Enslaved women and the law: Paradoxes of subordination in the post-Revolutionary Carolinas

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Focusing on court cases in North and South Carolina, 1787–1840, this article argues that enslaved women occupied acknowledged spaces within southern law and even shaped its application and content. The analysis examines enslaved women's legal standing within the context of state-building following the American Revolution. Although historians of U.S. slavery usually look to statutes and appellate decisions, this body of law–and its impersonal, abstract categories—did not yet comprise a definitive body of state law. Rather, the legal order was localized, with lower courts exercising considerable authority over law. At the local level, the legal process was highly personalized, inseparable from social relations in local communities. Those dynamics, particularly the patriarchal relations that tied slaves to whites, allowed enslaved women influence and presence in law. Yet legal recognition resulted from their gendered subordination within a particular kind of patriarchal order, which also denied enslaved women the elements of legal personhood that would become so important in the South and the nation as a whole.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)305-323
Number of pages19
JournalSlavery and Abolition
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2005
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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