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Michele Bratcher Goodwin, Law, University of California, Irvine, School of Law

  • When: April 28, 2021, 12–1:30 pm
  • Where: Zoom: To register, contact Sophie Kofman at

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A Different Type of Property: White Women and the Human Property They Kept”

This Essay advances three claims in its contribution to the relatively nascent legal study of white women and their legal and social involvement with slavery as purposeful participants. First, it stresses that the common erasure of white women as slaveholders renders their culpability and complicity in human chattel slavery imperceptible. Simply put, they become blameless and guiltless in an enterprise in which their involvement was far more than proximate and, in many instances, dominant.

Second, scrubbing white women from the archives of antebellum history, serves not only to deny their agency, but also capacities. In other words, removing white women as profiteers and commanders in slavery serves to erase the fact that some were successful, shrewd businesswomen, albeit in a horrid enterprise. Even those who “managed households” rather than large plantations wielded authority. In troubling ways, this erasure served to recast white women as not only disinterested in work and business, which defined Supreme Court jurisprudence on sex for many years, but also it contributes to the stereotype of white women as fragile, disempowered, weak, and vulnerable to lingering effect. In recent decades, diligent efforts by historians correct inaccuracies in this record.

Third, and perhaps most complicatedly, the Essay argues that reading white women as passive or submissive participants in the business of antebellum slavery, served to undermine their later employment attempts and business opportunities after slavery’s abolition and through the 1900s. Unlike the Supreme Court’s patriarchal reading of women’s capacities and destinies in Hoyt v. Florida, Bradwell v. Illinois, or In re Goodell clearly, white women were not wedded or destined to domestic duties, but had experience in financial management and business.

Photo and bio courtesy of University of California, Irvine, School of Law.

Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a Chancellor’s Professor at the University of California, Irvine and founding director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy. She is the recipient of the 2020-21 Distinguished Senior Faculty Award for Research, the highest honor bestowed by the University of California. She is also the first law professor at the University of California, Irvine to receive this award. She is an elected member of the American Law Institute as well as an elected Fellow of the American Bar Foundation and the Hastings Center (the organization central to the founding of bioethics). She is an American Law Institute Adviser for the Restatement Third of Torts: Remedies.

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