The Gendered Work of Slaves and Servants

Gender was the crucial determinant of the way in which a slave spent a day. American colonists knew about Native American and West African work customs, but given their sense of ethnic superiority, the Europeans might be expected to have imposed their own gender conventions on the enslaved rather than to adopt those of other groups whom they considered culturally inferior. Indeed, in colonies where slavery remained peripheral, slave owners tended to follow European gender conventions defining men's and women's work.

Enslaved Native American women were present in most colonies, but seldom in large numbers, and they were most often assigned domestic duties rather than field labor. African women were commonly assigned to agricultural labor with work requirements equal to those of men in Virginia by the 1640s, on Barbados at about the same time-when the shift from tobacco to sugar was just starting-and on Martinique and Guadeloupe no later than the 1650s, when tobacco, not sugar, was still the main cash crop. This chronology suggests that wherever Africans were imported in significant numbers, putting women to staple crop production appeared advantageous or necessary regardless of the crop, because, in the first half of the seventeenth century, females made up almost half of transatlantic shipments. English planters in both Barbados and the Chesapeake also used indentured European servant women in tobacco, cotton, and sugar fields when merchants transported more women and girls than were needed for domestic service. In the case of the Europeans, qualms about this violation of gender conventions stemmed mainly from the adverse effect the practice had on servant recruitment in England. The high proportion of women in African cargoes, rather than planters' knowledge of women's active role in farming in their homelands, may have been sufficient reason for assigning most to the fields.

Although conceptions among masters and enslaved West African men about what constituted appropriate men's work sometimes coincided (clearing land of heavy timber, for example), enslaved males were also forced to perform activities like hoeing crops and winnowing and pounding grain that the Africans would have considered traditional women's work. Imposition of unaccustomed kinds of labor was one method, albeit an unknowing one, that slave owners employed to enforce racial supremacy on enslaved men.

Slave owners' abandonment of European conceptions about work appropriate for women helped to create and then to reinforce stereotypes of African and African-American women as unfeminine, uniquely suited to hard unskilled labor, brutish in nature, and capable only of limited emotional and intellectual development. Such stereotypes in turn led to a devaluation of maternity, with forced hard labor during pregnancy contributing to low fertility, high infant mortality, and low birth weights, coupled with a disregard for motherhood. Over time, colonials revised their conceptions of enslaved men's capabilities, but not those of enslaved women.

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