In Dr. Scott Poulson-Bryant’s lecture on the intersections of performance theory, queer theory, and Africana studies, Dr. Poulson-Bryant raised the question of how and why we adhere to cultural norms around race, gender, and sexuality. Building upon this initial query, he asks what happens when characteristics attributed to specific groups conflict with each other within people who hold identities perceived as contradictory to one another. This essay will explore this question through an analysis of the ungendering of black women throughout history and how the effects of that ungendering manifest today.
Throughout history, white supremacists and segregationists have ungendered black women for political and social gains. One way white supremacists and segregationists ungendered black women was desexualization; often the same women underwent this process in different contexts. One way black women were desexualized was through the commoditization of their reproductive capacity. The Virginia Law written in 1819, Partus Sequitur Ventrem, literally translated to “that which is brought forth follows the belly (womb),” made it so the offspring of slaves would also have enslaved status even if the father was white or even the owner himself. This incentivized slave owners to sexually assault and rape female slaves to ensure the future of their workforce. This meant sex with black women was not something of pleasure but something for monetary gain. In this same period, black women were not able to marry. Marriage, as a legally binding contract, would have given slaves recognition under the law and therefore implied humanity and citizenship, neither of which were economically or politically valuable to those in power. One of the fundamental markers of gender performance for women was marrying a man and taking care of a home, especially in the Antebellum South, and black women did not have the option to do so.
After emancipation, women were still excluded from cultural norms surrounding gender. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Redemption, unprecedented numbers of lynchings occurred across the country. One of the most common reasons given for lynchings was being accused of raping or assaulting a white woman. Mobs and vigilante groups ran ravage for the stated reason of protecting their women even when the relationship was consensual or did not exist at all. White women were also not required to testify in cases of rape or assault for the stated reason of protecting their fragile, emotional selves. The need to protect their sexual purity was a defining characteristic of their womanhood. Black women did not have this same level of legal protection. Additionally, while there was no longer a monetary incentive for raping black women, rape still persisted. Rape was a tool of terror used by the Ku Klux Klan and other white vigilante terrorist groups. Rape of black women not only occurred as a show of public terror, but in private spaces. Many black women worked as domestic servants or otherwise in the homes of white people and were subject to sexual advances by their employers. Even though these occurrences were common, the legal system did not recognize them or afford the victims representation. Black women were rarely granted a trial, and when they were they were confronted with insurmountable obstacles. One example of an obstacle is the implicit ideas around black women’s inherent promiscuity. In 1918, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that, in statutory rape cases, rape could only happen if the person had not previously had sex. The ruling also discusses that most white women are moral, meaning they have not previously had sex, and most black women were immoral, so black women could not legally be raped. They did not have the legal protections created for maintaining the purity of women, but black women were not “true women” in the eyes of the law. The period of mass lynching was also the rise of Jim Crow segregation. Segregation in public facilities showed in black and white how culturally normative gender did not include black women. Bathrooms were the most obvious example of this. A photo from this time period shows three sets of public bathrooms labeled: “Men,” “Ladies,” and “Colored.” A separation between white men and white women was inherently necessity it seems in subscribing to the cultural norms around gender, but a separation between black men and black women was not.
Consequences of the ungendering of black women and the stereotypes surrounding it still remain today. One example of this is evidence of bias of juries in rape cases. Conviction happens much more frequently in cases of black men charged with raping a white women than in cases of white or black men charged with raping a black women. The main cause of this is the same ideas around black women’s promiscuity. Another example of how these stereotypes manifest in present day is the expunging of the childhood of black girls. A report written by the Georgetown Law School people perceive black girls as less innocent than their white counterparts. People believed they required less protection and nurturing and that they know more about adult topics, especially sex. These assumptions, similar to those made of black women one hundred years ago have consequences in the educational and criminal justice systems. In both systems, black girls are receive harsher punishments compared to their white counterparts for identical offenses.
The ungendering of black women has had dire consequences to the lives of black women from slavery to present day. While gendered stereotypes and performance roles have had horrendous consequences for women of all races, exclusion from them has also attributed to struggle.
Epstein, Rebecca, Jamilia Blake, and Thalia Gonzzlez. “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girlss Childhood.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2017. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3000695.
Hunter, Tera W. “Putting an Antebellum Myth to Rest.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 2, 2011.
Morgan, Jennifer L. “Partus Sequitur Ventrem: Law, Race, and Reproduction in Colonial Slavery.” Small Axe. Duke University Press, April 3, 2018. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/689365.
Stern, Mark Joseph. “The NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Transgender Rights Brief Is a Trenchant History Lesson.” Slate Magazine. Slate, March 3, 2017. https://slate.com/human-interest/2017/03/naacp-ldfs-trans-rights-brief-is-a-trenchant-history-lesson.html.
Wriggins, Jennifer. “Rape, Racism, and the Law.” Rape and Society, May 2018, 215–22. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429493201-26.