Forced labor was the central activity in enslaved women’s lives. Working for enslavers took up the great majority of all enslaved people’s time. Their work was simultaneously arduous and monotonous, but also filled with the risk of physical and sexual violence. In the Lowcountry, characterized by its large rice and sea island cotton plantations, the majority of enslaved women toiled in the fields, following yearly agricultural cycles in tending the crops. However, around a quarter of all enslaved women in the Southern US worked in the so-called "big house"—the plantation home or urban residence of the white enslavers, although on large, Lowcountry residences this figure tended to be lower.
Depending on their age and ability, slaveholders categorized their enslaved people into "full" (or "prime"), "three-quarter," "half," and "quarter" hands, to ensure their slaves were laboring at their maximum capacity. They typically designated adult men and women as "full" hands, but categorized pregnant women, children, and the elderly as "half" or even just "quarter" hands in terms of their physical abilities. These categories corresponded to how much of a task the enslaved had to complete each day, for example tending a quarter-acre plot.
Enslaved women, like their male counterparts, typically began to work for slaveholders at a very young age as "quarter" hands. These young girls performed small chores such as picking up trash, caring for younger children, cleaning cotton before it was ginned, or scaring birds away from newly-sown rice seeds from the age of around just five years old. At adolescence most enslaved girls began to labor on a more systematic basis. Elderly women, no longer effective in the field, were sometimes assigned to care for enslaved children. So enslaved women’s work patterns varied over the course of their life-cycles, as enslavers sought to obtain maximum profits from the labor of all their enslaved people. As reproducers, too, women suffered a unique “dual exploitation” that detrimentally shaped their lives, as slaveholders’ used women’s childbearing abilities to increase the economic profitability of slavery for their own benefit. Finally, beyond generating income for slaveholders through their work and their reproduction, enslaved women were additionally subjected to fulfilling enslavers’ sexual pleasures. A dark cloud of sexual and physical violence at the hands of slaveholders, overseers, or other men of authority loomed large in enslaved women’s work lives.
After completing their tasks, enslaved family members and wider communities expected women to perform gendered domestic labor. These chores included caring for their own infants and children, keeping their homes clean, cooking, and washing clothes. There was virtually no time for enslaved women to rest and most women worked for enslavers five or six days a week (Sunday was a day of rest). Domestic chores and childcare took up the remainder of their time.