CRG Thursday Forum:

Gendering the Early American Marketplace: Slavery, Sexuality, and Trade


Female Soul Drivers, Lady Flesh Stealers, and She-Merchants in the American Slave Trade
Stephanie Jones-Rogers, Department of History
Conventional understandings of nineteenth-century American slave markets virtually erase white women from these commercial spaces. They appear as places hustling and bustling with nothing but white men and enslaved African Americans. White men transported the slaves to market. They were the individuals that went to the market to inspect and examine slaves, interrogate them about their pasts, and assess their suitability for the labor they would subsequently perform. They were the ones to prepare and expose them for sale and to auction them off. They were the ones to sell them or buy them and take them home. Yet slave markets were not off-limits to white women. Women were among the ordinary southerners who traversed and navigated the spaces in which traders, speculators, and brokers bought and sold human beings, separated families, and forced enslaved people to reconstruct their lives in new and unfamiliar places. They bought and sold slaves in these spaces and, even more than this, white women occasionally partnered with and worked for the men who were engaged in the slave trade in hopes of augmenting their personal wealth, too.
The talk highlights three groups of women who profited from their commercial ties to the nineteenth-century American slave trade. It examines the commercial activities of several female slave traders. It explores the experiences of women who owned establishments, like slave yards, that provided vital services to those engaged in the slave trade. And it reveals how female merchants, who were not directly involved in slave market activities, profited from the trade by offering their goods and services to the individuals who were. By paying close attention to these women’s pecuniary investments in the business of slavery, this paper helps to situate them firmly at the center of nineteenth-century America’s most significant and devastating system of economic exchange.
‘Ladies,’ Auctions, and the Gender of Value
Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, Department of History, UC Davis
In 1816, businessmen in several American cities established new “Ladies’ Auction Rooms” dedicated to female bidders.  These enterprises immediately came under attack in the pages of local newspapers, which assailed them for promoting race-mixing and sexual danger.  Newspaper debates quickly escalated into full-blown political campaigns at the state and national level to tax auctions nearly out of existence.  These campaigns drew on longstanding suspicions that auctions were places of shady dealing and bad behavior.  They gained momentum as postcolonial protests, since many of the goods for sale at auction had been “dumped” there by British manufacturers immediately at the end of the War of 1812.  And they voiced emerging ideas about civic engagement in a free-trading world.  Yet an unexamined gender problem launched the auction wars of the 1820s.  The case of the Ladies’ Auction Rooms reveals Americans grappling with their profound discomfort over the question of value in a monetizing culture.  What was an object or a relationship worth?  How could people judge fair prices from foul when they were variable, rather than conventional?  And what were the broader implications for how people used economic institutions to negotiate intimate relationships?  This paper looks at the place of women’s work and women’s bodies in nineteenth-century auctions to investigate how ideas about gender shaped emerging understandings about the connection between value and price in the American marketplace.