Women's History

Reading Between the Lines: What Can Testimonies of Former Slaves Tell Us about their Relationships with their Former Mistresses?


The testimonies of formerly enslaved women reveal a great deal about their experiences and relationships formed with their former white mistresses (a term used for female slaveholders in antebellum America). My SURE project, supervised by Rosie Knight, sought to compare the testimonies of formerly enslaved women in Virginia and South Carolina recorded in the WPA Slave Narratives Collection. Comparing these states reveal the varying factors that influenced slave-mistress relations, and the weight they held in doing so. These two regions contrasted greatly in a number of ways, including economic circumstances, slaveholding sizes and geographical disposition, which in turn influenced the relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses.

The WPA interviews have been a hotly debated source of testimony, providing valuable insight into the experiences of formerly enslaved people from their own perspectives, but also heavily influenced by the context of the 1930s. Many participants were suffering in poverty during the Great Depression, which may have influenced more nostalgic recollections of their childhood characterised by greater economic security.

Moreover, the ruling of Jim Crow may have meant participants were intimidated by their white interviewers, and indeed expressed reluctance to say too much or ‘the worse’, as one interviewee put it. In cases such as these, their silences may be the most revealing aspect of their testimonies. From analysing these interviews, three key themes come to the fore: violence, material well-being and religion. However, the nature and extent of the influence of such factors were subject to regional variations.

The violence experienced by enslaved women was heavily dictated by regional circumstances, and greatly influenced both the relationships formed and perceptions constructed of the mistress. Slaveholdings were generally smaller in Virginia than those in South Carolina, meaning mistresses themselves would often beat and whip slaves themselves, whereas in larger slaveholdings in South Carolina, overseers usually inflicted violence upon slaves.

The personal dimension of such violence played a key role in shaping how mistresses were remembered by slaves later in life. For example, Henrietta King (VA) recalled the brutal violence she experienced at the hands of her mistress for stealing a peppermint candy when she was a child, explaining: “See dis face? See dis mouf all twist over here so’s I can’t shet it? See dat eye? All raid, aint it? … Well, ole Missus made dis face dis way.” She went on to describe her former mistress as “a common dog.”[1]

In contrast, recollections of former slaves in South Carolina tend to recall their former mistresses as justified in their violence toward them, and appear less resentful, perhaps influenced by the relatively good material conditions and religious teachings they were provided. Victoria Adams, for example, recalled: “De massa and missus was good to me but sometime I was so bad they had to whip me.”[2]

The booming slave economy of South Carolina meant enslaved people often experienced better material conditions, and the larger size of slaveholdings meant enslaved people had greater opportunities to form stable family units and networks of kinship than in Virginia, where familial separation was common due to interstate slave-trading and the tendency for smaller slaveholdings. The better conditions in South Carolina may have led to less direct resistance, and thus less violence from their mistresses. Economic decline in Virginia meant slaves often lived in abhorrent living conditions and were provided little, if anything, to eat, which led to attempts to escape or steal food.

Such conditions shaped perceptions of former mistresses, as expressed by Henrietta King:  “In de house ole Missus was so stingymean dat she didn’t put enough on de table to feed a swaller.”[3] Such a testimony illustrates the ways in which the material conditions of slaves influenced their perceptions of their mistresses, both during their enslavement and retrospectively. Moreover, located further north, Virginia slaves were more likely to reach the free states, and so may have more readily engaged in direct resistance and efforts to escape.

In South Carolina, where conditions were better, interviewees tended to remember their former mistresses as domestic and motherly women. For example, Granny Cain described her mistress as “the best white woman I know of — just like a mother to me, wish I was with her now.”[4]

Viewing nostalgic recollections of slaves within the context of the Great Depression allows us to understand how interviewees may have recalled their experiences in slavery in survival terms, as a time in which they may have had greater economic security. Fear of bad-mouthing former slaveholders, again, may have also played a role in such recollections. Moreover, many interviewees were children during slavery, and so may have had greater experiences and less responsibilities than their mothers or older siblings would have experienced.

Religion also proved to be a significant survival strategy in the experiences of enslaved women, both providing comfort and, in some cases, strengthening connections with their slaveholders. In Virginia, enslaved people appear to have received religious instruction mainly via the church and with little input from their mistress, while in South Carolina, religion and its instruction played a key role in slave-mistress relations. This led to enslaved people associating their mistress with what she taught — as pious, good and even a saviour in some cases. Josephine Stewart, for example, described one of her former mistresses as “a perfect angel, if dere ever was one on dis red earth.”[5]

The relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses can therefore be seen as greatly influenced by regional and economic variations across slaveholdings. The most important influences included: the violence enslaved people were subjected to, especially if this was at the hands of the mistress; the material well-being of slaves; and religious instruction. The variation of testimonies across the South points to the value of a comparative framework, signifying how experiences of enslaved women were not the same across the region and cannot be generalised. Understanding the influence regional variations had upon the experiences of enslaved people and the relationships they formed with their mistresses not only enables us to place these testimonies and their experiences in historical context, but also helps us avoid making generalisations about a topic so sensitive and complex.

Lydia Thomas is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationships formed between enslaved women and their white female slaveholders. She focused on antebellum Virginia and South Carolina to explore how variations in regional circumstances, such as economy and slaveholding size, influenced the relationships formed and testimonies of formerly enslaved women.

Cover image: A close up of an old map of the USA, featuring Virginia and South Carolina. [Accessed 24 March 2020].

[1] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Bardon and Robert K. Phillips (eds), Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville, 1976), p. 190

[2] Victoria Adams, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, pp. 10-11

[3] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, et al., Weevils in the Wheat, p. 190

[4] Granny Cain, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, p. 166

[5] Josephine Stewart, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.4, p. 152. It is important to reiterate the influence of the context on such testimonies — positive recollection may have been utilised as a means of avoiding conflict with interviewers; Mistresses also often utilised religious instruction as a form of manipulation and control, especially within the large slave-holdings of the low country, presenting themselves in a position of authority and as an agent in the salvation of the slaves

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Did the Feminist Challenge Actually Shake Up the Print Press in 1969? Press Representations of Women in the Run-up to Women’s Lib

Women’s_March_London_(32993174595) (1)

The late 1960s were a turbulent time of rapid change; the mini skirt was the height of fashion, affluence was on the up yet women fighting for their liberation were criticised and mothers who worked were regarded with contempt.[1] Similar themes persist today and, despite progress, over half a century later full equality has not been achieved. Women still do not have equal pay in many professions and the press and media continue to treat men and women differently.

The Way, July 1969. Courtesy of the TUC Library Collections ©. (Accessed 15 March 2020).

1969 was a decisive year for second-wave feminism; protests were beginning and women were claiming political and social agency in Britain. These years laid the key groundwork for the historically influential feminism of the 1970s. The print press, although now competing with TV, continued to have high levels of readership, and thus heavily influenced and manipulated public opinion. This made the press vital in shaping responses to early feminism.

On the 18 May 1969, one thousand men and women assembled and marched for equal pay in Trafalgar Square. The newspaper reports on this were hugely varied. The Daily Mirror covered it in detail, describing placards labelled ‘Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value’, but it certainly did not express outward support for the marchers.[2] The elite press typically published short, disengaged reports, ignoring the issues behind the protests.

The Observer neglected to even comment on the 18 May demonstration. Meanwhile the Daily Mail criticised the women for not carrying their own banners, commenting that ‘it takes MEN to carry those banners’. It went on to mock the women who retreated inside ‘to sort matters out in a more traditionally feminine way – over a cup of tea.’[3] Feminist activism like this seldom made the front pages and was rarely taken seriously. There was undoubtedly variety between publications and even within them, but these publications had substantial impact on popular perceptions of feminism.

The British press not only tended to reject this early second-wave feminism but also outlined conflicting notions of femininity. On one hand women were expected to exemplify the perfect sexless housewife and thus were relegated to the domestic sphere. Meanwhile Page Three sexualised and objectified the female body, often disguising itself behind female sexual liberation, not dissimilar to the “sexual liberation” found in the underground press. All the while the newsrooms and the hard news reports remained male dominated.

The maternal, domestic, sexless woman was isolated to the ‘Woman’s Page’ of the elite press and popular press; bombarded by adverts for domestic appliances, makeup and all things intrinsically ‘feminine’. The national press presumed women to have no interest in the hard news stories and excluded them from the “serious” business of the public and political realms. Many of the elite papers virtually disregarded women’s issues and neglected to report on women’s news stories.

Female protests were often demeaned or not reported on at all. For example, when reporting on a strike in January 1969, the Guardian published a very small article titled ‘Another strike by women’.[4] In this vein, female activism was perceived as an inconvenience, a nuisance, a phase that would pass. This sort of reporting trivialised the women’s movement in Britain and diminished the prominence of their activism.

Articles that did question women’s position in society were limited to one-off opinion pieces written by women rather than a sustained effort to support feminist policies. In broadsheets such as The Times, where almost half of the paper was dedicated to ‘Times Business News’ and a singular page was aimed at women, it is hard to see any truly positive responses to women’s liberation. Even in a Times article, endorsing women’s work, it was assumed this work could only be part-time so as to allow women to maintain their ‘domestic commitments’.[5]

The popular press encouraged the domestic woman but also flaunted young women or ‘girls’ for the male gaze. The Daily Mail encouraged sexual rivalry amongst women, describing the ‘jungle warfare of sexual cut and thrust’ they competed in.[6] Their reporting supported the idea that women existed to please men; a notion that was replicated across student papers and the underground press. Once the 1970s and the sexual revolution hit the sexualisation of women continued to rise, now under the guise of sexual freedom. Page Three emerged and the Sun even published a long statement addressing their portrayal of women: ‘The Sun, like most of its readers, likes pretty girls. And if they’re as pretty as today’s Birthday Suit girl, 20-year-old Stephanie Rahn of Munich, who cares whether they’re dressed or not?’.

Degrading, though not explicit language, plastered the pages of the tabloids, and women remained subordinate in the newsrooms too. Women were typically limited to writing soft news articles, women’s pages and advice columns, perhaps the odd opinion piece if they were lucky! The underground press defined themselves as liberal spaces but their newsrooms were certainly not. Marsha Rowe worked for Oz and recalled women being limited in the newsrooms; ‘however alternative our life style might be, we still did the domestic duties for men and children at home.’[7] Almost all news publications, bar the feminist press, were male dominated and thus many sexist attitudes remained. In fact this did not change for many years; the Sun did not get its first female editor until 2003 and even then she did very little to change reporting on women and did not touch Page Three.

Oz Magazine, no. 31, November 1970, p. 2. (Accessed 15 March 2020).

Undoubtedly second-wave feminism and all of its work was successful; it saw huge political progress and encouraged women to observe their own oppression. However we cannot disregard the importance of the national press. It is typical for historians to seek transformations, particularly within gender studies, but perhaps identifying the continuities is just as important. Our battle has certainly not been won and there is still much continuity in press representations of women. The growth of social media has seen a continued obsession with female appearance and women’s sexuality remains a fairly taboo subject. Equal Pay remains a prominent issue, even fifty years after it was brought to the forefront of the political agenda and feminism is regularly considered a dirty word. The powers of the press can never be underestimated and the new social media giants are not all that dissimilar from the 1960s press. It may be a different decade but many of the issues women faced then persist today.

Izzy Larsen is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationship between women and the press. She focused on 1969 as a decisive year for the feminist movement in Britain and explored how the national press responded to this emerging movement. Her research also considers how many of these issues persist for contemporary women in Britain and across the globe.

Cover Image: Women’s March, London, 21 January 2017. Courtesy of Nessie Spencer – Freaks&Gigs Photographie.’s_March_London_(32993174595).jpg (Accessed 18 March 2020).

[1] Birmingham Daily Post, 23 April 1969, p. 25.

[2]Daily Mirror, 19 May 1969, p. 32.

[3] Daily Mail, 19 May 1969, p. 11.

[4] The Guardian, 10 January 1969, p. 18.

[5] The Times, 1 January 1969, p. 5.

[6] Daily Mail, 2 January 1969, p. 6.

[7] M. Rowe, ‘Spare Rib and the Underground Press’, The British Library. (Accessed 15 March 2020).


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Empowering Women through History: The Begams’ Bhopal


Bhopal in central India is celebrated as a city of lakes, but it also has a unique history.  For four generations, it was ruled by a dynasty of Muslim female rulers: Qudsia (1801-81; r. 1819-37), Sikandar (1816-68; r. 1844-68), Shah Jahan (1838-1901; r. 1868-1901) and Sultan Jahan (1858-1930; r. 1901-26).  Historical chance may have brought them to power – Qudsia became regent after her husband died in a shooting accident after which three generations produced only daughters – but administrative savvy enabled them to hold on to it.  These Nawab Begams have left an indelible mark on the fabric of the city – from the palaces and mosques that structure the old capital to the roads, parks, hospitals and neighbourhoods that still bear their names.  And yet, in Bhopal today, they are rarely commemorated or even remembered.  Could their inspirational life stories be used to empower contemporary women?

To test this principle, we undertook a pilot study in January 2020.  The academic team brought together historian Professor Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and sociologist Dr Nafhesa Ali from the University of Sheffield with applied education researcher Dr Radhika Iyengar from Columbia University to collaborate with local women’s organisation, Mahashakti Seva Kendra (MSK).  The latter is a government-sponsored initiative founded by local activist Indira Iyengar in 1992 in the wake of the city’s infamous Union Carbide disaster.  On its website, MSK identifies itself as an ‘all women’ organisation operating for the ‘social and economic upliftment’ of Bhopal’s women.  Working to the north of the city’s railway station, it aims to train women in practical skills that will enable them to contribute to the family income.  Now led by the founder’s daughter Pooja Iyengar, MSK serves a core of around 25 adult women, primarily Hindu, from the local area, most of whom have not received formal education past the age of twelve.

Figure 1: The project group at MSK’s workshed

Lessons in basic sewing skills mean MSK’s women usually spend afternoons – after children are at school and housework is complete – at the organisation’s workshed preparing items for sale.  Recent commissions include shopping bags made from old banners for the municipal corporation and stylish gifts for a local eco-friendly wedding.  During our visit, plant pots made from cowdung (gobar gamlas) were also drying in the cool winter sun.  Work is sometimes halted for visitors – with recent talks on single-use plastics and basic nutrition.  In the last month, MSK has also opened a computer centre in response to a local needs survey undertaken by students from Columbia University. 60 girls and women will receive training in computers, English and ‘soft skills’ over a three-month period.

Our visit promised something a little different.  Over the course of a week, we undertook a series of historical activities and discussions with MSK’s women.  These activities included a tour of local historical sites associated with the ruling Begams led by local heritage enthusiast and inveterate storyteller, Sikander Malik.  Among the locations visited were several nineteenth century palaces and the city’s largest mosque, the Taj ul Masajid.  On another day, Lambert-Hurley gave a talk at the workshed, highlighting the Begams’ contributions to architecture, education, health and literary culture. As highlighted by Figure 2, simple text and historical images featured alongside contemporary photographs taken on the group’s own tour to link past and present.  Informal group conversations – recorded as audio for our academic research and as video for a forthcoming documentary – proved rich in historical reflection on contemporary women’s issues.

Figure 2: Presentation slide on Shah Jahan featuring a historical image of the ruler alongside a photograph from MSK’s own tour at the Taj ul-Masajid.  Image accessed through Wikipedia Commons

Friends in Bhopal outside our partner organisation were often bemused by our project. These ‘poor women’ wouldn’t be interested in history, they pronounced with certainty.  In reality, the opposite proved to be true: MSK’s women overwhelmed us with their vigour and generosity as they participated in planned activities and interacted as a group.  Though our first day was a local holiday (makarsankranti), fifteen women bustled out of seemingly too few auto rickshaws at our first destination, smiling and laughing as they met the project team.  Decked out in bright saris and laden with snacks and sweets, the women gave their rare outing the air of a picnic.  Yet they listened intently to stories about Qudsia’s reign, exemplified by subtle architectural details in her nineteenth-century lakeside palace, Gauhar Mahal. Recapping the next day, we were surprised by how many of these anecdotes and historical details they recalled: from the circumstances around Qudsia’s ascendancy to the symbolic representations of her French Bourbon advisors.

Figure 3: Women from MSK touring Qudsia’s palace, Gauhar Mahal, with Sikander Malik

During the historical talk at the workshed, an unexpected visitor – the wife of the former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh – stopped by to listen.  Standing at the door of the small office in which we were gathered, she probed the participants on what they had learned.  Were they not impressed, she asked, by the particular architectural designs of the many grand palaces – now dilapidated or in severe disrepair – built by the third Begam, Shah Jahan?  One woman spoke up to capture the general view: the last Begam, Sultan Jahan, was more interesting to them.  A hundred years before their own educational initiative, she had founded and patronised schools for Bhopal’s girls and women, as well as a library, a museum and a women’s club.  Among the schools was the Asfia Technical School that had instructed those who needed to earn a living in practical skills, like spinning, weaving, embroidery and beadwork.  At MSK, they still do the gold embroidery, or zari work, that featured in this curriculum.

Figure 4: The project group enjoying the view to Shah Jahan’s palace, the Taj Mahal – now in a state of advanced decay – from the Taj ul-Masajid

When we first met MSK’s women, they admitted to knowing little or nothing of Bhopal’s dynasty of female rulers.  Why had no one taught them in school, they asked, that Bhopal had been ruled by women?  To learn this history changed their interaction with the city.  There was a pride in knowing that Sultania Hospital – in which many of them had given birth to their children or stayed for an operation – was named for a nawab begam who had put a qualified female doctor at the helm, introduced training for local midwives and furnished it with the most modern equipment. They were eager to visit more of the city’s historical sites, and expressed an ambition to share their newfound historical knowledge – especially precious because it had come to them before their husbands or relatives – with their own children. Give us simple books about our city’s begams, they instructed, and we will take them to our local schools to pass on this legacy.  Our new computer skills, they agreed, may be used to gather more knowledge and prepare this history for a website or app – to be used by locals and visitors alike.

Figure 5: European visitors to the Lady Lansdowne Hospital (now the Sultania Zenana Hospital) during the reign of Sultan Jahan (second from left). Image accessed through Wikipedia Commons.

One of the first questions we asked the women from MSK was how they identified a ‘Bhopali woman’.  The cumulative answer focused on traditional dress, limited mobility and simple dialect.  By the end of our short visit, the answer had changed unequivocally: Bhopali women were fierce, bold and brave! Our participants recognised that the challenges facing Muslim royalty were very different than their own, and remained somewhat pessimistic about their own futures – but, if these historic women could overcome their many trials, there was a lesson for them there.  Empowerment is a hard concept to define and measure, but we came away overwhelmed by the study’s impact and potential – in these women’s engagement with history and their understanding that they too might have agency in matters of education and health.

We will be holding two public events linked to this project in June 2020:

Radhika Iyengar, ‘Life-long learning opportunities a missed chance for young women in India: A gendered perspective’ (10 June 2020, 16:00-18:00, Jessop West Seminar Room 8, University of Sheffield): more information and tickets available on Eventbrite here

‘Advancing Female Literacy and Empowerment in Pakistan and India through Life Writing’ (11 June 2020, 17:00-19:00, Humanities Research Institute Conference Room, University of Sheffield): featuring talks and exhibits by our academic and NGO partners, including a short documentary on this pilot study, directed by Pooja Iyengar.

Siobhan Lambert-Hurley is Professor of Global History at the University of Sheffield.  Her latest book is Elusive Lives: Gender, Autobiography and the Self in Muslim South Asia (Stanford University Press, 2018).

Nafhesa Ali is Co-Investigator on ‘Advancing Female Literacy and Empowerment in Pakistan and India through Life Writing,’ at the University of Sheffield.  She is author of Asian Voices: First Generation Migrants (University of Huddersfield, 2011) and co-editor of A Match Made in Heaven: British Muslim Women Write About Love and Desire (HopeRoad, 2020)

Cover image: Women from MSK with the authors at the Taj ul-Masajid in Bhopal.


Additional Resources:

On the Begams of Bhopal:

Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Muslim Women Reform and Princely Patronage: Nawab Sultan Jahan Begam of Bhopal (Routledge, 2007).


On our partner organisation:

‘Education for Sustainable Development, Mahashakti Seva Kendra, Bhopal’ []


Acknowledgements: this project is funded by a Sustainable Development Grant awarded from QR GCRF, University of Sheffield.


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