Resisting Reproduction: Reconsidering Slave Contraception in the Old South
The practices of abortion and infanticide seem worthy of at least a fleeting mention in most studies of slave women in the United States, yet few historians mention the use of contraception. Those who do, usually conclude that little is known about the subject, but that it is probably not particularly significant. This article will discuss the use of contraception among slaves and will concentrate, in particular, on the use of cotton roots as a form of birth-control. Evidence that the cotton root was used for this purpose is taken mainly from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) narratives, edited by George Rawick. 1 As yet, the author has come across only a few references to the use of cotton roots as a form of contraception in any other source. The WPA narratives are a controversial source, but, in sifting through every single interview, the multiple references to such an intimate practice were striking and demanded attention. This article forms part of a chapter from a thesis which looks at the work of slave women in the American South. 2
A thorough reading of the WPA narratives reveals not only that slave women used contraception, but also that it may have been very effective. In the context of slave women and work, this is a significant discovery, as the evidence, which is detailed below, suggests that slave women not only understood that their childbearing capacity was seen in terms of producing extra capital, but that they were sufficiently opposed to this function to actually avoid conception. 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.
c1 Liese Perrin is based at the Research and Development Services Office at the University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL. Material from this article was first presented at the 1996 British American Nineteenth-Century Historians Conference at Madingley Hall, Cambridge where I received extremely helpful comments from several delegates. I am grateful for the financial assistance secured by my Head of School whilst at the University of Birmingham, a graduate travel grant from the University of Birmingham, a Research Fellowship from the Virginia Historical Society and a Summer Fellowship from the Institute for Southern Studies all of which facilitated two vital research trips to the United States. My thanks also to Mark Smith, Andrew Miles, Mike Tadman, Emily West, Jay Kleinberg, Peter Ling, John David Smith and Leonard Schwarz for reading and commenting on various drafts of this article. Lastly, I am very grateful to Rob Perrin for his advice on the scientific content.
1 George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Vols. 2–41 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972–1979).
2 Liese M. Perrin, “Slave Women and Work in the American South” (University of Birmingham: Ph.D. diss., 1999).