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Histories of Women’s Reproduction in Latin America and the Caribbean: Slavery and Emancipation

by Bonnie A. Lucero and Elizabeth O’Brien

Slavery and Emancipation

A growing area of scholarship examines women’s reproduction under the institution of slavery. This line of inquiry grew out of a rich tradition of studies on women in slavery and is informed by the intersectional analysis pioneered by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s landmark 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” 

Marietta Morrissey’s 1989 Slave Women in the New World is a foundational text in this area, offering a sociological inquiry into enslaved women’s status in the broader Caribbean across imperial lines between 1600 and 1800. It includes a chapter comparing enslaved women’s reproduction and family formation in the British, Spanish, French, Dutch, and Danish colonies. More geographically specific studies include Barbara Bush’s Slave Women in Caribbean Society and Bernard Moitt’s Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635–1848, each of which contains chapters on enslaved motherhood in the British and French Caribbean, respectively.

Growing out of that research are an increasing number of studies exploring enslaved women’s reproduction in the British Caribbean, sometimes in comparative perspective with British North America. Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women was one of the first monographs to analyze enslaved women’s reproductive experiences in the British Caribbean and North America. The themes explored in the following foundational texts, primarily covering slave-owners’ efforts to extract reproductive labor from enslaved women and enslaved women’s use of fertility control strategies, significantly influenced the direction of future studies, both of the British colonies and beyond. Katherine Paugh’s The Politics of Reproduction, for example, delves into how the exploitation of enslaved women’s reproduction was central to the process of abolition in the British Caribbean. Sasha Turner’s Contested Bodies examines how enslaved women exerted agency over their mothering and birthing practices despite their enslavement in Jamaica. Merging both these themes, Camillia Cowling’s Conceiving Freedom reconstructs the ways enslaved and freed women in Cuba and Brazil appropriated ideas about motherhood to gain control over their children. Expanding the geographic scope of these previous studies, a recent edited volume, Motherhood, Childlessness and the Care of Children in Atlantic Slave Societies, draws together research on enslaved women’s experience of pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood, and reproductive labor across Brazil, Cuba, the US, and elsewhere. The chapters contained therein also appear in two special issues (“Mothering Slaves”) of Slavery & Abolition and the Journal of Women’s History, both of which have published these important articles related to this topic.

Related to these studies of enslaved women’s reproduction are two other bodies of scholarship, one relating to enslaved women’s intimate relations, and another concerning family formation strategies in slave societies. The collection Sexuality & Slavery, edited by Daina Berry and Leslie Harris, touches on the first topic, probing intimacy among enslaved people as well as across the boundaries of race and legal status, framing it as a site of struggle between enslaved people and slave owners. In the same vein, Jessica Marie Johnson’s Wicked Flesh employs intimacy as a lens through which to understand enslaved and free Black women’s freedom practices in a trans-Atlantic framework that includes West Africa, Cuba, Haiti, and Louisiana. The second line of inquiry—on family formation under slavery—challenges the conventionally elite-focused scholarship on marriage and honor. Books like Karen Y. Morrison’s Cuba’s Racial Crucible and María del Cármen Barcia’s La otra familia uncover the myriad strategies enslaved and free people of color employed to constitute and preserve their kinship networks.

A collection on reproduction under slavery should also include key texts on women, gender, and slavery more generally. Principal examples include the aforementioned Sexuality & Slavery; Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World; Daina Berry’s The Price for their Pound of Flesh; and Deirdre Cooper Owens’s Medical Bondage. Each of these seminal texts places enslaved women’s experiences with medicine and childbearing within the context of the history of slavery, violence, and capitalism.