Hat tip R-Evolution
Enslaved Black American Women terminating/preventing pregnancies as resistance…
Women resisted reproduction in order to resist slavery. They resisted reproduction by finding medicine or herbs that would terminate pregnancy or by practicing abstinence. For example, chewing on cotton root was one of the more popular methods that enslaved women used to perform abortion and end a pregnancy. This method was often used because there was a large supply of the plant and it was easy to acquire, especially for the women who worked on cotton fields. Gossypol was one of the many substances found in all parts of the cotton plant and it was described by the scientists as ‘poisonous pigment’. It also appears to inhibit the development of sperm or even restrict the mobility of the sperm. Also, it is thought to interfere with the menstrual cycle by restricting the release of certain hormones. Women’s knowledge of different forms of contraception helped them have control of some factors in their life.
By resisting reproduction the enslaved women took control over their bodies and it was one of the major things that they could do to stand up for themselves. Richard Follet explains that, “by consciously avoiding pregnancy or through gynecological resistance, black women reclaimed their own bodies, frustrated the planters’ pro-natalist policies, and in turn defied white male constructions of their sexuality. Whether swallowing abortifacients such as calomel and turpentine or chewing on natural contraceptives like cotton roots or okra, slave women wove contraception and miscarriages through the dark fabric of slave oppositional culture.“ Deciding to have an abortion was not an easy decision to make for the enslaved women, but in the gruesome reality of slavery, the benefits outweighed the harms. By using various ways to resist reproduction, women made their masters believe that they really could not have children. Deborah Gray White cites several cases of women who were considered by their masters to be infertile during slavery. These women went on to have several healthy children after they were freed.
Ostracized and enslaved women found other ways to resist reproduction and one of them was abstinence. “Slave men and women appear to have practised abstinence, often with the intention of denying their master any more human capital.” It was not just women who resisted reproduction, in some instances men did also. An ex-slave, Virginia Yarbrough, explained how one slave woman persuaded the man that her master told her to live with to practice abstinence. After three months, the master realized that the couple were not going to produce any children, so he let her live with the man of her choice and they had kids. “By abstaining from sexual intercourse, she was able to resist her master’s wishes and live and have children with the man she loved.”
Women resisted reproduction because they wanted to deprive their owners of future property and profit. “In addition to the labor they provided, the enslaved were a profitable investment: Their prices rose steadily throughout the antebellum era, as did the return that slave owners could expect when slaves reproduced.” Liese M. Perrin also proclaims that, “In avoiding direct confrontation, slave women had the potential to resist in a way which pierced the very heart of slavery- by defying white slave owners the labour and profits that their children would one day provide.” Another reason why women resisted reproduction was to make sure that their children will not have to live through such horrendous experiences as slaves. Slave children were also forced to start working at a very young age which would take the childhood experience away from them. Additionally, there was almost no time for the mother and child to bond and allow their relationship to grow.
Enslaved women and their children could be separated at any time, and even if they belonged to the same owner, strict labor policies and plantation regulations limited the development of their relationships. Furthermore, women were forced to perform difficult tasks even if they were pregnant. Sometimes when they were coerced to work really hard, it would cause a miscarriage or a problem with child birth. Richard Follett explains that “heavy physical work undermines reproductive fitness, specifically ovarian function, and thus limits success in procreation.” Moreover, if the enslaved woman ended up having the child, she had to feed her child while working in the field. For instance, in Freedom on My Mind it is said that “as an infant, he rode on his mother’s back while she worked in the fields to nurse.” The use of contraception can be seen not only as a form of resistance, but also, more specifically, as a form of strike, since reproduction was an important work role for most slave women.