White Women and U.S. Slavery: Then and Now

It’s Tuesday and that means it’s Trouble with White Women and White Feminism, our ongoing series meant to offer a broader context and deeper analysis of the latest outrages by the melanin-challenged.

White women were active participants in, proponents of and key beneficiaries of the system of slavery in the U.S., both historically and now.


While some historians, such as  C. Vann Woodward and Catherine Clinton, have argued that white women were secretly opposed to the system of slavery, scholar Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demolished this notion with her work, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (University of North Carolina Press, 1988).  Fox-Genovese draws on white slaveholding women’s diaries, letters, and postbellum memoirs, along with the Works Progress Administration’s narratives of enslaved black women as her source material to make a convincing argument that even though they worked in the same households there was no “shared sense of sisterhood” among black and white women in the plantation household.  Fox-Genovese makes a distinction between white women in the North, whose urban, bourgeois culture valued individualism and the redeeming power of domestic work, and white Southern women, whose hierarchical, dependency-based culture judged women’s worth on their success in conforming to the ideal of the “lady,” rather than on their thrift, industry, and devotion to all-sacrificing motherhood. By arguing that white, Southern women’s history “does not constitute a regional variation on the main story; it constitutes another story,” Fox-Genovese joined women of color and labor historians who were offering critiques of both the white, middle-class feminist movement and the histories it produced. (See this for a much longer and more thorough summary of Fox-Genovese’s work.)

ebony_ivyIt is a mistake to believe that slaveowning was an entirely Southern U.S. phenomenon. In fact, it was the Northeast where slavery began in the U.S. and where some of its enduring legacy remains. “Human slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas,” writes historian Craig Steven Wilder in his, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of American Universities.  Wilder writes:

“In the decades before the American Revolution, merchants and planters became not just the benefactors of colonial society but its new masters. Slaveholders became college presidents. The wealth of the traders determined the locations and decided the fates of colonial schools. Profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts. And the politics of the campus conformed to the presence and demands of slave-holding students as colleges aggressively cultivated a social environment attractive to …wealthy families.”

Wilder paints a compelling portrait of the ways that slavery was not merely part of the “context” present at the same time as the rise of higher education in the U.S., but in fact, was a crucial element that universities relied on to build facilities, endowments and legacies of elite social environments for cultivating subsequent generations of the nation’s leaders. While it’s true that these institutions were established for the benefit of white men, white women eventually demanded and won access.

White women in the academy, and I’m one of them, continue to benefit from the system of higher education built by enslaved human beings. According to the Almanac of Higher Education, women accounted for only 31% of all tenured faculty in US colleges and universities,but of these 78% are white women, compared to just 0.6% American Indian, 4% Latina, 6.7% Asian American, and 7% African American.  Wilder’s research is focused on Ivy League (elite) educational institutions, but it has implications for those of us outside those institutions as well. I work at CUNY (not, to my knowledge, built by enslaved people) but CUNY operates within an eco-system of other institutions of higher education from which we all benefit.

“But, my family didn’t own slaves!” also, “Slavery was a long time ago, isn’t it time to forget all that?

These refrains about a distant, non-slaveholding past are a commonplace among white people. The first is meant to suggest a lack of connection to the institution of slavery, and therefore, a lack of responsibility for understanding it; and the second is meant to suggest that historical amnesia is a salve for social ills. My family didn’t own slaves either (that I know of). This wasn’t an ethical stance, they just couldn’t afford to own any human beings.

The rush to forget, to distance from the legacy of slavery in the U.S. strikes me as peculiar.  Recently, this resistance to facing history has come out in the ways that white people talk about (and don’t talk about) the film ’12 Years a Slave.’    Most often, what I hear from white women friends, is this: “I’m not sure I can go see 12 Years a Slave. It just sounds too painful to watch, and I wonder, why would I want to pay a babysitter so I can be in agony for two hours?”

Perhaps part of this resistance is a reluctance to come to terms with the way that, as Olivia Cole writes, white women ruined lives while wearing their pretty dresses.  While scholarly works like those by Fox-Genovese or Wilder may not reach a wide public audience, this film could if people are willing to go see it. Part of what the film reveals is the cruel treatment meted out by white women situated as the plantation mistress to the enslaved women they controlled.

Plantations: Topographies of Terror or Theme Parks?

Slavery does not exist solely in the mists of some distant past, but remains with us in the here and now of the U.S.  Plantations are increasingly popular locations for weddings for white women who are convinced they can “work around the racism” of such a setting.


(Image source)

People who doubt the fascination we have as a society with the “plantation” theme, should watch “Gone with the Wind” (1939), which serves as a kind of cultural template for the aesthetics of this phenomenon. While some may see this as irrelevant to the contemporary milieu, the recent micro-controversies involving Paula Deen and Ani DiFranco suggest otherwise.

paula_deenPaula Deen is a celebrity who built a small empire on her southern cooking and down-home style.  Deen recently became embroiled in controversy when in June 2013, she became the target of a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination.  In her deposition, when asked if she’d used the N-word to describe African American people, she said “Yes, of course.”   Among the other revelations about Deen that emerged were the details of her “dream southern plantation wedding.”   Deen offered a tearful apology for her use of the N-word, the lawsuit was dismissed, but it may have been too late because there was already a Twitter hashtag #PaulaDeenRecipes with some truly hilarious, creative entries (e.g., Back of the Bus Biscuits #PaulaDeenRecipes). Deen had her television show cancelled by Food Network, and endorsement contracts cancelled by Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Target, QVC, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, diabetes drug company Novo Nordisk, J.C. Penney, Sears, KMart and her then-publisher Ballantine Books. However, several companies have expressed their intent to continue their endorsement deals with Deen, and fans flocked to her restaurants in a show of support.


ani_difrancoAni DiFranco is a singer, songwriter and is often regarded as a feminist icon.  DiFranco faced a controversy in 2013 when after the announcement that she was hosting a three-day artists’ workshop billed as the “Righteous Retreat” at Iberville Parish‘s Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, Louisiana.  Now operated as a luxury resort, Nottoway Plantation was one of the largest plantations in the South, and features the largest antebellum mansion. Its operator and founder John Randolph owned over 155 slaves in the year 1860. DiFranco’s choice of venue for the retreat was called “a blatant display of racism” on a petition at change.org that collected more than 2,600 signatures. On December 29, 2013 DiFranco cancelled the retreat and offered what many saw as a tepid, non-apology-apology. Chastened by the criticism that followed that first statement, DiFranco issued a second apology on January 2, 2014 in which she wrote, “..i would like to say i am sincerely sorry. it is obvious to me now that you were right – all those who said we can’t in good conscience go to that place and support it or look past for one moment what it deeply represents. i needed a wake up call and you gave it to me.” 

The public oppobrium that Deen and DiFranco faced are tied up in what Priscilla Ocen, writing at For Harriet, calls the subservience fantasy in the U.S.  The persistent cultural fascination with plantations as settings of an idyllic past positions them as locations that can be “reclaimed” as luxury resorts, wedding venues, and “righteous retreat” destinations. And, I would argue, it is not coincidental that it is white women who are fueling this fantasy.

There are other ways to approach our history. At the same time that the controversy with Ani DiFranco was roiling the interwebs, I was visiting Berlin. While I was there, I went to a museum called “Topographies of Terror,” a museum that marks the site of the former Secret State Police, the SS and the Security Main Office of the Third Reich.  The story of how the museum was created fascinated me as much as the collection itself. After the war the grounds were leveled and initially used for commercial purposes, and eventually became a vacant lot. Public interest in this site emerged gradually in the 1970s and 1980s. It was during this time that groups of citizens, historians, and activists began the work of commemorating the site and using it as a mechanism for confronting the difficult past of the Nazi regime.

In the U.S., we have very few (if any) of these kinds of monuments.  Imagine, if you will, a wedding held at a former concentration camp with a “Third Reich” theme, with the bride urging guests to “work around” the blatant anti-semitism. Offensive, right? Of course it is.  Then why is it that here in the U.S., we turn plantations – our own topographies of terror – into theme parks and luxury resorts?

As I said, I find the American rush to forget, to distance ourselves from the legacy of slavery strikes me as peculiar.  I suspect that part of this reluctance has to do with the affective, particularly for white women, who wish above all else, not to be made uncomfortable about race.  More about that in another post in this ongoing series, Trouble with White Women #tww.


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  1. Rachelle086

    That’s what all of this celebrity bisexuality is all about too..MORE people for White women,emotionally and sexually.More inappropriate servitude to White women from MORE minorities….

  2. melody

    Dear sisters, here’s a little history lesson.

    Many slave-owning women where the bane of enslaved people’s existence, and many were particularly cruel to black women they suspected or knew their husbands found sexually attractive. No argument there.

    But Fox-Genovese was so invested in her class analysis that she quotes some instances of plantation wives siding with enslaved women when the white women had no power to resist except sympathy and quiet, subversive solidarity.
    It’s not good enough for Fox-Genovese that one mistress is forced by her husband to slap a servant that she clearly cares about, and the two women embrace each other in tears as soon as the master leaves the room. That recorded incident makes me wonder about other forms of collusion between black and white women that went unrecorded. I know that some white women taught balck people to read when that was against the law.

    Mary Chesnutt, one of the most priveleged antebellum white women to have left a diary, hated slavery, and says that most of her peers did. After the Civil War her personal maid liked and trusted her enough to enter into business with her, raising chickens and selling eggs. Maybe the former slave lacked other good options, but that still suggests friendship to me.

    Fanny Kemble, a white English abolitionist, married the heir of a huge South Carolina plantation. When she visited the plantation she petitioned her husband daily for better treatment of the enslaved people, especially the women and children. Her concern for her husband’s human property led to their divorce. Fanny went on to publish her “Journal of a Residence at a Georgia Plantation,” one of the most damning anti-slavery accounts ever.

    And yes, many contemporary white feminists and other supposed allied need a slap upside the head for trying to wiggle out of their racial privelege, or dismiss the ongoing and horrible reality of racism in our society.
    And. Some of them were beaten and arrested as Freedom Riders and members of SNCC, and some of them have fought racism tooth and nail since they were children.
    Let the record reflect all of these realities. Sweeping assumptions almost always miss the complexities of real life and real history.

  3. Thanks for your comments. @Rachelle086 I’m not at all sure what you mean or what the reference to bisexuality has to do with this post. @melody thanks for the ‘history lesson,’ sister. Yes, Fox-Genovese does suggest nuances of affection and feelings between black and white women in the plantation household, but I think that your reach to reclaim the white women who “taught balck [sic] people to read when that was against the law” overlooks the broader pattern. Your story about Mary Chesnutt “one of the most privileged” white women, fails to even mention the name of her “personal maid” who you suggest “liked and trusted her enough” to go into business with her because of “friendship” rather than economic need and survival stretches credulity. “Maybe the former slave lacked other good options,” ya think?

    Your reply goes on to dismiss the behavior of “some white women” who “need a slap upside the head” (never something I suggested), but you go on to laud the white women who were, as you write, “beaten and arrested” in the civil rights struggle. The flip here that you make is one that redeems white women as subjects of violence rather than as perpetrators of it, reasserting a pure victimhood.

    I suspect that your effort to “let the record reflect” the “nuances” of the noble white women you find in history is giving white women another set of privileges: being the exception, being an individual with a backstory, a particular, rather than a general history.

    While I take your point that history complex, the reality is that white women rarely, if ever, have their structural position and patterned human behavior identified, called out, and critiqued for what it is: a cornerstone in the house that white supremacy built. That’s the intervention this series is meant to offer.

  4. Be Human

    I agree with this article. But I don’t quite agree with equating Paula Deen with Ani Franco, lol, even though I get your point about them both seeming to participate in the romanticizing of the “Old South.”

    I am a white woman, and as a little girl I watched Gone With the Wind and marveled at the gentility and the dresses. As a grown woman, the movie makes me ill and I cannot even believe I was conditioned by my culture to not even notice the racism which is so distasteful in the film.

    DiFranco’s eventual epiphany regarding her unconscious racism in this instance is a good example of sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know until it’s pointed out to us.

    In other words, doesn’t everyone blow it from time to time? Being unconsciously biased without realizing it due to our conditioning? Is that a reason to condemn all of “white feminism?” Couldn’t you say the same of some racist assumptions women of color make about white feminists? And, again, doesn’t this divide and conquer strategy among women ultimately contribute to our own collective disempowerment?

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