'12 Years a Slave' Highlights America’s Shocking Record of Female Subjugation

Women did not exist at the dawn of colonial America. That is to say, from a legal perspective, they had no existence apart from their husbands'. They mostly couldn’t own property. They couldn’t inherit. Their babies did not belong to them, and neither did their bodies. They were chattel, much like a cow or a utensil.

Some of the first white women to set foot in Virginia were placed on auction blocks and sold for tobacco. Men paid the London Company for these “tobacco brides” and walked away with a combination sexual partner/farm worker. Other colonial women —as many as 75 percent of the early Chesapeake white female population — came to America (sometimes through kidnapping) as indentured servants who performed rough work for masters who might prefer to see them die rather than pay them at the end of servitude. Indentured women could not marry, and were subject to sexual exploitation.

Some colonial women, particularly in New England, were executed as witches, while others were tortured through public whippings or even the “scold’s bridle,” an iron mask developed during medieval times which featured a spike that prevented the wearer from speaking (it was later incorporated into slavery). Native American women, whom white men perceived to be sexually available, were accordingly targeted for molestation and violence. In any conflict, rape was a strong possibility: During the Revolution, the Philadelphia City Council warned of British soldiers bent on raping wives and daughters.

The worst oppression of all was reserved for African women brought to the colonies on slave ships, where many suffered rape by sailors long before their arrival. On top of the gender and class biases already directed against women, they got hit with developing racial prejudice. The year 1662 turned their fate bitter for centuries to come when colonial slave law broke from English precedent and set forth that all children born to enslaved mothers would follow the condition of their mother regardless of paternity. This made the paternity of the women’s child legally irrelevant. Slavery could now pass from one generation to the next, and the de-emphasis on paternity threw open the door to rape. Breeding programs may have forced women to become pregnant by enslaved men, overseers, or slave owners.

As a country, we have not yet reckoned fully with this trauma. The experience of enslaved women has not drawn as much attention in the box office as that of their male counterparts, an exception being Beloved, based on Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which reveals the harrowing experience of motherhood under slavery.

The brutal separation of mothers from their children was something abolitionists could easily use to prick the consciences of Americans. But there were other horrors, just as ghastly, that could only be whispered about. 12 Years a Slave, a new film based on the narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black abducted into slavery in 1841, gives us a glimpse of them.

Through his story, we meet Patsey, a favorite on the Louisiana plantation of Edwin Epps who is petted and rewarded with delicacies for her high spirits and pleasing personality. The proud, ebony-skinned girl grows up into a strong and agile young woman, preternaturally skilled in picking cotton.

But everything goes wrong for Patsey, through no fault of her own. She attracts the lustful eye of her master, and with it, the jealous rage of her mistress. Between the two of them, they torment the girl to the point where she becomes a living shadow. In Northup’s biography, she sinks into depression, plagued with nightmares. In the film, her depression is dramatized as a desire for Pratt to end her life and thus her misery.

Pratt was the name given to Solomon Northup after he was lured from New York to Washington and then taken by kidnappers to Louisiana, possibly the most brutal scene of slavery in America. There, between innumerable whippings and near-fatal run-ins with his masters, he cut cane and picked cotton for a decade until he was rescued. 12 Years a Slave, a harrowing and unflinching look at life on a bayou plantation, is based on Northup’s account of the experience, written down David Wilson, a lawyer and New York state legislator.

The original narrative is a page-turner and presents Northup as an astute man who appreciates the complexity of human beings and the system that negatively impacted everyone involved, degrading the lives of the enslaved and the master alike. In Northup’s view, slavery contorted the characters of otherwise admirable human beings and fueled the harmful qualities of the worst. As Wilson interpreted his oral account, “There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones—there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one.”

In the film version of 12 Years a Slave, the plantation mistress Mary Epps is bile and hatred incarnate. But Northup’s own narrative offers a more charitable — and psychologically nuanced — view of her, explaining that she was a woman of many excellent qualities who was unfortunately married to an abusive lout who could not, or would not, control his lewd instincts in the presence of a young black woman whom he viewed as his property. Unable to convince her husband either to cease his sexual pursuit of Patsey or sell her, Mary turns her anger upon her former favorite. Northup’s account shows how her anger turned to blinding rage:

“Mistress Epps was not naturally such an evil woman, after all. She was possessed of the devil, jealousy, it is true, but aside from that, there was much in her character to admire…She had been well educated at some institution this side the Mississippi; was beautiful, accomplished, and usually good-humored. She was kind to all of us but Patsey—frequently, in the absence of her husband, sending out to us some little dainty from her own table. In other situations—in a different society from that which exists on the shores of Bayou Boeuf, she would have been pronounced an elegant and fascinating woman. An ill wind it was that blew her into the arms of Epps.”

If it was an ill wind that blew Mary into the arms of Epps, it was a diabolical one that forced Patsey there. Aware of her value as a skilled worker and addicted to her sexually, Epps will never consent to give Patsey up, but his guilt and desire to please his wife causes him to alternate caresses with beatings.

In Northup’s account, Mary and Edwin Epps eventually became bonded in an “infernal jubilee over the girl's miseries,” including an incident where, after a visit to a neighboring plantation where Epps suspects her of sexual involvement with the owner, Patsey is tied up naked and subjected to a near-fatal whipping, which Northup himself is forced to conduct. The depiction of this scene is among the most moving in the film: Northup is nearly torn apart by the tension between his compassion for the young woman and his knowledge that he must carry out his master’s orders.

Our last glimpse of Patsey in the film is a shot of her standing forlornly in the dust of the wagon that would carry Northup to freedom. There would be no freedom for her.

Narratives are tricky. There are sentimental-sounding passages in Northup’s account as rendered by Wilson that mirror other slave narratives of the time. Hollywood has its own exigencies, which include broad commercial appeal which can flatten nuance and add layers of unreality, like a scene in which a man en route to slavery with Northup is casually murdered and tossed overboard (the murder does not happen in Northup’s biography, and the economic value of the captive seems to make such a situation unlikely).

Period films can awaken audiences to the injustices of the past, but they can also deliver the illusory satisfaction that the brutality belongs to the history books. Hopefully that will not happen in this case, and viewers will leave the theater with a heightened sense of both past and present wrongs.

We may not know the precise accuracy of Patsey’s story as it has been translated through several voices, but it is not hard to imagine that slavery would give rise to stories like the one we are given. In some cases there might have been mutual feeling between an enslaved woman and her master, as we are told existed between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. But would an enslaved woman ever have the right to refuse an advance? Could she ever truly be seen as a partner? Jefferson left a record of his attitude toward the women he viewed as property that is brutal in its calculation of economics and reproduction: "A woman who brings a child every two years is more profitable than the best man on the farm [for] what she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labor disappears in mere consumption."

Did Patsey survive to have children? We’ll never know. Enslaved women sometimes used abortion and infanticide to undermine their oppressions. If she did have children who survived, it’s sobering to imagine where their descendants might be today if chance had kept them on Louisiana’s bayous.  

For African Americans living in Louisiana, hunger rates are twice the national average, and the poverty rate is 45 percent. According to a study by the Center for American Progress, Louisiana is the worst place to be a woman in the nation. Women get paid 67 cents on the dollar compared to men, their jobs are more insecure, they hold fewer public offices, and they fare worse in health outcomes. Louisiana ranks ninth in the rate of women murdered by men.

Louisiana is one of the only states in the country that does not have its own minimum wage law. It is a state that relies on the service industry, and we can imagine a descendant of Patsey finding herself in a job—if she could even find a job at all— without health benefits or basic protections, like paid sick leave. Maybe she’s a domestic worker. Or perhaps she packs boxes at a Walmart factory. She would have to stay at work regardless of whether there were sick children at home. With high job insecurity, saying no to whatever her employer’s demands might be could easily lead to firing, so she works extra hours without overtime and tries to ignore it when her manager eyes her lustfully.

Patsey’s descendant would face the fact that in Louisiana, her right to control her own body is constantly under assault. She would be forced to undergo an invasive and unnecessary ultrasound procedure before a doctor could perform an abortion—if she could even find a clinic.

In the very state where her foremother was tortured, deprived and violated, Patsey’s descendant would stand a good chance of getting trapped in unrelenting poverty, health crises and humiliation. During slavery, many Americans justified oppression by claiming that black people were naturally inferior and thus deserved their condition. Today, conservative Republicans suggest that the poor are poor because of their own inferiority, and do not deserve any better than what they have. The ideology of slavery posited a false God who instated a natural order in which some human beings were made to suffer at the hands of others. The ideology of capitalism proposes the supernatural force of the "market," which can never be wrong. Those whom the invisible hand crushes deserve their fate.

If 12 Years a Slave can help us understand Patsey’s experience more fully, perhaps we’ll be more moved by the oppressions that still haunt the people in the land where she lived.

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