Positions of African-American Slave Women

Sociologists used to theorize that slavery taught women to be self-reliant, whereas white women of the time were dependent socially and economically on men. This theory was analyzed and revised to say that male slaves were dominant, but directed women to be seemingly self-reliant. Indeed, slaves valued two-parent homes for all their difficulty in achieving them.

On plantations, men and women did equally difficult work and very often did the same jobs. Not all labor by women was traditionally "women's work," though men did not usually perform tasks traditionally done by women. Women worked in the fields alongside the men, but most of the hard labor performed by the men or the women past childbearing age. Pregnant women and nursing mothers were often given lighter work, such as the "trash gang," a gang of field hands consisting of pregnant, nursing, and elderly women. This group was also the one to which a young girl of twelve or so years would be assigned to be acclimated to the hard labor of slaves.
Several positions were open to female slaves that were considered skilled labor and so quite respected by the slave community. One of these was the cook, who prepared food for the master's household and for the slaves themselves when they came back from the fields. Most slaves ate communally, and the women hands did not have the time or means to cook, so those who did were prestigiously skilled among slaves.
The ability to sew was much the same. Most slave women were not taught to sew, nor had they the materials to do so. Some women, however, did know how, and they were responsible for sewing the clothes for the entire slave community and, if they were quite excellent, for the master's family, too.

The skill of midwifery also was strictly for female slaves, and like cooking and sewing was considered highly skilled labor. Learned usually from the mother or other relative, such as an aunt, midwives catered to blacks and whites alike, and continued to be a prominent job among African-American women well into the twentieth century.

Many times slave women were looked up to for leadership because of their occupation, their age, or their number of children, and the fact that the work done by the majority of women was done in groups, the existence of skilled and therefore respected labor strictly for women, and the control of child and medical care by women points to the idea that black females slaves were able to order their own community among women.