Slavery and the Roots of Sexual Harassment
DIRECTIONS IN SEXUAL HARASSMENT, Catharine MacKinnon & Reva B. Siegel, eds., Yale University Press, 2003
22 Pages Posted: 24 Oct 2002 Last revised: 12 Nov 2013
Date Written: November 2013
In recent years, feminist scholars and activists have demonstrated the ways that U.S. slavery functioned as a system of gender supremacy. It entailed the dominance of men over women as well as whites over blacks. Adding the gender lens has shed immense light on the ways that sex, law, and power operated in the racially supremacist enslaving South. In recent years, this literature has emphasized the ways that slavery's sexual and racial subordination converged around the bodies of enslaved black women. One project within this literature characterizes slavery as a "sexual political economy" to make explicit the connections between its markets, labor structure, and sexual exploitation. It designates slavery a sexual economy to foreground slavery's gender hierarchies and mechanisms of subordination as well as to show how slavery offered early illustrations of the social construction and fluidity of gender and the false dichotomy between public and private relations.
Taking those insights to their logical conclusion, this essay frames enslaved women's sexual coercion through their roles as captive workers to cast the institution of slavery in a new light: as an early and particularly virulent strain of institutionalized sexual harassment. In the process, it shows how we gain better purchase on sexual harassment when we look at antecedents in U.S. slavery. Conceiving slavery as sexual harassment sheds light on how slave law was labor law, plantations were workplaces, and enslaved women's resistance constituted gender activism. Critically, such a framework also recovers the sexual dimension of both slavery and sexual harassment. Casting slavery in this way hopefully yields a richer and more nuanced understanding not only of slavery, but of feminist history, theory, and contemporary activism.
Keywords: Slavery, Sexual Harassment, Legal History, Subordination
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