The problem of using the term “mistress” to refer to enslaved women


The issue regarding the status of enslaved women as “mistress” is generating discussion on social media, this time because of a tweet by a Washington Post‘s journalist Krissah Thompson on her article highlighting the new findings on Sally Hemings at Monticello. In that tweet, Thompson referred to Hemings as the “mistress” of Thomas Jefferson, and the discussion resulted into a recent Teen Vogue article explaining why enslaved women should never be called mistresses.

Monticello’s mansion, 2015. Photograph by Ana Lucia Araujo.

First of all, the term mistress (maitresse in French, amante, concubina in Portuguese) usually refers to a woman who has a relationship with a man who is married, and as a result has a lower status than his other official spouses.
 
In the case of Thomas Jefferson the use of the term to refer to his slave Sally Hemings is problematic because Jefferson was not married when he developed the relation with the young enslaved woman.
 
Along with my research my views regarding the issue of sexual relations between white masters and black women is under transformation.

Zezé Motta in the movie Chica da Silva, 1976.

In Brazilian historiography, still very poor regarding to enslaved women, there are many examples of, and even a certain preference for, studies that refer to enslaved women’s ability to get favors from their masters, by having sexual relations with them. Most well-known example here is Chica da Silva, who has been the theme of academic works, novels, telenovelas, samba school’s parades during Carnaval, etc. But still here the Chica and Sally are different, because when Chica became the “mistress” of her owner, after purchasing her, he immediately freed her.

I disagree with using the word mistress in the context of enslaved black women who were owned by white men. However, other historians such as Martha S. Jones, states that “recognizing enslaved women’s humanity might demand allowing for a range of experience on a spectrum of sexuality and violence,” and idea she developed in this article published online two years ago. On Facebook, others friends are making a similar statement, but contending that Hemings was raped.
 
I agree that Thompson’s tweet only reproduced words used by historians who studied Hemings, namely Anette Gordon-Reed in her award-wining book The Hemingses of Monticello and this is why that when I shared the Washington Post’s article on Twitter I didn’t enter the debate.
 

I checked Gordon-Reed’s book and she effectively uses the term “mistress” 37 times when referring to Sally. Also, Sally was referred by Jefferson’s contemporaries as a “mistress”. Gordon-Reed then widely used this term, perhaps because this was the term used by that time. Yet, almost a decade after the publication of her book it is pertinent to question the use of word “mistress” in the context of slavery. Gordon-Reed’s is the one who has bringing Sally’s story to light and certainly the greatest authority on the study of slavery in Monticello. But there are always new findings emerging, and a growing scholarship on enslaved black women have been questioning the use of certain terms, and even of how historians have been using the archives where the presence of enslaved women is usually marked by silences.

João Ferreira Villela Artur Gomes Leal with the wet nurse Mônica. Photograph, 1860. Museu Afro-Brasil.

 
I saw other cases in other contexts where enslaved women occupied the same position as Sally. Their role was among others providing sexual services to their masters. In one of these cases that resulted into a published article, an enslaved woman named Monica born in Brazil was abused and beaten by her owner, who was a poor man in the south of Brazil. One day, she decided to kill him. Enslaved women like Celia, did the same here in the United States.
Thus, I ask myself if Sally is referred as a “mistress” mainly because her master was a rich man. But if her owner was an unknown poor individual like the master killed by Maria in Brazil, were historians still calling her a mistress? Also, under the light of the new scholarship on enslaved women emerging here in the United States (see the recent books by Marisa Fuentes, Nikki Taylor, and Erica Dunbar among others) if Gordon-Reed published that book today, would she still use the term “mistress”? If she had brought to light Sally’s story by using the term “rape” would it be possible to win a Pulitzer Prize? These are questions I ask myself as a historian. And here of course, all the credit must be given to historians studying enslaved women. 

About Ana Lucia Araujo

I am a cultural historian of Latin America and the Atlantic World. I am Full Professor in the Department of History at Howard University. My work explores the history and the memory of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery and their social and cultural legacies. I am particularly interested in the public memory, heritage, and visual culture of slavery. To know more about my research and publications, visit my personal website or my webpage at Howard University.