Life in the Box: Women as Slaves

May 25, 2024

George Bernard Shaw once wrote that he wanted to work for a greater purpose, and not be “a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making [me] happy.”

It’s like he knew and described the current base of the Republican Party!

That ties into another quote that has affected my thinking lately. In the early 1910s, as women’s suffrage was gaining ground, one newspaper stated, “It is now time… for men to stop considering themselves the center of the universe.” And, journalist Jovita Ivar wrote, “Women are no longer slaves sold for a few coins. They are no longer men’s servants but their equals, their partners.”

For some reason, I hadn’t ever named America’s long-held culture of bigotry against and oppression of woman as “slavery.” Strong language like that connects me with yet another thing I’ve learned recently: I’m the descendant of slaves.

One of my great-great (6 greats) grandmothers was born into slavery in Virginia in 1770. Her name was Susanna “Sukey” Jones. She lived to have a child by her first “owner,” be emancipated by him, inherit slaves (possibly one being her own mother) and run their 160-acre plantation, move with her son (and some slaves) to Missouri in 1819, pass as white and get a legal marriage certificate in 1821 with a man who knew her history.  She and her second husband cared for her son’s children after her son’s death in 1832. She died in Missouri about 1839, near the time of her second husband’s death.

I’ve always considered myself “white,” and my DNA profile doesn’t show African heritage, so this new research has been, if not a shock, at least something to puzzle over.  

What was Susanna’s life like? How was it different from my other great-grandmothers?

First, my other (white) great-grandmothers weren’t ever bought or sold. That’s a big one. And, they weren’t forcibly separated from their parents like Susanna was. Another big one. Slaves didn’t have any choices as children, were likely not educated or able to read, and had no legal rights. No Legal Rights.

No choice in what labor they had to accept, nor at what age they must start this labor. No choice in housing, clothing or food. Or amount of food. No retribution if beaten, whipped, tortured or killed.

For girls, no choice about who would use them for sex. No choice in how many children they would bear and raise. No birth control, no sexual control.

No control of a LOT.

My other great-grandmothers of that era had a bit more choice, depending on their marital and financial status. No matter their social status, white women had legal status of “wife” and “mother,” and were able to live together with their children and not be forcibly separated, as long as they had good husbands who supported the family unit.

It’s hard to ignore that old familiar trope: men get jobs; women get married. Married women held more status than unmarried women or concubines. Yet, all of them were indeed limited by men.

Were my white grandmothers treated as chattel? I suppose that’s the question, isn’t it? There is so much history of men seeing women as second class or worse. Violence against wives, and even rape, was legal. White men held all the offices of government, made all the laws, enforced all the laws. Held all the money. Held most of the power. Women had to rely on their power to influence from the back rooms.

Side note: remember that the constitutional amendment allowing women to vote was finally ratified in 1920 in Tennessee by only one vote: by a man who was set against the change, but gave in when his mother convinced him it was the right thing to do.

As I write this on Memorial Day weekend, I also acknowledge that life for men isn’t completely free, either. We all have constraints. The biggest obligation landing on predominantly male shoulders has always been military service, and that hasn’t always been voluntary. Many of us are old enough to remember the draft cards burning in protest during the Vietnam War. How many men have suffered and died in horrible conditions of war, against their will? I acknowledge that conscription and war are horrible burdens, and I would never deny the unfairness of that pain. 

But the social structures and laws regarding daily life, outside of war, have favored and still favor men. White men, who set up a “majority rules” government, and are now suffering the possibility of becoming a minority in America.

So, now it seems they are trying to rewrite the rules, and the Supreme Court is helping them by reinforcing old patterns that restrict the votes of certain racially non-white neighborhoods. Rescinding the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was supposed to end practices that prevented African Americans from voting. And I’ve also heard rumblings of conservatives wanting to rescind women’s right to vote, too. Conservative judges have already rescinded the rights of women to decide how many children to have if abortion is needed. I’ve heard that the fundamental reason for limiting birth control and abortions has to do with making more white people be born! The other Supreme Court ruling that says corporations are “people” has been a rocket ship to launch rich white corporate donors into the upper echelons of Congress.

Well, now back to my story. Susanna was light skinned enough to pass as white, and likely that was because she was one of a long line of slaves born of unions with white men, forced or not. What were her great-great grandmothers like, and where did they come from? When did they land in America? What were their lives like? What were their names? Susanna’s first “owner” and likely her father, had the name of John Jones. With a name that common, I doubt I’ll be able to research any further back than that, especially on the “illegitimate children” side of things.

There’s too much spinning in my head right now: imbalances in power, choice, slavery, violence used to enforce slavery, and the current movement back towards disempowering women and minorities. I’m still at a loss for the big picture, but I feel these are some of the pieces that are extremely active in our world and country.

Too many of today’s wealthy and middle-class Americans are like those described by George Bernard Shaw, making little grievances seem like big ones. Ignoring all the amazing choices they have in their lives. Wanting the world to revolve around them; always feeling neglected. If my great-great grandmothers were here now, they would recognize that sentiment. And they would fight mightily against it.   

Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, narrating and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and life issues, both inside and outside the box. Her opinions are her own, and are not necessarily those of this web site. She’s now showing photos on Smug Mug

National Parks Service summary of the ratification of the 19th Constitutional Amendment for women’s suffrage  

George Bernard Shaw’s quotation

Book with quotes about women and slavery: Texas Through Women’s Eyes: The Twentieth-Century Experience, By Judith N. McArthur, Harold L. Smith. 

Recent Rulings by the American Supreme Court 

Article about The Supreme Court’s Conservative Super Majority by the New York State Bar Association

Escape Into Life story of Jovita Ivar

Excellent Book: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent NY Times book Review


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