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When Women Enslaved Women

One component of the creative project I'm working on involves examining the relationship between an enslaved woman and the woman who owns her. Women were active participants in the slave economy. They purchased and sold enslaved workers. They rented out the labor of the people they owned. And they actively sought the capture and punishment of those who attempted to self-emancipate. This piece, and the accompanying video, will provide a snapshot of how women conducted business in the slave trade, starting with a look at Martha Washington and her enslaved personal maid, Ona Judge.

Ladies Maid

Ona (Oney) Judge was born to Betty, one of Martha Washington's dower slaves, and Andrew Judge an English-born white man who was indentured by George Washington in 1773. She became Martha Washington's personal maid perhaps around the age of ten or twelve. As Mrs. Washington's maid, Ona would have traveled rather extensively and would have shared spaces with prominent revolutionaries. Martha Washington would ensure that Ona dressed smartly and was poised and graceful in her duties, as Ona and her service was a reflection of Mrs. Washington's status.

Ona was part of the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis and that brought its own set of dangers. Ona may have feared most being passed down to Mrs. Washington's heirs. In fact, it may have been this knowledge that made Ona so determined to escape and remain "free."

Life in Philadelphia

When she was a young teenager, Ona was brought to Philadelphia by President and Mrs. Washington. She received a bit of money and a bit of time for social entertainment. It likely was through this small amount of so-called freedom that she found herself immersed in the large free-Black communities and the Quaker abolitionist circles that flourished in Philadelphia.

The Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780, which provided a system for the emancipation of people born into slavery, caused some complications for the first President. He called upon his Attorney General to review the Pennsylvania law and found that he would be subject to a provision in the Act that would free his enslaved workers if he kept them in state longer than six months. On the advice of his Secretary Tobias Lear, he chose to rotate his enslaved workers between Mount Vernon and Philadelphia.

And yet, it was this very practice that gave Ona a chance to self-emancipate. As the Washingtons were preparing to return to Mount Vernon, Ona Judge left the Washingtons.

"Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go. I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty." - Ona Judge Staines, 1845

Ona's escape infuriated both George and Martha Washington, who insisted the enslaved woman was treated like family. The Washington's maintained that Ona was "brought up and trained more like a child than a servant." Ona would counter that the Washingtons did nothing of the sort.

George Washington would have been particularly concerned about the financial impact of Ona's escape. As an asset in the Custis estate, Washington would have to reimburse the estate her worth if she didn't return. Martha Washington may have felt a more personal betrayal when her maid escaped. She pressured her husband to advertise a reward for Ona's capture and return, but he recognized that this would be a bad look for the first president.

Women Owning Women

Women enslaved other women. And while some relied on husbands and male relatives to conduct the business of slavery, many did not, becoming full participants in the slave economy on their own. They attended slave auctions, made purchases, and sold their people. Many of these women came into slaveholding when they inherited or were gifted enslaved workers. Women enslavers were savvy businesswomen in an evil trade and they were well-aware of their legal rights and obligations.

And enslaved people also learned about the property rights women had and the laws that governed their actions. As they worked, they eavesdropped on conversations among women enslavers, gaining important knowledge about how they treated the people they owned.

Benevolent Mistress? Not So Much.

Despite Martha Washington's claim, women didn't treat their enslaved workers like family. But women often treated their enslaved workers in ways that facilitated smart financial decisions. They would establish work schedules, disciplinary actions, food, and health care in ways that would ensure their workers were able to do just that…work. Women enslavers made choices that would keep their assets working and preserve their monetary value.

And while it was generally believed that expert slaveholders knew how to get the best production from their people without resorting to violence, women slaveholders did indeed incorporate calculated violence as part of their management strategies. It was not unheard of for women slaveholders to have their workers beaten, raped, starved, and overworked. But many used less noticeable micro-attacks against the people they owned - stabbing a lady's maid with a pin was barely noticeable except to the woman feeling the bite of the needle. Pressing a cook's hand to a burning kettle could be seen as an "accident."

Reproductive violence was a mainstay in the slave economy and women enslavers helped perpetuate it; although, in British colonial America, slaveholders didn't manipulate enslaved women's reproductive potential as their descendants would later. Enslaved women who become pregnant created unwelcome challenges for their owners, both the loss of work as the woman's pregnancy progressed and immediately after childbirth, and the expense of enslaved babies, who used resources but didn't contribute to them. In Maryland, slave status came through the mother. As did ownership. And women enslavers would break up families when it was the right financial choice.

The threat of reproductive violence may have been Ona Judge's most compelling motivation for escaping the Washingtons. As part of the Custis estate, Ona was destined to be passed along to Martha Washington's heirs, in particular, Eliza Parke Custis Law. The Washingtons' granddaughter was known for her volatile temper, but that would not have been Ona's only fear. Thomas Law, Eliza's husband, already had mixed-race children outside his marriage. Knowing that Law had slept with nonwhite women before, Ona had reason to fear that repeated rape by her young mistress's husband could be in her future.

Ona's New Life

The Washington's worked diligently to try to bring Ona back into their possession, enlisting friends and relatives to help. First, Washington sent Joseph Whipple, Portsmouth's collector of customs, to retrieve her. What Washington didn't know was that Whipple leaned toward abolition, so instead of bringing Ona back to Virginia, he warned her to get away.

The next attempt to bring her back involved Martha Washington's cousin, Burwell Basset Jr. Basset had no qualms about returning Ona to enslavement; however, he shared his plans with Senator John Langdon, a former slaveholder who had emancipated his slaves and had begun paying his workers for their labor. Senator Langdon distracted Basset with fine hospitality while sending a messenger to warn Ona to get away.

Ona would marry Jack Staines, a seaman, and with him build a family of five. In 1845 and 1846, Ona gave interviews to abolitionist newspapers in New Hampshire in which she criticized the Washingtons for their lack of piety and their penchant for parties, drinking, and card-playing, especially on Sundays. She denied that the Washingtons had treated her like family, as they had claimed, and said that her commitment to education and Christianity was nurtured after she left them.

Ona Judge Staines died on February 25, 1848.

She was a free woman.


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