Slaves and Mistresses

Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South

by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
University of North Carolina Press, 544 pp., $12.95 (paper)

It would be impossible to find women who knew more about plantation life under slavery from experience than those who were slaves and those who owned slaves. Yet when the subject is broached today they do not normally come to mind nor is their testimony brought to bear, but rather that of women who were neither slaves nor owners of slaves nor residents in slave states. They were usually women of antislavery or abolitionist views, who thought and wrote about slavery, but who rarely, if ever, ventured into slave quarters or into slaveholders’ company. They lived up North.

In the present instance, however, we have to thank a daughter of the Deep North for digging up and presenting more neglected testimony of plantation mistresses and their servants than has ever before been assembled so fully or organized and analyzed so cogently and provocatively. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese comes from Ithaca, New York, and teaches women’s history in Atlanta at Emory University. From there she has made the most of her opportunities to ransack the archival riches of the Deep South. As a miner of regional treasure she probably has had no serious rival since General Sherman, except that her findings are put to worthier purposes. Her interests and objectives are limited. It would be well to understand first what they are—what she includes and what she excludes.

The title for Fox-Genovese’s book is more successful than titles often are in telling what it is about and what it is not about. It is about the “Old South,” but by no means all of it—whether chronologically, geographically, or demographically. Among demographic elements excluded are the three-fourths of the white families who owned no slaves. Nor does it include the majority of slave owners, for most of them owned fewer than the minimum of twenty traditionally accepted as defining a “plantation.” Excluded also are most of the slaves, since most slaves did not live on plantations, so defined. And of course all males, free or slave, are off limits in a work devoted to women’s history. It would hardly do to call the women Fox-Genovese does include an “elite” since the majority of them were slaves, but they might well be called “exclusive” in a literal sense. The exclusion fortunately permits some account of relations with those excluded by reason of sex or class. Small as it is, it is a highly significant group, especially if one agrees with the author about the dominant role played by plantation slavery in the antebellum South.

First of all, however, this book is intended as a contribution to women’s history and incidentally as a corrective to prevailing assumptions and practices among historians of women. The main target of criticism is their “essentialist interpretation of women’s experience.” By that is meant “a transhistorical view of women that emphasizes the core biological aspects of women’s identity, independent of time and place, class, nation, and race.” Many women’s historians have felt that “to emphasize the class and race determinants…

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