In They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, a thoroughly unsettling yet brilliant piece of women’s history, [Rogers-Jones] reveals that, contrary to both popular and academic conceptions of the genteel Southern belle, white women were directly involved in and gained substantial personal economic benefit from the Southern slave economy of the nineteenth century ... Many revelatory findings are unearthed in the work’s central chapters ... The author brings depth and nuance to all areas of this pathbreaking examination ... They Were Her Property is an uncomfortable piece of women’s history, yet it is one that is both powerful and necessary. It challenges long-standing notions of white women’s position within slavery, casting them as independent actors who subjugated enslaved peoples for personal pecuniary benefit. In doing so, this work undermines the false notion that southern women were somehow the compassionate allies of enslaved peoples. It also suggests that it is here that we find the roots of a female white supremacy that, one could argue, continues into the present—as evidenced by the fact that almost half of all white women voted Republican in the last presidential election.
Drawing on accounts such as White’s, the historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers provides the first extensive study of the role of Southern white women in the plantation economy and slave-market system ... At every turn in her analysis, Jones-Rogers takes care to illuminate how we know what we know. Her central sources are firsthand accounts by enslaved persons ... Jones-Rogers argues persuasively that white Southern women were active as hirers and buyers and sellers of slaves, and that plantation households were extensions of the market. Again, she is able to cross-reference firsthand accounts by former slaves with other sorts of sources, such as slave traders’ account books and bills of sale ... In holding slave-owning women to account, Jones-Rogers has provided a brilliant, innovative analysis of American slavery, one that sets a new standard for scholarship on the subject.
...a definitive account of how deeply invested white women were in the slave economy of the South. Jones-Rogers’s book is a compendium of the actions taken by white women to preserve the wealth they had in human flesh as theirs alone. It scrupulously dismantles any image of slave-owning women as somehow less involved ... Jones-Rogers’s work also aligns with recent representations of slavery in popular media and historical fiction, which have revised their portrayals of white women as the myth of a special feminine compassion has begun to be dismantled ... Jones-Rogers continues to fill in the violent picture set out by these revisionary—which is to say, accurate—representations ... herein lies the greatest innovation of Jones-Rogers’s book—to show that the power white women wielded over enslaved people, reflected in horrific violence, extended into the economic structures of slavery ... They Were Her Property is a story of white women attaining power, and the book makes it undeniably clear that there is nothing inherently feminist or liberatory about the mere fact of women gaining power.
...stunning ... It’s these assumptions about female slaveowning as a kind of passive, half-hearted practice that Jones-Rogers is challenging with her book—and with them, the idea that white women were innocent bystanders to the white male practice of enslavement ... Jones-Rogers began this shift in historical perspective by looking away from letters and diaries of elite white women that formed the documentary basis for earlier histories, and toward the testimony of the people who had been in bondage.
Finding new primary sources, or in some cases re-evaluating sources (such as the testimony of formerly enslaved people), is Jones-Rogers’ most impressive scholarly strength. She has little patience with what she sees as a long-perceived but incorrect assumption that white women played anything but a central role in slaveholding America, and she makes this point convincingly ... Scholars often overstate or repeat a thesis many times to make their point. This book does exactly that ... They Were Her Property is dense, it’s argumentative, and it skirts the issue of alternative ways for women to fit into a broken, problematic culture. It is least convincing when claiming that white women, from the Civil War era through Reconstruction, downplayed their own direct participation in slavery ... But these problematic elements are outweighed by Jones-Rogers’ use of innovative research to cast light on an area that may forever change how American history is discussed.