Historians have estimated that at least 58% of all enslaved women between 15 and 30 years of age were sexually assaulted by white men during the antebellum period. In addition to the white male privilege and power evident in this extensive routine rape of black female slaves, the reactions of white women to their husbands’ sexual behavior helped perpetuate racial and gender subordination as well as white privilege.
White women reacted to sexual violence perpetrated against enslaved black women by their husbands in a variety of ways including ignoring or denying the behavior, divorcing their husbands, or punishing the enslaved black women who were sexually victimized. These reactions are repeated throughout a variety of records from slavery including Work Projects Administration slave narratives, divorce petitions, autobiographical slave narratives, and diaries.
For white women, the legal structure created some incentives to stay quiet about their husbands’ sexual violation of enslaved black women. During the 1800’s, a variety of state courts declared that a man had the right to execute “moderate chastisement” of his wife “in cases of emergency,” such as the Mississippi Supreme Court in Bradley v. State in 1824. The white male dominated structure of the legal, political, and economic system was crucial to white women’s responses to their husbands’ sexual violence against slaves. The desire to stay physically unharmed and financially secure likely encouraged many white women to remain silent about their husbands’ sexual behavior.
Mary Chesnut, an elite white woman living in the mid-1800’s described the denial of white women in her diary. She writes
every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.
An anonymous former slave who was interviewed for the Work Projects Administration slave narratives wrote similarly,
Before my old marster died, he had a pretty gal he was goin’ with and he wouldn’t let her work nowhere but in the house, and his wife nor nobody else didn’t say nothin’ ’bout it; they knowed better. She had three chillun for him. . . .
Despite the potential consequences of speaking out against their husbands, some white women did file for divorce from their husbands often in large part because of the sexual “relationships” they had with enslaved black women. Through divorce petitions white women portrayed themselves as innocent victims of their husbands’ adultery. White women repeatedly overlooked the sexual violence and victimization of the enslaved black women coerced into their husbands’ “affairs.” Meanwhile they portrayed themselves as meeting the ideal standards of white womanhood, such as Margaret Garner from Mobile, Alabama who in 1841 petitioned for divorce explaining that she “calmly remonstrated” with her husband with regard to his affair or Mary Jackson from Georgia who treated her husband “Joseph with respect and affection and rendered due obedience to all the lawful commands.”
These women depict themselves as willfully submissive and obedient. Although the obedient, passive and loyal portrayals of themselves assisted white women in gaining divorces from their husbands as well as a portion of the economic resources in many cases; they simultaneously reinforced white gender roles and the white sexism that is associated. Moreover, when white women frame themselves as the sole victims of their husbands’ “affairs” with enslaved black women, they reinforce a narrative which focuses all attention on their own needs and the role of the court in protecting white women from men who have failed to achieve white male virtue, as opposed to acknowledging the needs of the black women who were sexually victimized and requiring of legal protection against rape.
Some white women also enacted a form of secondary abuse through physical and verbal punishment against the enslaved black women who had been sexually violated by white men. Through physical and verbal abuse, white women could transfer their feelings of humiliation, jealousy, or degradation into feelings of racial superiority over female slaves. Because white women were unable to enact any behaviors which would give them power over their white husbands this physical abuse directed at the enslaved black women simultaneously reflects the gender-subordinated and racially-privileged status that white women held. Not only did white women reinforce racial oppression through their responses, and lack of responses, to their husbands’ sexual violence, but they also reinforced their own oppression as white women by failing to resist the white male behaviors and white male dominated structures which ensure their gender subordination.
Today, although interracial rape of black women by white men has decreased significantly from the antebellum period, the intersecting institutions of oppression which shaped the identities and influenced the dynamics between white women, white men, black women, and black men persist. This raises the questions, in what ways are intersecting institutions of oppression creating incentives for some groups to partake in oppressive racial and gender performances and acts of domination today, and how does each group contribute to the overarching intersectional system of oppression?
Rachel is a Phd student doing her dissertation work on this issue of the extensive sexual coercion and rape of Black women by white men during the slavery era.