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Cover Image: African-American Women with Brooms of Bambusa (© U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

The Struggles and Strength of Enslaved Women in the United States

This article was originally written in 2018 as a student paper for the HIST 103 US History to 1877 course at Minot State University.

Slavery in the United States was an abhorrent practice that affected the lives of countless individuals. However, within the broader context of this dark period in history, women endured unique hardships and unimaginable suffering. In Harriet Ann Jacobs’ autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” she sheds light on the plight of enslaved women. Jacobs’ account is supported by numerous narratives and academic works, such as Emily West’s “Enslaved Women in America.” This blog post aims to explore the experiences of enslaved women, highlighting their struggles and shedding light on their unwavering strength.

1. The Tragic Journey:
Enslaved women faced unimaginable horrors right from the beginning. As West explains in her book, women and children often bore the brunt of the slave trade’s disruptive impact on African societies. They were separated from their families, causing a profound demographic imbalance and leaving behind vulnerable dependents. The physical inspection that enslaved women had to endure before their transportation to America was particularly degrading, as it included assessing their ability to reproduce. The grueling ocean journey further compounded their suffering, with women and children subjected to cramped conditions, disease, and even death.

2. Sexual Exploitation and Abuse:
Enslaved women were subjected to sexual assault and exploitation throughout their lives. West’s research highlights how sailors and ship captains frequently assaulted women and girls during the transatlantic voyage. Food and drink were used as tools of coercion, creating a harrowing environment for these vulnerable individuals. Jacobs, in her autobiography, dedicated an entire chapter to the sexual abuse endured by young slave girls. She describes the heart-wrenching reality of these girls being treated as objects and violated by their masters. Regardless of their age, if these girls possessed any beauty, they were at risk of sexual assault.

3. Domestic Labor and Harsh Conditions:
Initially, enslaved women worked alongside men in the fields. However, as labor demands increased, they were confined to domestic work within their masters’ households. This transition exposed them to even greater risks of sexual abuse. The secret diaries of some slave owners, like William Byrd, provide chilling evidence of the sexual relationships they had with enslaved women. The mental and physical violence inflicted upon these women grew more pronounced over time, reflecting the power dynamics of colonial American society.

4. Separation from Family:
The forced separation of enslaved women from their families was one of the cruelest aspects of their existence. Jacobs, in her autobiography, vividly recounts witnessing a mother losing all seven of her children through the brutal auctioning process. The despair and anguish experienced by these women, torn apart from their loved ones, were heart-rending. Accounts like Mintie Maria Miller’s testimony further reveal the humiliation and dehumanization these women endured when being auctioned in public markets. The constant sale and relocation of enslaved individuals made it almost impossible for them to maintain connections with their extended family members.

5. Resilience and Strength:
Despite the unimaginable suffering, enslaved women demonstrated remarkable resilience and strength in the face of adversity. Harriet Tubman, an iconic figure in the fight against slavery, serves as an inspiration. Tubman’s experiences, as documented in Sarah Bradford’s “Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People,” highlight the emotional and physical hardships she endured. Throughout her life, Tubman questioned the injustice and sought a way out of the oppressive system. Similarly, the Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project preserves accounts like Hanna Davidson’s, who described the exhaustion she felt while working and the loss of her family’s history due to multiple sales.

Enslaved women in the United States faced unfathomable challenges during the era of slavery. They endured physical and sexual abuse, separation from their families, and grueling working conditions. Through the narratives and academic works mentioned, we gain insight into their stories of suffering and resilience. Despite their circumstances, these women demonstrated remarkable strength and perseverance. Their experiences serve as a testament to the indomitable spirit of humanity and fuel our collective determination to ensure a more just and equitable world for all.


Cover Image: African-American Women with Brooms of Bambusa (© U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

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