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Women of violence: challenging perceptions of enslaved women’s resistance in the antebellum United States, 1808-1861

Shearer, E. F. (2024) Women of violence: challenging perceptions of enslaved women’s resistance in the antebellum United States, 1808-1861. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00115296


Violence permeated all aspects of slavery in the US antebellum South. Historians have devoted considerable attention to the study of the violent forces which shaped American slavery and the responses it engendered among the enslaved who engaged in a plethora of resistance tactics. From 1808 to the start of the Civil War, enslaved women engaged in violent forms of resistance against white Southerners including overseers, enslavers, slave traders, slaveholding family members and other white US citizens. Despite a wealth of evidence demonstrating the pervasiveness of enslaved women’s perpetrated violence in the antebellum South, historiographies of slavery have typically characterised enslaved women’s resistance as covert, in-direct and crucially, non-violent. Thus, enslaved women’s resistance has largely been understood as non-threatening, ‘everyday’ and less likely to disrupt the day-to-day regime of slavery. ‘Women of Violence’ strongly challenges the perception that enslaved women’s resistance was predominantly bound within the prism of covert ‘everyday resistance.’ This thesis examines enslaved women’s violence against overseers and enslavers, both men and women, providing an in-depth examination of the ways in which enslaved women facilitated their acts of violence and the motives behind their actions. Enslaved women deployed a diverse array of violent techniques including assault, murder, arson, poison, sexual violence, and the weaponisation of commonplace objects and items. Through a comprehensive examination of enslaved people’s testimony, fugitive narratives, slaveholder correspondence, legal records and newspaper reports, this thesis opens a new window into the study of Black female resistance in the antebellum South, examining the myriad ways in which enslaved women and girls violently challenged and threatened the system of slavery. This thesis argues for a broader conceptualisation of resistance, one which disrupts the gendered discourse of violence which exists within historical scholarship and public imagination. In doing so, this work explores the intersections of race, gender and resistance in the antebellum South and challenges the gendered boundaries historians have drawn around power and agency in slavery.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:West, E.
Thesis/Report Department:Department of History
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Humanities > History
ID Code:115296
Date on Title Page:October 2023


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