On the 10th January 1859 a court in Charleston, South Carolina, advertised the sale of Betty, a twenty-five-year-old enslaved woman. Betty was a ‘breeding woman,’ meaning that slaveholders valued Betty for being young, strong, healthy and, crucially, fertile. Advertised as a family unit with her two-year-old son, Plymouth, Betty had already proven herself to be a financial asset for any future buyer. As a woman, Betty provided sexual labour which resulted in the birth of children that slaveholders exploited for profit.
After the ban on the international slave trade in 1808, slaveholders relied on enslaved women to reproduce to contribute to the expansion and survival of slavery. Enslavers desired women that were strong, healthy, or particularly ‘good looking’ to procreate with enslaved men that were equally as strong and healthy. This was not always consensual. Slaveholders often coerced enslaved men and women into sexual intercourse – sometimes violently. Slaveholders then generated a profit from the fruits of this sexual labour by either forcing enslaved children to work or by selling them away from their loved ones. Enslavers and enslaved alike labelled these men and women, like Betty, ‘breeders.’
The inscription of ‘breeding’ next to Betty’s name in this powerful image tells us much about her life. First, having had Plymouth at around the age of twenty-three, it suggests that her enslaver may have forced her to marry relatively young (though most enslaved women married in their late teens). Whether she married someone of her choosing, or whether they even ‘married’ at all, is unclear. The absence of a male in this family unit suggests that the father of the child either lived on a separate plantation, was dead, had fled slavery, or their enslaver/the court had already sold him away.
Secondly, this advertisement is for a court-mandated sale of enslaved people. Auctions such as this usually took place because the owners had died without their affairs in order, because they had fallen into debt, or they were liquidating their assets. The mention of ‘Under Decree in Equity’ and ‘Master in Equity’ suggests that this sale was a result of foreclosure. This court-ordered sale does tell us, however, that Betty was not sold because she was a ‘bad breeder.’ In fact, the inscription of ‘breeding’ suggests that this was Betty’s key selling point. She is the only enslaved woman in this list who is emphasised for her fertility. Furthermore, by actively writing the word ‘breeding’ next to her name, the prospective buyer tells us that a woman’s fecundity was incredibly important to them. Alternatively, this list may not have been held by a prospective buyer, but by the seller (the court). The inscriptions next to the names of the enslaved people are the key advantages – or in some cases disadvantages – of individuals: perhaps these were used by the seller so they knew what to stress to attendees. Either way, an enslaved woman’s ability to produce children was valuable to both seller and buyer.
What we do not know from this image is how many other children Betty gave birth to. It is not clear whether Plymouth was her only child, or whether she had more children that the slaveholders had already sold away. We also do not know the relationship she had with the father of the child. However, it is clear that for potential buyers of enslaved people, Betty, and other women like her, were valued as ‘two-legged wombs’(1) – enslaved women whose primary role was to bear children for the profit of white slaveholding men and women.
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (McElland and Stewart, 1985), 176. Atwood describes the handmaids, who act as forced surrogate mothers, as “two-legged wombs”.
Aisha Djelid is a doctoral researcher at Reading. You can find her on twitter @aishadjelid