Alexandra J. Finley, An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America’s Domestic Slave Trade. University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 200 pp.
Reviewed by Mary Lynn Pierce, University of Arizona
Alexandra J. Finley’s An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America’s Domestic Slave Trade is a deeply researched and nuanced study that illuminates antebellum slave traders’ commodification of enslaved women’s domestic, reproductive, and sexual labor. While numerous histories have recounted the role of slaveholders, slave traders, and bankers as the three actors in the slave markets in the South, the key role that enslaved women’s labor played in the slave trade has remained obscure. With An Intimate Economy, Finley seeks to rectify this deficiency.
Drawing on a wide range of primary sources such as enslavers’ account books and court records, Finley demonstrates that enslaved women shouldered the day-to-day labor required for the slave trade to function. Their work contributed to the spread of slavery in the lower South, the expansion of cotton production, and the enrichment of enslavers and slave traders. According to Finley, the role of Black female slaves, who were often enslaved concubines of slaveholders, in the antebellum slave market were varied and extensive (4). Women gave birth to, raised, and sewed the attire worn by the slaves sold in slave markets for profit. They fed the enslaved men, women, and children kept in slave yards and jails and housed clients and agents who traded in the slave markets. Young fair-complexioned enslaved women, mostly in their teens, were bartered and sold for their physical beauty, reproductive ability, and sexual purposes. Women sold for sex were marketed with the euphemisms employed by slave traders: seamstresses, domestic maids, chambermaids, and nurses (14).
An Intimate Economy is organized thematically. In addition to the introduction, conclusion, and epilogue, the book comprises four rich chapters in which Finley makes her arguments through four microhistories, the enslaved Black women’s histories. While chronologically focused on the period from 1840 to 1861, the four microhistories center geographically on the two famous slave markets in Richmond, Virginia, and New Orleans. Each chapter begins with a type that slave traders attributed to enslaved women bartered and sold at the slave market: fancy, seamstress, concubine, and housekeepers. Classifying the slaves as types, one of the technologies of capitalism used to standardize humanity, was part of the development of slavery’s capitalism and central to the violence of slavery. To mark an enslaved woman a “fancy girl, ” for instance, meant disregarding her personal and bodily integrity and sanctity. She was deemed a marketable commodity available for sex and fulfilling white males’ sexual desires and fantasies.
The first chapter, “Fancy,” focuses on the “fancy trade” and various economic roles female slaves like Corinna Hinton, a mulatta enslaved concubine of the slave trader Silas Omohundro, played within it. Sold as a “fancy girl,” she gave birth to her first child when she was fourteen or fifteen years old. She bore six children to Omohundro, who was 18 years her senior. Corinna did everything that antebellum advice literature expected of a wife, including performing as his household manager, assisting with the upkeep of the slave jails and yards, managing his boardinghouses, and preparing clothing for all the slaves in his slave jail (41). In return, Omohundro gave her material comfort, and perhaps a greater possibility of achieving freedom for her and her children someday, but such benefits came at a cost. She had no legal or social advantage as an enslaved woman and, although light-skinned, had to navigate and challenge the constraints of race and sex. Since the birth of her first child in 1849, Hinton wanted the legal status and benefits of a wife, a claim that she had to pursue in courts over Omohundro’s estate because, as an enslaved concubine, she was not his legal heir.
Chapter two, “Seamstress,” looks specifically at enslaved women’s roles in readying slaves for sale and making sale outfits, from preparing their bodies to the construction of fabric and fashioning of their garments. Based on fragmentary archival information, this chapter explores how with the help of enslaved women’s labor, which Finley describes as socially reproductive labor, slave traders manipulated the physical appearance of the slaves to be auctioned to appeal to potential buyers (47). Most enslaved Black women, such as Virginia Isham, owned by the Virginian enslaver Hector Davis, hoped the extra money from sewing would help them buy freedom for themselves and their families. The chapter also considers how slave traders and buyers conflated socially reproductive and sexual labor. Slave traders often employed the term “seamstress” as a synonym for “fancy girl” to sell the light-skinned enslaved women for sex (65). For instance, Mary Ellen Brooks’s sewing abilities had little to do with what made her attractive to her white purchaser. Brooks, a young mulatta woman, died shortly after her sale as a “fancy girl” to the man who bought her to wait on his wife and sew for his family. The purchaser had no wife, as revealed later, and had bought Mary Ellen to fulfill his predatory sexual fantasies.
The following two chapters explore the fetishized commodification of light-skinned enslaved women in antebellum New Orleans, home to one of the largest slave markets in the United States. In chapter three, “Concubine,” Finley investigates the life of Sarah Ann Conner, a mulatta woman whose history existed as an inconsequential anecdote to the life of her infamous enslaver Theophilus Freeman. Enslaved at birth in Virginia, Conner was sold several times before being moved to New Orleans in 1838. Her initial sale in New Orleans took place on 17 April 1838, when she was just twenty years old. Her purchaser, Jane Shelton, hired Conner out for sexual labor (prostitution), an extension of the slave trade’s sexual economy (71). In 1841, Freeman purchased her as his concubine for the primary purpose of emancipating her, using her own money. Conner had saved the proceeds from performing sexual labor to purchase her liberty. Through incompetence or trickery, Freeman’s emancipation promise remained unfulfilled. Ensnared in slavery’s sexual economy, Conner navigated the legal system for years to solidify her freedom.
In chapter four, “Housekeeper,” the life of Lucy Ann Cheatham illustrates how the language of domesticity has buried the inherent sexual exploitation of enslaved Black women. Cheatham’s life spanned the two major slave markets in Richmond and New Orleans. In 1848, well-known slave trader John Hagan purchased Cheatham, thirteen at the time, in Virginia and moved her to New Orleans in 1849. She bore Hagan four children, managed his household, and made a living renting out lodging after his death in 1857 or 1858. Even decades later, Cheatham could not avoid the sexual economy of slavery or the persona many assigned to her: that of a sexually available Jezebel (122).
Overall, An Intimate Economy is a significant achievement. Through meticulous research, Finley has produced a study that adds to our understanding of the sexual economy of the slavery system in the nineteenth-century United States and how the role of Black female slaves’ domestic and sexual labor facilitated the expansion of the burgeoning capitalist economy in the antebellum South.