Women in slavery in the antebellum United States faced most of the same problems faced by their male counterparts. These women were generally considered property of their masters, without inherent rights and privileges, and they were usually forbidden by law to be educated. They were largely forced to give up their native African customs, religious beliefs, and languages. Women in slavery also faced special gender-related challenges, however, including an increased incidence of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse at the hands of other slaves as well as whites. These women were almost never allowed to perform skilled labor outside the home. Some were never permitted to marry, and others lived with the fear that their husbands or children could be taken from them at any moment.
Like all slaves, women in slavery were generally forbidden from learning to read or write. Masters typically forced their slaves to practice the Christian religion and to speak English, instead of their native languages and faiths. While male slaves were often trained to perform skilled labor as craftsmen, this privilege was typically denied to women in slavery.
Female slaves sometimes worked in the home, often serving a white mistress and attending to all of her needs, around the clock. Women who were not granted positions in the household worked in the fields, usually from dawn to dusk, performing heavy physical labor. More than half of the slaves working in plantation fields were women.
Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of women in slavery often began when girls reached puberty. This abuse typically came from masters, mistresses, and members of the master's family. The master's white employees often also took liberties with adolescent slave girls and slave women. Male slaves also sometimes perpetrated abuse against their female counterparts.
Slavery as it existed in the antebellum United States was chattel slavery, meaning that slaves were considered property similar to livestock. The children of slaves were almost always forced into slavery themselves, even if one of their parents was white. Women in slavery were typically forbidden from refusing the sexual advances of their white masters, and could be harshly punished if they did so. Those women who had children to white fathers were also sometimes punished, since they were commonly accused of having played the seductress. White plantation owners, however, enjoyed the cost-saving benefits of being able to increase their slave populations without purchasing new slaves.
Maintaining a stable family unit was another problem for women in slavery. Plantation owners sometimes denied their slaves the right to marry at all. Others believed that slaves were happier and easier to control if they were allowed to marry and live in family units. Slave owners nevertheless reserved the right to take children from their parents, or separate spouses, often by selling the individuals to another plantation. Those left behind were typically granted no special rights to visit loved ones on other plantations, and in some cases, families found themselves separated by great distances.