slavery
German engraving shows slaves as they harvest and process cotton on a plantation, Southern United States, mid 19th Century. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When it comes to stores about slavery in the American south, white women are often portrayed as reluctant participants and quiet allies to enslaved people, the idea being that both groups suffered under the tyrannical reign Southern patriarchy. But a new book is revealing that narrative isn’t necessarily true.

According to The New York Times, in her new book, They Were Her Property, author Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers brings a previously unseen world to life where white women not only agreed with owning slaves but also defended it passionately as a birthright.

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“White slave-owning women were ubiquitous,” explains the review. “Not only did they profit from, and passionately defend, slavery, but the institution “was their freedom.” White women were more likely to inherit enslaved people than land. Their wealth brought them suitors and gave them bargaining power in their marriages. If their husbands proved unsatisfactory slave owners in their eyes, the women might petition for the right to manage their “property” themselves, which they did, with imaginative sadism.”

In the book, Jones-Rogers who teaches at the University of California Berkeley, deconstructs the “damsel in distress” rhetoric about white female slave owners that was sold to the public in the 1970s and ’80s.

Instead of relying on letters and other documents from slave-owning families — a commonly relied  upon practice — Jones-Rogers chose to instead center her work around the testimonies of formerly enslaved people in interviews conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration.

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Jones-Rogers writes, “If we examine women’s economic investments in slavery, rather than simply their ideological and sentimental connections to the system, we can uncover hitherto hidden relationships among gender, slavery and capitalism.”

The book also highlights how the violence of female slave owners went unchecked even more than their male counterparts, particularly when the victims were Black children.

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In one example the writer cites the story of Henrietta King. As a child of only 8 or 9 year-olds, King was accused of stealing candy. In response to this accusation, her mistress wedged the little girl’s head under a rocking chair. Then for about an hour, she rocked back and forth on King’s head while her daughter whipped her. Not only was King’s face mutilated, for the rest of her life she was completely unable to eat solid food.

By examining the economically entangled lives of enslaved people and slave-owning women, Jones-Rogers illustrates several ways that racist mindsets of the past, still cause division and discord between Black and white women today.