The practices of abortion and infanticide seem worthy of at least a fleeting
mention in most studies of slave women in the United States, yet few
historians mention the use of contraception. Those who do, usually
conclude that little is known about the subject, but that it is probably not
particularly significant. This article will discuss the use of contraception
among slaves and will concentrate, in particular, on the use of cotton
roots as a form of birth-control. Evidence that the cotton root was used
for this purpose is taken mainly from the Works Progress Administration
(WPA) narratives, edited by George Rawick.
George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Vols. 2–41
(Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972–1979).
As yet, the author has come across only a few references to the use of cotton roots as a form of
contraception in any other source. The WPA narratives are a controversial
source, but, in sifting through every single interview, the multiple
references to such an intimate practice were striking and demanded
attention. This article forms part of a chapter from a thesis which looks
at the work of slave women in the American South.
Liese M. Perrin, “Slave Women and Work in the American South” (University of
Birmingham: Ph.D. diss., 1999).
A thorough reading of the WPA narratives reveals not only that slave
women used contraception, but also that it may have been very effective.
In the context of slave women and work, this is a significant discovery,
as the evidence, which is detailed below, suggests that slave women not
only understood that their childbearing capacity was seen in terms of
producing extra capital, but that they were sufficiently opposed to this
function to actually avoid conception. The use of contraception can be
seen not only as a form of resistance, but also, more specifically, as a form
of strike, since reproduction was an important work role for most slave women.