Trigger warning – Mentions of rape and rape culture.
“It was on the bodies of slave women that slavery was codified.” — Stephanie McCurry
In 1662, Virginia – my home state – passed the Hereditary Slave Law, which said that the status of a child was determined by the status of the mother. Thus, if the mother was free, the child was free . . . and if the mother a slave, the child a slave.
This one paragraph determined the course of slavery in America in profound ways, not the least of which was helping to shape slavery into something that was related to race.
But yesterday, as I listened to Dr. McCurry’s lectures in the History of the Slave South course that I am taking, I felt like someone was standing on my chest when I saw – for the first time clearly – that enslaved women were doubly oppressed, demeaned, and controlled. The Hereditary Slave Law not only confirmed that southern planters could grow their enslaved workforce through procreation – a fact I had understood – but it also guaranteed that not only was the woman’s physical work owned but the very work of her body – her reproductive capability was owned.
Of course, before this time, that productivity – both physical labor and reproduction – were the property of a woman’s husband. (Talk about calling into question the sanctity of marriage and the reasons that marriage is a legal agreement.) So it’s not as if the Hereditary Slave Law took away an agency women had had before. But this Act did make a woman’s body even more the property of a man. Thus, his understanding of her – her very self – as belonging to him – for his use in anyway – became legalized.
I can only imagine in the tiniest sense – because this practice of owning women’s bodies continues on some level today – not having say over how my body is used, who gets to touch it, who gets to enter it, who gets to order it. I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be to know my children – my daughters – would be born into that same condition. The very thought brings tears to my eyes.
At least before this law was passed, a woman had the hope that her children might have it better, that they might be free. But this law ended that hope.
I don’t even know how to understand this – how to understand a system that says the rape of women is not only acceptable but almost legally encouraged given the system’s desire to increase the reproduction rates so that those new humans could help the master produce more products for the commercial market. I don’t know how to understand a system where enslaved men were “studded out” for their seed without their own choice and how the women they were with were forced to accept that “visit.” I don’t know how to understand legislators who would think they could pass a law determining who “owns” unborn children for generations to come.
I just don’t understand.
But I do know this – the more I learn about the institution of chattel slavery in the United States the more horrified I become AND the more I understand the lingering issues of racism and sexism in our country. We have so much still to overcome.
What would be your reaction to learning that not only did someone else own you but they also owned your children and any children you might have?