Slaves and Women in 1700s Virginia

As the infant colony of Virginia aged, an extremely wealthy gentry class emerged. These landowning white men rapidly changed the physical landscape around them. The wealthiest planters cleared acres of land to plant soil-destroying tobacco, and erected large, extravagant mansions.  Along with this change came the formation of race and class distinctions in society, with women and slaves at the service of white men. Both women and slaves were seen as subservient reflections of their white male masters, but they used the world around them and formed relationships in order to exercise a degree of power. They formed relationships and community, and fought back within the small domain given to them.Slaves were seen as objects, no less disposable than the furniture in the houses they worked in. However, they did find ways to stand up against their masters. Some slaves took a sneaky approach, like those in the house of prominent Virginia politician Peyton Randolph. The kitchen staff would grab the occasional bug and incorporate it into a dish, using the tasks demanded of them by white men to turn around and hurt them. Often, slaves had more physical strength than their masters, and could cause serious injury if they set their minds to it. When gentrywoman Lucy Byrd fought with her slave Jenny, Jenny was able to overpower Lucy “and got the worst of it.” Indeed, according to William Byrd, Jenny had to be pulled off of Lucy by other slaves (Treckel 144). A young slave girl witnessed her father, Bob, be beaten for no reason, and later watched as her father killed his overseer with a hoe. Another way slaves could resist their masters and their “object” status was by marrying and forming families. Yes, families could be split apart via sale, but finding love and having a family still combated whites’ constant dehumanization of their slaves (Green). Slaves also formed bonds using religion. Masters tried to keep their slaves illerate, in order to exercise more control over their minds, render them near powerless, and mold a non-threatening form of Christianity for their slaves to practice. Despite their

A group of African-American slaves engaging in dancing, which not only spread to 18th century whites, but still influences dance today.

A group of African-American slaves engaging in dancing, which not only spread to 18th century whites, but still influences dance today.

master’s efforts, some slaves secretly learned to read and write. Slaves were able to find great refuge in the stories of Biblical heroes, like Daniel, and the story of Exodus. Preachers became influential community leaders, and the slaves incorporated the African tradition of chanting into their Christian spirituals as a way to preserve part of their origins (Green). African dancing, another form of cultural preservation, even found its way into colonial jigs, which came into fashion in the mid-1700s (Isaac 84). In turn, house slaves who observed colonial dancing passed it on to their fellow slaves, who would use dance to poke fun of and satirize their masters. In addition, slaves who played music for colonial balls incorporated the music their masters ordered them to play into the music they played with other slaves (Isaac 85). The slaves were still doing as their masters ordered, and staying within their domain, but used that domain to tacitly challenge their masters, form a community, and resist dehumanization.

Similar to the slaves, women were often seen as possessions, reflections, or extensions of their husbands and fathers. From childhood, girls’ actions and education were “carefully regimented and monitored”, with a schedule determined by their parents and tutors (Hellier 178). Once she was married, “A wife’s chief responsibility was obedience to her husband—by virtue of her marriage vows and because it was ordained by God (Treckel 138).” However, women found ways to resist their husbands and fathers, but their power came from obedience to these men. When a girl reached adolescence, she would often travel among her relatives, who would provide domestic education and an opportunity to socialize. Young girls would learn their place in society, and be taught by their female relatives how to fulfill their goals as wives and mothers. As women traveled to see relatives, they greeted suitors in their relatives’ houses. These visits sometimes were planned by the host relatives themselves. Because of this, relatives could approve possible husbands, and parents would share their approval. In the words of Cathleene B. Hellier, “Although parents reserved the right of refusal if they did not approve of the prospective bridegroom, they seldom vetoed the daughter’s choice. The power to grant or refuse exit from adolescence was, therefore, diffused over a larger kinship network.” Daughters basically had permission to marry anyone they wanted, because the man was often pre-approved. In addition, there was more sexual freedom in the eighteenth century than might be expected. “Opportunity for sexual contact of varying degrees of intimacy existed because young men and women were not continually watched over by the persons with whom they were staying (Hellier 183).” However, this freedom was again given to them by their families. Young couples were only left alone because the adults surrounding them wanted them to be left alone. Many fathers let their daughters choose their husband, because said husband had been gently pushed towards her. So although women had some say and power in their lives, it was power granted them by their husbands. This use of male-granted power is seen clearly in the Byrd women. Two of the most fascinating examples of females exercising their power in 1700s Virginia are the Byrd women. Both Evelyn and Lucy Byrd, daughter and wife (respectively) of gentryman William Byrd II, resisted William’s authority. Lucy stood up to her husband by questioning his orders, standing her ground and expressing her opinion at chosen times, much to William’s annoyance.

Lucy Byrd, wife of William Byrd II. Found on http://blog.encyclopediavirginia.org/2011/05/04/this-day-with-a-flourish-edition/

Lucy Byrd, wife of William Byrd II. Found on http://blog.encyclopediavirginia.org/2011/05/04/this-day-with-a-flourish-edition/

However, one of the most notable and defiant forms of resistance was  forming friendships.  Gentrywomen often visited family and neighbors, and they formed tight networks. In Lucy’s case, she found a group of women, including her sister, whom she went to when she was having trouble with William, and when she suffered miscarriages (Treckel 151-152). In William’s mind, Lucy’s closest friend, Mary Dunn, was a “devil”. She introduced the idea to Lucy that “in case a husband don’t allow his wife mony enough, she may pick his pocket…to do her self justice, of which she is to be her own judge (William Byrd diary).” These radical ideas of female independence scared William, and he grew to dislike Mary. By befriending Mary, Lucy was openly defying her husband, yet she was doing so within the socially condoned realm of close female friendship. Lucy eventually went back to William, and back to submission. However, she continued to keep her fire and desire to have her own mind until her death in 1715. Many years later, William took his daughter to court in England in order to find her a possible husband. However, Evelyn fell in love with a Catholic earl, the one person William did not want her to wed. He forbade the marriage, so Evelyn decided to make a bold choice: not marry. She was true to her promise, and died at age twenty-nine unmarried. Both Lucy and her daughter Evelyn used what little power they had to establish themselves and their independence. They managed to be beloved and well-known gentlewomen without losing themselves entirely.

Women and slaves found community and power in the small boxes in which the gentry-controlled society placed them. They formed families and friendships, and carved out identities for themselves. It is clear that power dynamics in eighteenth-century Virginia were more complicated than they appeared. Instead of staying completely compliant, women and slaves began to use the world to their advantage and slowly shift and change their society for the better. It is often these little disobediences, and not the grand battles, that start the greatest revolutions.

Outside Source

Green, John, and Raul Meyer. “Slavery – Crash Course US History #13.” YouTube. Ed. Rosiana Rojas. YouTube, 2 May 2014. Web. 26 July 2014.

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