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Women slave owners face their historians: versions of maternalism in Atlantic World slavery

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Foster investigates the current debate over the status of free women in Atlantic World slavery. This debate is marked not only by competing perspectives among professional historians but by conversations between historians, filmmakers, novelists, genealogists and popular writers. Traditionally, this kind of complex interaction has produced fictional icons like Scarlett O'Hara and Melanie Hamilton of the novel and film Gone with the Wind, figures that influenced southern Americans' ideas of themselves and academic historians' models of gender roles within slavery. As American slavery is more frequently assessed within a full Atlantic World and transnational context, the 'free woman within slavery' question has grown radically more nuanced and contradictory in a relatively short period of time. Particularly suspect is the older idea that servitude and race-based slavery systems served to expand paternal privilege and authority. Foster's article is oriented around the question of whether a multicultural 'maternalism' might have existed to complement or compete with paternal authority within slavery. The first section explores the paradox of free women, acting as metaphorical 'mothers' to enslaved dependents, being portrayed by male contemporaries as desexualized and sexually debauched. The second section shows the restricted way that some historians have defined 'female mastery' and the sometimes very different and less restricted ways free women described their own brands of 'mastery'. The third and final section surveys recent film and novels to assess the possibilities and limitations of achieving a transatlantic perspective on maternalism in current, historically informed popular culture. This review concludes by arguing that all these historical, historiographical and popular materials help to illustrate a new model of New World slavery, one deeply influenced by unstable Atlantic World gender hierarchies far more contradictory, complex and multicultural than the venerable 'Scarlett v. Melanie' debate and expanding paternal privilege ideas are able to encompass.

Keywords: free women; gender; mastery; maternalism; slave owners; slavery

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: July 1, 2007

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