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Abstract

When Congress debated the Thirteenth Amendment and its prohibitions against slavery and involuntary servitude, anxious members inquired whether it would alter the traditional relationship of husband and wife. Their concern materialized out of a political context in which those who sought abolition of African American chattel slavery and the establishment of women's rights were applying the norm of individual freedom beyond the narrow scope of landed white men. At that time, the metaphor "women are slaves" had rhetorical currency and suggested that white women shared with African American men and women a similar legal and social status of non-identity and disability. No matter how rhetorically useful this metaphor may have seemed then or may seem now, it was and remains grossly inaccurate and inherently racist. It obscured the fact that white women were slaveholders or beneficiaries of the slave system. It failed to recognize that even though there were significant legal, political and social restraints on white women, they did not as a class suffer in the way that African Americans did under slavery. Finally, it ignored the fact that African American women were slaves and that other women were not, no matter what their subordinate legal or socio-economic status. So, the metaphor was and is fundamentally flawed both by its generality and its exclusion.

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