Authors Meet Critics

They Were Her Property

Recorded on January 29, 2020, this "Authors Meets Critics" panel featured a discussion of They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, Associate Professor of History at UC Berkeley.

Recorded on January 29, 2020, this “Authors Meet Critics” panel featured a discussion of They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, Associate Professor of History at UC Berkeley. In discussing her book, Jones-Rogers engaged with two eminent colleagues: Bryan Wagner, Associate Professor in the Department of English, UC Berkeley; and Leslie Salzinger, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, UC Berkeley. (Learn more about the Authors Meet Critics series.)

Bridging women’s history, the history of the South, and African American history, They Were Her Property makes a bold argument about the role of white women in American slavery. Jones-Rogers draws on a variety of sources to show that slave-owning women were sophisticated economic actors who directly engaged in and benefited from the South’s slave market. Because women typically inherited more slaves than land, enslaved people were often their primary source of wealth. Not only did white women often refuse to cede ownership of their slaves to their husbands, they employed management techniques that were as effective and brutal as those used by slave-owning men. White women actively participated in the slave market, profited from it, and used it for economic and social empowerment. By examining the economically entangled lives of enslaved people and slave-owning women, Jones-Rogers presents a narrative that forces us to rethink the economics and social conventions of slaveholding America.

They Were Her Property foregrounds the testimony of enslaved and formerly enslaved people and puts their reflections into conversation with other narrative sources, legal documents, and financial records in order to show how white women’s pecuniary investments in the institution shaped their gender identities and to situate them at the center of 19th century America’s most significant and devastating system of economic exchange. As a whole, this book offers more expansive and differently gendered understandings of American slavery, the trans-regional domestic slave trade, and nineteenth-century slave markets.

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers is associate professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the winner of the 2013 Lerner-Scott Prize for best doctoral dissertation in U.S. women’s history. She is working on two new projects: “She had…a Womb Subjected to Bondage”: The Afro-Atlantic Origins of British Colonial Descent Law, examines the ways that West African customs and laws influenced English thinking about matrilineal descent and may have influenced their decisions to implement matrilineal descent laws in their North American colonies; and “A Country so dreadfull for a White Woman” reconstructs the lives of nearly 300 British women and girls who travelled to the African littoral on Royal African Company slave ships and settled in the company’s forts and castles before 1750. Jones-Rogers earned her PhD in History from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Bryan Wagner is Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on African American expression in the context of slavery and its aftermath, and he has interests in legal history and vernacular culture. His books include Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2009) and The Tar Baby: A Global History (Princeton University Press, 2017).  A book on The Wild Tchoupitoulas—a landmark album of processional call-and-response music arranged as electric funk—is forthcoming in the 33 1/3 Series from Bloomsbury. A critical edition, The Life and Legend of Bras-Coupé: The Fugitive Slave Who Fought the Law, Ruled the Swamp, Danced at Congo Square, Invented Jazz, and Died for Love, is forthcoming from LSU Press. A co-edited collection of essays, Looking for Law in All the Wrong Places, is forthcoming from Fordham University Press. Current research includes a collaborative work, Slavery and Conspiracy in the Atlantic World.

Leslie Salzinger, Associate Professor and Vice Chair of Research in Gender and Women’s Studies, received her PhD in Sociology at UC Berkeley and previously taught in the sociology departments at the University of Chicago and Boston College. She writes and teaches on gender, capitalism, nationality, and race and their ongoing co-formations. Her empirical research is ethnographic, mostly focused on Latin America, especially Mexico. Her primary research questions address the cultural constitution of economic processes and the creation of subjects within political economies. Her award-winning first book, Genders in Production: Making Workers in Mexico’s Global Factories, analyzed the gendered dimensions of transnational production. Her current work in progress, Model Markets: Peso Dollar Exchange as a Site of Neoliberal Incorporation, analyzes peso/dollar exchange markets as crucial gendered and raced sites for Mexico’s shift from “developing nation” to “emerging market.” Professor Salzinger is affiliated with the Department of Sociology and with the Designated Emphasis Program in Critical Theory.

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