“In Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South”

In my African American History: Slave Trade to Reconstruction course, we had to read the first chapter and write a response on “In Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South” by Marie Jenkins Schwartz. The following was my response,

“Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South” by Marie Jenkins Schwartz is about the relationship between the survival of slavery after the end of the slave trade, slave women’s fertility, and the advancement of medicine in women’s health. Schwartz argues that after the end of the slave trade, slaveholder’s choice to focus on the fertility of slave women reflected the importance of human reproduction to the continuance of slavery. She also argues that this emphasis on the reproductive system of slave women aided in the advancement of doctor’s knowledge of women’s health. Schwartz supports her initial argument by illustrating the different ways in which slaveholders controlled women’s reproduction. Slaveholders hired white male doctors to aid them in the control slave women’s bodies. Slaveholders encouraged the marriage of his/her slaves if he saw the slightest interested among the slaves. Slaves that were married and produced children had benefits such as separate housing with furnishing. Slaveholders also tried to ensure a mate for their bondwomen and viewed bondwomen that could not bear children as problematic.


In some cases, slaveholders locked a slave man and a slave woman in a room together so that they would “mate”. Even though this did not happen often, according to Schwartz, slave women were fearful that they might be forced to have children with a man not of their choice, this led to slave women finding partners at younger ages. Schwartz supports her argument about the advancement of medicine in women’s health by claiming that doctors did not know much about women’s bodies before this emphasis on the childbearing of slave women. Schwartz states that at the time most young physicians witnessed the first birth of a child in the slave quarters. She also states that the subject of infertility led doctors to discuss and investigate matters of sex and sexuality that had not been topics of discussion. She also alludes to this emphasis on the slave women’s body as a gateway to the specialty of OBG-YN. I think Schwartz makes a compelling argument.


As I was reading this, the attitude she described the slaveholders had for their slave women reminded me of the handling of cattle. The forced sexual encounters and the assurances of a “mate” for certain slaves sounded like the breeding of cattle or horses. Schwartz highlights this similarity towards the second half of the first chapter. Because the slaveholders viewed and treated the slaves like animals with the sole purpose of maximizing profit, violence towards women and the formation of stereotypes towards black people were perpetuated. This obsession that slaveholders had with controlling slave women’s bodies in the early to mid 19th century, in my opinion, can be linked with the frequent occurrences of violence towards women and misogyny we see in today’s society. Just like slaveholders felt entitled to the control of their slave women’s reproduction because of some “paternalistic” duty, men today feel entitled to controlling women’s bodies in the same vain. Even though, the focus on slave women’s bodies brought advancement in medicine, it also assigned harsh stereotypes to black women because of the very fact that it created dialogue about sexuality. As Schwartz eloquently states,

“Both medical discourse and treatment regimens reflected and reinforced [the stereotype that black women are governed by their libido], which served to dehumanize black women at the very time that they were engaging in the most human of acts – birthing a child.”

Black women held in bondage were victims in every sense of the word.


In the last sentence when I stated, “Black women held in bondage were victims in every sense of the word”, I meant they were doubly oppressed. They suffered from the oppression of being both a woman and a slave. As my professor pointed out to me, though blacks women’s bodies were made a central focus and were subject to control by white males, this did give black bondwomen some agency given the importance their reproduction had on the economy and the culture on the South. I do think though, that this obsession to control black bondwomen’s bodies has a direct relationship to rape and men’s attitude toward women in today’s society. I thought this was a really interesting read and also an issue that does not get spoken about often when talking about women and slavery.


One thought on ““In Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South”

  1. Have you watched “12 Years a Slave”?

    I had been thinking a lot about the slave woman and her body when I went to watch it. I think it was from something that Prof. Parham said in class, and I would really like to see this conversation about the black woman’s body continued. Especially in light of the several twitter hashtags that still surround the body and sexuality of the black woman, in America.

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