Catarina's post has provoked a lively discussion on the inter-relations of sex, race, and class in feminism. This Nation post by JoAnn Wypijewski* recounts a conversation with Pamela Bridgewater, Professor of Law at American University. Bridgewater's goal is to pull reproductive rights from an anhistorical arena of choice and privacy and into the historical struggle for civil (political and corporeal) freedom. The key intersection here is to expand the view of slavery from that of a narrowly economistic focus on exploitation in commodity production to a perspective that includes that of the exploitation of female reproductive capacity in slave breeding.
As Bridgewater puts it at the conclusion of this excerpt from Wypijewski's piece: “If we integrate the lost chapter of slave breeding into those two traditional but separate stories [civil rights and reproductive rights], if we reconcile female slave resistance to coerced breeding as, in part, a struggle for emancipation and, in part, a struggle for reproductive freedom, the two tales become one: a comprehensive narrative that fuses the pursuit of reproductive freedom into the pursuit of civil freedom.”
From the Nation article:
Pamela Bridgewater’s argument, expressed over the past several years in articles and forums, and at the heart of a book in final revision called Breeding a Nation: Reproductive Slavery and the Pursuit of Freedom, presents the most compelling conceptual and constitutional frame I know for considering women’s bodily integrity and defending it from the right.
In brief, her argument rolls out like this. The broad culture tells a standard story of the struggle for reproductive rights, beginning with the flapper, climaxing with the pill, Griswold v. Connecticut and an assumption of privacy rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and concluding with Roe v. Wade. The same culture tells a traditional story of black emancipation, beginning with the Middle Passage, climaxing with Dred Scott, Harpers Ferry and Civil War and concluding with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Both stories have a postscript—a battle royal between liberation and reaction—but, as Bridgewater asserts, “Taken together, these stories have no comprehensive meaning. They tell no collective tale. They create no expectation of sexual freedom and no protection against, or remedy for, reproductive slavery. They exist in separate spheres; that is a mistake.” What unites them but what both leave out, except incidentally, is the experience of black women. Most significantly, they leave out “the lost chapter of slave breeding.”
I need to hit the pause button on the argument for a moment, because the considerable scholarship that revisionist historians have done for the past few decades has not filtered into mass consciousness. The mass-culture story of slavery is usually told in terms of economics, labor, color, men. Women outnumbered men in the enslaved population two to one by slavery’s end, but they enter the conventional story mainly under the rubric “family,” or in the cartoon triptych Mammy-Jezebel-Sapphire, or in the figure of Sally Hemmings. Yes, we have come to acknowledge, women were sexually exploited. Yes, many of the founders of this great nation prowled the slave quarters and fathered a nation in the literal as well as figurative sense. Yes, maybe rape was even rampant. That the slave system in the US depended on human beings not just as labor but as reproducible raw material is not part of the story America typically tells itself. That women had a particular currency in this system, prized for their sex or their wombs and often both, and that this uniquely female experience of slavery resonates through history to the present is not generally acknowledged. Even the left, in uncritically reiterating Malcolm X’s distinction between “the house Negro” and “the field Negro,” erases the female experience, the harrowing reality of the “favorite” that Harriet Jacobs describes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
We don’t commonly recognize that American slaveholders supported closing the trans-Atlantic slave trade; that they did so to protect the domestic market, boosting their own nascent breeding operation.** Women were the primary focus: their bodies, their “stock,” their reproductive capacity, their issue. Planters advertised for them in the same way as they did for breeding cows or mares, in farm magazines and catalogs. They shared tips with one another on how to get maximum value out of their breeders. They sold or lent enslaved men as studs and were known to lock teenage boys and girls together to mate in a kind of bullpen.They propagated new slaves themselves, and allowed their sons to, and had their physicians exploit female anatomy while working to suppress African midwives’ practice in areas of fertility, contraception and abortion.Reproduction and its control became the planters’ prerogative and profit source. Women could try to escape, ingest toxins or jump out a window—abortion by suicide, except it was hardly a sure thing.
This business was not hidden at the time, as Pamela details expansively. And, indeed, there it was, this open secret, embedded in a line from Uncle Tom’s Cabin that my eyes fell upon while we were preparing to arrange books on her new shelves: “'If we could get a breed of gals that didn't care, now, for their young uns…would be ’bout the greatest mod’rn improvement I knows on,” says one slave hunter to another after Eliza makes her dramatic escape, carrying her child over the ice flows.
The foregoing is the merest scaffolding of one of the building blocks of Bridgewater’s argument, which continues thus. “If we integrate the lost chapter of slave breeding into those two traditional but separate stories, if we reconcile female slave resistance to coerced breeding as, in part, a struggle for emancipation and, in part, a struggle for reproductive freedom, the two tales become one: a comprehensive narrative that fuses the pursuit of reproductive freedom into the pursuit of civil freedom.”
** Further reading on the post-1808 internal US slave market: Garry Wills, "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power; Ira Berlin's Generations of Captivity; and Robin Blackburn's Overthrow of Colonial Slavery. Other suggestions for reading are welcome in comments.