Traditional Gender Roles and Slavery

Traditional Gender Roles and Slavery

 Laura Ware

It is universally known that the relationship between slaves and their owners is by its very nature unbalanced and heavily abusive, with the owner exerting complete control over a slave’s life. However what is slightly lesser known is the dichotomy between the treatment of male slaves and the treatment of female slaves by their masters. Whilst the relationship remains intensely abusive there is evidence of gendered treatment of slaves wherein women were held to a different standard to men and often given different jobs. In this essay I shall examine this dichotomy and consider whether this gendered treatment may have had an impact on the status of slaves within American society.

Gendered treatment refers to the differential treatment of people based on their genders. Traditional gender roles dictate that a man must be strong, resilient and unemotional and that they are superior to women because of this combined with their intelligence. Conversely women were considered to be mere chattel of the men of the house, they were thought to be delicate creatures who could not do manual labour. It is clear that slavery in the American south challenged this. Through observation of the treatment of slaves it can be seen that certain challenges were made to these traditional roles however this was not the status quo across the slave industry. Within the American South slaves were for the most part treated equally compared to countries like Haiti where slave women were in a better position to negotiate their servitude.

One of the key areas that demonstrate a equal treatment of the sexes in the American South was the methods of punishment It is interesting to observe that violent punishments such as whipping and poor living conditions were shared by both males and females. The image below demonstrates the whipping of female slaves as punishment in the South.

It is interesting to note that the second image portrays a female mistress beating a slave thus showing that discipline was not strictly limited to the males of the house. This is an interesting juxtaposition to the usual stereotype of females having little say in the running of the household. Moreover it shows women as capable of violence in the same way that men are and are capable of such strength to effectively discipline a slave.  It is also an interesting challenge to the usual standard that women were the weaker sex and should be treated delicately, the fact that the masters were so willing to give out such a harsh punishment reinforces this idea that they were beneath the usual gender roles.

Whilst violence against slaves was common regardless of gender, sexualised violence was almost strictly restrained to female slaves. In the American South female slaves were highly prized due to their low cost and their breeding abilities. This was considered to be one of the best ways for a slave owner to increase slave numbers without being forced to buy new slaves. Hallam states that fertile slaves were forced to bear children every two and a half years[2] and as a result could often expect a reduced workload whilst pregnant. This may appear to be a benefit to the women as they would not have to work as hard but more often than not the pregnancy would be a result of rape. The sexual abuse of women was not uncommon, African women were originally brought from Africa to act as a companion for the male slaves. Even more frequent was the rape of female slaves by their owners, in colonial Virginia the issue was so prevalent that King Charles II legislated against fornication with slaves in 1661[3]. Furthermore, in her article on women under Antebellum law, Stone details the problems faced by female slaves when attempting to obtain justice for the sexual abused that they faced both by their masters and any outsiders.[4] One of the problems highlighted by Stone was the lack of legislation to protect slaves against rape by their masters. Pre-existing legislation on such matters merely refers to compensation that a master may receive if an outsider rapes his slave, this is because such an act would be classed as trespassing on a person’s property. Due to the fact that an owner could not trespass on his own property it means that a master could not rape his slave by legal definition.
This sexualised gender-specific violence was not limited to the American South, Donovan contends that women in French colonies were regularly assaulted by white male slave owners[5]. In his article on Ile Royal he argues that over half of the adult female slaves had given birth to illegitimate children as a result of the sexual abuse by their masters. He also offers a psychological reasoning behind this abuse, stating that the masters obtained pleasure and gratification through inflicting pain on their slaves. This could explain why women were whipped in the American South, instead of it being due to a gender eradication it could be a sexually motivated punishment.

A key issue that resulted from the abuse was the problem of children fathered by the slave owner. Under usual lines of succession in Britain the child should take the father’s status however due to the mixed race of the child this was reversed to ensure that the children would take the slave status of the mother. This can be seen as a contributing factor to the forced breeding as aforementioned. However, in other countries sexual relationships between slave owners and slaves actually resulted in the slaves receiving a higher status, better treatment and in some cases freedom for themselves and their children. In Saint-Domingue Article IX of the Code Noir offered punishment to masters that fathered children with their slaves by having them removed from their ownership.[6] Escott offers a differing perspective on the sexual relationship between slave and master and states that some slaves pursued their masters in an attempt to gain status or advantage. He even states that there may be some real affection between the two however does not state whether this sexual relationship ever resulted in freedom for the slave involved or any advantage[7]. This is further supported by Donovan in his article on Ile Royale[8] who also adds that women would often use sex as a means of obtaining better living conditions. If this is true then it completely subverts the usual gender status of men being higher than women, in this case female Africans obtained a higher status than African enslaved males upon manumission.


This image works to link the sexualisation of black women to the luxuries that a coloured women could obtain if they were able to gain favour with their masters. The painting was complete during the time when the slave abolition movement was gaining momentum and has been seen by art scholars as a subtle work of support for the movement. It can show the potential for women to live a free life and to have these luxuries for themselves after enslavement. It reinforces gender roles through the feminine clothing that the subject is wearing and the apparent domesticity of the woman. Smalls argues that the painting shows female empowerment and the importance of motherhood and strength[10].

Sexual relationships with their masters was not the only way in which the gendered treatment of females worked to obtain freedom for female slaves. As women were portrayed as delicate creatures that needed to be protected the violent treatment of owners would, on occasion, entice outside help. J.M. Duffield was such a man that felt the violent treatment of Maria, a slave girl, was unbearable and disparaging. He wrote to one Mr Ballard, who was a slave trader and planter and heavily involved with interstate trading, requesting that he be allowed to buy Maria from her owner and in turn free her[11]. There is an indication that he may have fathered a child with the slave therefore bringing sex back into the mix however it could be that he felt whipping women was not something that should be done regardless of gender. The letter illustrates that whilst the violent treatment was normal there was more of a protest when females were subjected to this punishment compared to men.

Another area where the gender roles were convoluted were the labour that slaves were forced to do. In most American South plantations men and women were expected to do the same work although women who could be used for breeding were given slightly easier work. Women who were beyond the child rearing age were expected to work as men did which would indicate that beyond pregnancy female slaves were thought of as the same as male. Women were also given more skilled labour work such as cooking and were often placed within the master’s household for working. This could be due to the master wishing to have his concubine close by or because the females of the house wished to have a female slave nearby to assist them. This may have enabled female slaves to get closer to their masters which may have led to their freedom, something that male slaves would rarely have the opportunity to do.

The image below is a scene from San Domingue during the slave revolt. The image portrays the violent aggression shown towards the slave owners after years of enslavement. The image also fails to portray any women that may have been involved in the revolt. This may indicate that women were not involved with the violent proceedings during the revolution which could confirm that traditional gender roles were in place and that women were not allowed to fight in the revolution. It also seems to suggest that women were not capable of such violence, whether receiving violence or giving it out. There are no female attackers or victims in this picture it merely focuses on the masculine side of the issue. This could indicate that only men were strong enough to be able to overpower the white overseers and that white women could not be held accountable. This could be because they did not think that women could have partaken in the slave trade or because they did not believe in committing acts of violence against women.


Through an analysis of the intricacies of the slave trade it can be seen that the industry changed and warped traditional gender roles depending on the situation at hand. One unifying element was the constant sexual degradation of female slaves whether through forced position or through forced breeding. Rape, as it still is, was used to empower white males and reaffirm their authority over females and over slaves as a whole. Female slaves were treated as much as property as white women were however they were more violently beaten alongside having no legal rights. Even in the American South where slaves were strictly considered as property there still existed gendered treatment to a certain extent. This may have however contributed to the rise of feminism after the abolition of slavery. The fact that female slaves were often expected to work alongside men and were punished in similar ways may have taught females that they were just as capable as men. Moreover the gendered treatment has been shown to have worked well for certain women, it enabled them to have leverage over their masters through their sexuality and allowed for them to be set free in certain circumstances. It also enabled them to bargain for a better quality of life especially if they birthed their master’s bastard children. For men however gendered treatment did not allow for much benefit, they were expected to bear the most labour intensive jobs as well as being expected to lead and participate in rebellion. It is interesting that even within a society that degraded Africans to a level beneath humans social gender constructions were still maintain within the treatment of slaves. This shows that gender roles is something that transcends history and slavery can be seen as a statement that although these roles exist they are not always binding.


[2] Hallam, J. Men, Women, and Gender. PBS. 2004. (Last Accessed 29th May 2015)

[3] Laws of Virginia March 1661-2, Act C. King Charles II

[4] Stone, A. Interracial Sexual Abuse and Legal Subjectivty in Antebellum Law and Literature. American Literature, vol 81, number 1, March 2009 p3

[5] Donovan, Ken. Female Slaves as Sex­ual Vic­tims in Île Royale Aca­di­en­sis, [S.l.], May.2014. ISSN 1712 – 7432. Avail­able at: <http://​jour​nals​.hil​.unb​.ca​.off​cam​pus​.lib​.wash​ing​ton​.edu/​i​n​d​e​x​.​p​h​p​/​A​c​a​d​i​e​n​s​i​s​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​v​i​e​w​/​22043​/​25579>. last accessed June 9th 2015

[6] King Louis XIV, Code Noir 1789 (Last Accessed 29th May 2015)

[7] Escott, P. Slavery Remembered. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill (1979) p46

[8] Op Cit. Donovan paragraph 17

[9] Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist, Portrait d’une negress, 1800, Oil on Canvas, Paris, Musee du Louvre

[10] Smalls, J. Slavery is a Woman Nineteenth-Century Artwork Worldwide (Last Accessed June 9th 2015)

[11] Let­ters to R. C. Bal­lard regard­ing slave woman abuse, J.M. Duffield to Col. R.C. Bal­lard, May29, 1848 From Jack­son (“Pri­vate and in Con­fi­dence) http://​www​.pbs​.org/​w​g​b​h​/​a​i​a​/​p​a​r​t​4​/​4​h​3​4​3​6​t​.​h​tml (Last Accessed June 9th 2015)

[12] The Haitian Revolution. Artist Unknown

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