Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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Gender, Sex, and Slavery

In this activity students read about slavery's effect on women from the perspectives of an enslaved woman and a plantation mistress. Then students create a dialogue between the two women.


  • Students will analyze two descriptions of the lives of enslaved women.  

  • Students will describe how slavery affected women differently than men.  

  • Students will create a dialogue between an enslaved woman and a slaveowner.  


Step 1: Divide students into small groups.  Have students read Sections V and VI ("Trials of Girlhood" and "Jealous Mistress") from Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  Ask students to free write their general impressions, including any aspects of the reading that surprised them.

Step 2: Have students read aloud and discuss the brief excerpts from Harriet Jacobs and Mary Boykin Chestnut ("A Plantation Mistress Decries 'A Monstrous System'").  In discussion, students should address the following questions:

  • Does Jacobs, a formerly enslaved woman, see enslaved women as victims or perpetrators?

  • How does Chestnut, a plantation mistress, see enslaved women?

Step 3: Ask each student to imagine and write a dialogue between Harriet Jacobs and Mary Chestnut.  

Step 4: Based on their written dialogues and a careful study of the readings, ask students to assess gender roles and moral and sexual attitudes under slavery. In their groups, students should address the following:

  • How did sexual or moral attitudes differ for whites and blacks during slavery?

  • Jacobs and Chestnut believe that oppression differs for women and men under slavery. Do you agree?  

  • Why do you think the authors wrote these passages?  Who do you think were the audiences for these writings?  

As students listen to their group members, they should make a list of common points of view and areas of difference between Jacobs and Chestnut.  Then ask groups to reconvene and as an entire class, discuss the differences and similarities between the two women's views.  

Historical Context

The institution of slavery permeated every aspect of American society before the Civil War, and it impacted the lives of women regardless of race or economic status. Defenders of slavery justified the institution on the grounds that there were innate racial differences between blacks and whites. These racial prejudices also helped define gender identities during the antebellum era. Slavery attached different sexual behaviors and traits to white and black women, which were then used as the basis for separate roles for white and black women in both the private and public spheres. Laws and social practices held that white women were fragile, moral, and sexually innocent, while black women were viewed as laborers and over-sexed beings. In the intimate setting of the household, such inequalities ensured that relations between white and black women were fraught with distrust, jealousy, and rage. Plantation mistresses were often well aware that the men in their lives took advantage of black enslaved women sexually; enslaved women could not escape white men's sexual attentions and rape was common. Many white slave mistresses used their "higher" racial standing to take out their frustrations about their confined role in society and their menfolk's infidelities, on black women. Black women had to cope with the unpredictable actions of both the master and mistress.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Gender, Sex, and Slavery,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 30, 2023,

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