American Husbandry: Legal Norms Impacting the Production of (Re)Productivity

Camille Nelson

Suffolk University Law School


Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, Vol. 19, p. 1, 2007

This article concentrates on the normative legal structure that established complete control over female slaves by sanctioning their subjugation to further slaveholders’ profit maximization and social domination. The criminal law sanctioned the rape of slave women, and the legal doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem mandated that the legal status of children born to slave women was determined by the mother’s legal status. The slave master derived an economic benefit from ensuring slave women had as many children as possible. This system ensured that slave women held no legally protected autonomy over their own bodies or over their own offspring.

Such legal norms were exploited by men like Dr. J. Marion Sims. Dr. J. Marion Sims is known as the “father of gynecology.” Dr. Sims is credited with having accomplished the first successful repair of a vesico-vaginal fistula. He perfected his techniques on enslaved women in order to treat upper class white women who were capable of paying for his services. He was often able to procure agreement from slave masters with the promise that his procedures may restore the female slave’s reproductivity. His proposal to restore the female slave’s reproductivity was seen as a potential economic benefit to the slave master. Dr. Sims may have performed these experiments on as many as eleven slave women between 1846 and 1849, and he did so without the benefit of anesthesia or antiseptics. Dr. Sims may have performed as many as thirty operations on one slave women named Anarcha.

The article argues that Dr. Sims set a historical precedent of interference with the reproductive rights of women of color which finds a connection in modern reproductive policy. This article cites modern examples of legislation that has conditioned the receipt or maintenance of public assistance upon voluntary sterilization. This article makes the argument and seeks to establish that women’s social construction dictated the valuation of their reproductivity. As a result, racially sexualized property interests drive the contemporary demand for limiting the reproductivity of poor racialized women, just as these interests drove the application of husbandry techniques to increase the reproductivity of female slaves.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 49

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Date posted: February 10, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Nelson, Camille, American Husbandry: Legal Norms Impacting the Production of (Re)Productivity (2007). Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, Vol. 19, p. 1, 2007. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1756374

Contact Information

Camille Nelson (Contact Author)
Suffolk University Law School ( email )
120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States
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