Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery

Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery

Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery

Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery


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.


Slaveowners in the early English colonies depended upon and exploited African women. They required women’s physical labors in order to reap the profits of the colonies and they required women’s symbolic value in order to make sense of racial slavery. Women were enslaved in large numbers, they performed critical hard labor, and they served an essential ideological function. Slaveowners appropriated their reproductive lives by claiming children as property, by rewriting centuries-old European laws of descent, and by defining a biologically driven perpetual racial slavery through the real and imaginary reproductive potential of women whose “blackness” was produced by and produced their enslavability.

African women were to be found throughout the early Atlantic world, as forced and free laborers, as wives of traders and settlers, and as traders and travelers in their own right. A narrowly proscriptive religious doctrine and an ultimate turn toward settler societies based on family migration on the part of the English (late starters in the scramble for New World possessions) tend to hide or obscure the extent to which black women figured in colonial settlements. Loudly voiced colonial complaints about too few (white) women on the one hand and the desirability of (black) male laborers on the other illustrate the problems of primary sources whose authors were concerned with social and political issues and were uninterested in revealing the lives on which so much depended. But ultimately the archive will give voice to not only the presence of these women but also the ways in which their lives explicate some of the connections and mobility that have come to drive historical studies of the early Atlantic. This book explores the ways in which enslaved women lived their lives in the crux of slaveowners’ vision of themselves as successful white men and thus shouldered burdens connected to but distinct from those borne by enslaved men.

This book examines colonies in both the English West Indies and on the North American mainland. The connections between the two are myriad. Ties of family and commerce supported by a vibrant maritime presence meant that the exchange of goods and information brought settlers and . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.