). This would have allowed white women to have affairs with black men with some level of confidence that they would not be caught.
There is also a possibility that affairs between white women and slaves were simply not noticed or recorded as often as they occurred. While it may have been expected, to a certain extent, that white men would transgress morally (e.g. by having sexual relations with slaves), a white woman choosing to have sex with a black man might not have been considered a likely occurrence.
Additionally, an upper-class woman under suspicion of an affair with a slave could “readily invoke images of chastity in order to allay trouble for herself”—or in other words, accuse the slave of rape (Hodes, p. 135). Because black men (like black women) were seen as inherently lustful and prone to sexual vice, for an elite woman to have illicit sex with a black rather than a white man might have been a slightly safer bet; it was easier to blame a black man of rape than a white man.
Why these women chose to sexually abuse slaves probably varied by situation. Perhaps some of them were simply bored or sexually frustrated... It is possible the sexual exploitation of slaves by women who had little power in relation to white men was a source of enjoyment that created a feeling of power.
White women whose affairs with slaves were made known faced varying degrees of public humiliation. When a planter’s daughter or wife was discovered to be pregnant by a slave, great pains were taken to cover up the pregnancy. The resulting child might have been sold into slavery, but infanticide was not an uncommon means of avoiding scandal (Hodes, pp. 136-137).
Of course, scandal was not always avoided. In his 1837 autobiography, former slave Charles Ball describes meeting “the daughter of a wealthy planter, in one of the lower counties of Georgia” who had given birth to a mixed-race son. The family considered sending her out of state until the birth, but instead “the girl was kept in her father’s house, until the birth of her child, which she was not permitted to nurse; it being taken from her.” She was “degraded from her rank in society” and her child was sold into slavery.Continued on Next Page »