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Women in the United States in the post-civil war era experienced a vast amount of ambiguity as to their role in society and in relation to their rights as free women, whether or not they were black or white women. Recent literature in the area of women's history has illustrated that black women played an influential role at defining the term "free woman". Paper Masters points to the following researchers that explicate the definition and role of "slave women":
- Historian Deborah Gray White points out that the definition of womanhood often had to do with defining a woman by whether or not she was a laborer in the fields or a woman that worked domestic duties.
- According to Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, this division created a gulf of differences between women that were declared legally free and held the status of "freedwoman" (black women) and those that had actual freedom and were considered a "free woman" in society (white women).
- The question undertaken in Karin L. Zipf's article "Reconstructing "Free Woman": African-American Women, Apprenticeship, and Custody Rights during Reconstruction" is why this divergence in gender definitions occurred between white women and black women in the reconstruction and why black men failed to achieve the autonomy that black women did.
Zipf's research began by examining North Carolina law that applied to the status of a woman born free from involuntary servitude. Zipf claims that the status of men and their inability to gain autonomy conflicts with the nations notions of female identity and the definition of a free woman in the reconstruction. Zipf writes, "African-American men's uncertain status as independent citizens had dramatic implications for African-American women's claims as autonomous free women."
Zipf determines that the ambiguity of the law and societies inability to understand and define the role of a free woman in the reconstruction period allowed black women to gain many more freedoms than black men. For example, in child custody cases, many women claimed full custody of their children and gained freedom for their children from status as an indentured servant becausein order to explain the rational behind how this inequality was established, Zipf utilized the case study methodology in light of a chronological overview of the law and ending with a case study of a free black woman named Mary T. Bryant.