Claiming Femininity and Freedom

Post War Freedwomen 

At the conclusion of the Civil War, African American women worked to define themselves as freedwomen in southern society and culture. African American women struggled to create a separate identity from that of property assumed under the oppressive system of slavery. During the period of Reconstruction, the newly emancipated African American men and women had the task of defining themselves as freedmen and freedwomen. African American women attempted to define the freedwoman through claiming the rights of womanhood that were previously denied to women slaves and defining domestic labor terms when contracting work to former masters and new employers.

Freed African American women were eager to claim the right of freedom and womanhood after emancipation and the Civil War. Betty Jones a slave in Charlottesville, VA, remembered her grandmother running to the mistress of the plantation and yelling, “Yes, I’se free! Ain’t got to work fo’ you no mo’. You can’t put me in yo’ pocket now!”[1] Jones realized that with freedom came an identity that she could not claim as a slave because she was considered the property of her master. Some African American freedwomen now wanted to claim the roles of southern white women. A number of freedwomen took on the role of femininity by quitting work all together in order to run their own household and be supported by their husbands.[2] Freedwomen wanted to enjoy the same leisure roles as southern white women. The women who did quit work all together felt privileged that they could place their family over their work.[3] It was clear that creating households independent from the eyes of the plantation was one of the most important goals for freedwomen after the war.

Mary Jones, a white southern employer wrote to her daughter in 1865 about a conversation she overheard between two freedwomen working in her house. Jones wrote that Cooke Kate and Flora said they looked forward to purchasing, “gold watches and chains, bracelets, and blue veils and silks dresses.”[4] The African American women’s expectations of freedom after emancipation were to be treated like a gentlewoman for the first time in their lives. The African American women wanted to claim the right to womanhood through owning a bracelet and silk dresses because enslaved women were deprived of these feminine materials, which in turn deprived them of claiming a sense of femininity. After the Civil War, African American women worked toward their aspirations of femininity and freedom through defining their own terms of domestic work.

Before the Civil War, over one-third of the slave workforce in South Carolina worked as domestic servants. [5] After the war, the majority of freed African American women did not have the resources to support their family and in turn had to work in domestic labor. The women who were forced to work in the homes of former slave owners contracted their labor out to do specific domestic work instead of being in charge of all the personal and household needs of the family. African American women began to define their work by specific skill. For instance, one African American woman would insist on not doing the laundry or beating the mattresses because of her physical strength. Declining a job because of physical strength would not have been an option for women during slavery. Before freedom, enslaved women would be forced to be a “jill-of-all-trades” in the house no matter her physical capabilities. [6] Freedwomen were now able to define their own roles in domestic labor instead of having specific workloads placed on them. Freed African American women also resisted doing any extra work that would have been mandatory during slavery. A Freedman’s Bureau representative in South Carolina remembers freed women refusing to do any “mudwork” such as chopping firewood and mending fences, all of which had been a part of their workload during slavery. [7] The terms the freed women created for their employment were there to make an important distinction between their enslavement on the plantation and their employment in freedom.

African American free women claimed freedom through defining new time limits for domestic labor. For instance, sixteen-year-old Margaret Brown, an employee of a plantation owner in South Carolina, “rejected weaving after night.”[8] The act of women placing limits on the tasks employers assigned to them was a critical way for freedwomen to claim freedom over themselves. Gertrude Thomas, an elite woman in South Carolina, also experienced the limits that freed women were placing on contracted domestic labor. Thomas remembers a washerwoman she hired being through with her workload by dinnertime. As a result, Thomas gave her another load to complete before she went home. The woman responded by refusing to wash the next load and telling Thomas “that she was tired” and needed to see after her own family. After an argument back and forth Thomas’s hired help left her house without finishing the second load of laundry and without being paid. [9] The freed laundress that Gertrude employed claimed her new freedom by limiting the authority that Thomas had over her. Winslow Homer’s painting, A Visit from the Old Mistress, illustrated the tension between the freed African American women and the old mistress. The pictures shows that the relationship is awkward and has not quite been defined, which is why African women worked so hard to define that relationship.


A Visit from the Old Mistress,

Freed African American women’s daunting task of claiming femininity and defining the terms of their freedom led to an increase in racial tension from the white upper class in the south. Black women were seen as disrupting the social order and becoming “lazy workers” after emancipation. E. B. Hayward, a southern planter in South Carolina after the war, wrote to his daughter in 1867 complaining about the women becoming, “lazy and trying your patience severely.” Hayward complained about how long the domestic labor now took and how the freed women seemed perfectly indifferent to the process. [10] African American freed women responded to the challenge of creating their own feminine identity and defining their freedom despite the violence and resistance they faced from the white community. The new voice that emerged from African American women by claiming femininity and defining their own terms in domestic labor showed their desire for attaining the stereotypical ideal womanhood.

Heath Beauchamp

 Notes to the text:
[1]Betty Jones, Interviewed by: Emmy Wilson and Claude W. Anderson. Weevils in the Wheat. Eds. Charles Perdue, Thomas Barden and Robert Phillips. (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1976), 180.
[2] Laura Edwards, Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 137.
[3] Nora Lee Frankel, Freedom’s Women (Indianapolis: Indiana Press University, 1999), 63-64.
[4] Mary Jones to Daughter, November 17, 1865 in The Children of Pride, ed. Robert Manson Myers (New York: Popular Liberty, 1972)
[5] Leslie A. Schwalm, A Hard Fight for Freedom (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 207.
[6] Schwalm, A Hard Fight for Freedom, 209.
[7] Ibid., 175.
[8] Ibid., 177.
[9] Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, The Secret Eye (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1990), 270-272
[10] Schwalm, A Hard Fight for Freedom, 205.

One thought on “Claiming Femininity and Freedom

  1. Pingback: Women of the Old South

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s