First, a note: slavery is a multifaceted and deeply historical subject. In fact, in almost every society across the world, people have been enslaved in one way or another. Post-colonial scholars, historians, anthropologists, and many more have dedicated their lives work to analysing and understanding the role gender plays in the slave trade. This entry is not meant to be a comprehensive account, but merely a summary of some aspects of the interplay between gender and slavery throughout history.
Slavery is a complex term used to cover a vast array of actions. In essence, slavery is a system of exploitation where people are treated as property, stripped of their human rights, and forced to work without compensation. Slavery has featured throughout human history and still persists today even though it is universally recognised as a violation of basic human rights, and thus illegal. Within all types of slavery, gender plays a role in the treatment of enslaved people, with women and girls facing specific forms of sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation. It is estimated that two-thirds of those living in slavery today are women.
When we talk about historical slavery, we often think about the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In the early 17th century, slaves were brought over from Africa to the British Colonies in North America. Initially, men and young boys were chosen as slaves as they had the highest capacity for manual labour. When women slaves were brought over to the colonies, it was to act as companions for the enslaved men. As time went on, enslaved women became more common because their labour was cheaper and they were more readily available. As well as labouring on the plantations, women were often forced to reproduce by slave masters seeking to multiply their slave force. Slave owners felt entitled to the bodies of their slaves, and as well as being forced to have children to grow the workforce, slaves used as domestic servants were frequently raped and forced to abort any resulting offspring. The history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is horrifically undertaught in schools around the globe, and we urge you to read further on the topic for a more comprehensive overview.
It goes without saying that the relationship between slave and slave owners in history is inseparable from race. White slave owners sought to dominate and oppress black slaves, as they did with their countries and cultures. They also used local grievances and rivalry to manipulate African tribes and empires into raiding each other and selling the spoils to be enslaved . The vision of the white slave master and black enslaved woman is a microcosmic reminder of the white patriarchy and its domination of the rest of the world. The patriarchy itself is built on colonialism and slavery, and thus the exploitation of black women’s bodies is built into the institutions that we live under today, as shown by the mistreatment of black women in hospitals for instance. Systemic racism and misogyny are our inheritance, and black women still have to fight to be considered equally as human as the rest of society.
In the famous words of Sojourner Truth at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron Ohio, “I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?”
Powerful writers including Audre Lorde and bell hooks have explored the construction of black personhood through slavery. Lorde’s writing adopts an unapologetically intersectional stance, arguing that ‘white feminists’ who ignore racism are reproducing the systems of oppression established by white slave masters. Michelle Alexander draws a direct historical connection between slavery, Jim Crow laws and today’s mass incarceration of black people in the United States today. The statistics are shocking: more black men are incarcerated today than were enslaved in 1850. In their book ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’, Alexander argues that the criminal justice system is the latest system used to disenfranchise people of colour, and American society has far to go.
To the detriment of us all, slavery is not over. According to UNICEF and the International Labour Organisation, almost 80 million children aged 5 to 17 are subjected to hazardous work, which is classified as a contemporary form of slavery. Experts also estimate one in every 130 women and girls is subjected to contemporary forms of slavery such as forced marriage, domestic servitude, forced labour, and debt bondage. Around 4.9 million women and girls are subjected to forced commercial sexual exploitation, which makes up around 99% of all cases. The issue is systemic: gender inequality and discrimination display themselves through social norms and differing expectations imposed on daughters compared to sons. In many countries, fewer girls attend school and are more likely to end up in poverty and therefore work in high-risk informal jobs. The way society is built puts women in vulnerable and exploitative positions.
Fortunately, as long as there has been slavery, there have been those speaking out against it. Throughout history, amazing women and men have stood up against oppression and moved us forward in profound ways. Back in the days, Sojourner Truth was an American abolitionist who successfully fought for the liberation of her son from slavery. Her famous speech ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ speaks to women’s rights in all contexts, and is a huge inspiration for us all. Nowadays, Nadia Murad escaped from (sexual) slavery in Iraq and now speaks out against human trafficking and modern day slavery. She has won a Nobel peace prize for her work advocating for yazidis survivors of genocide and sexual violence. There are countless others who have dedicated their lives to ending slavery and supporting survivors, work that must continue until slavery is a remnant of the past.
Slavery is a patriarchal institution that reinforces gender hierarchies and perpetuates gender-based violence. Enslaved people, regardless of their gender, are in an unbalanced power relationship, which mirrors historical systems of oppression. Enslaved people are exploited and abused, often by men owners who claim complete power over their bodies. Slavery still occurs all over the world, and women are still ignored, disbelieved, and even blamed for their situations. It is crucial to be aware of the signs of modern slavery and assist those in need.