Jones-Rogers Illuminates Enslaved Wet Nurses

By Ashley Serpa – In the antebellum era, wet nursing by enslaved women was a niche skilled-labor market. In her talk on November 8, 2017, sponsored by the History Colloquium and the DHI Women and Gender in the World research cluster, Stephanie Jones-Rogers exposed the neglected story of enslaved wet-nurse labor and the role white women played in sustaining the practice.

Violence permeated every aspect of slavery, but maternal violence remains obscured. We know that enslaved women were violated by their white masters and bore their children. We know that these children were often ripped away from their mothers and sold to other plantations. But many people do not know about—and many historians do not discuss—the wet-nurse market, another facet of the intimate labor performed by enslaved women and a different form of violence perpetrated by white southern women.

In a talk entitled ‘“She could spare one ample breast for the profit of her owner”: White Mothers and Enslaved Wet Nurses’ Invisible Labor in American Slave Markets’, Jones-Rogers, an assistant professor of history at UC Berkeley, explained that there were many reasons why white women opted to hire wet nurses rather than suckle their own children. From illnesses that caused low milk production to the darkly ironic concern that nursing made them “slave to their children,” white women’s demand for enslaved wet nurses made them “key to defining the contours of this market.” White men were the ones to advertise and sell enslaved women as wet nurses, but they marketed them with an eye to white women buyers. In so doing, they created a discourse around wet nursing that white women would recognize in the slave market.

Commodification of women’s bodies

White women assessed the value of wet nurses in a manner similar to that in which men assessed other forms of slave labor. The qualities valued by purchasers of wet nurses, however, were specific to this intimate form of maternal labor. Previous experience as wet nurses, the health of their infants and the quality of their milk (which was determined by the age of their infants) determined wet nurses’ value in the market. The commodification of enslaved women’s bodies extended to their nutritive, nurturing capabilities. 

Wet nursing put even greater physiological demands on enslaved women, who already suffered from poor diets. Suckling white children meant they had less milk to offer their own infants, who were either inadequately fed, nursed by other enslaved women or bottle-fed—an extremely dangerous practice in this period.

Invisible violence, violent invisibility

It also caused emotional trauma. Many advertisements for enslaved wet nurses made it clear that the women had recently lost their children or were to be sold without them. Women who could be sold without “encumbrance” could devote all of their time and milk to white children. Enslaved wet nursing often disrupted maternal bonds with the women’s own children. The nature of this labor, which forced wet nurses into close and continual proximity with their masters’ children, also isolated the women from the slave community. When enslaved wet nurses exhibited emotional distress, white owners called it “the sulks” and viewed it as a flaw or illness, rather than as a product of the intimate violence underpinning wet nursing under slavery.

Slavery and the slave market made reproductive violence possible, “yet we rarely read about it and we discuss it so little,” Jones-Rogers said. “This violence and the women on both sides remain invisible, and this in its own way is its own kind of violence, its own kind of injustice.” By telling the story of enslaved wet nurses and the white women who defined the market in which they were commodified and sold, Jones-Rogers makes them visible—a crucial step in the path to justice.

Learn more about Stephanie Jones-Rogers.