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Northern Poverty and Southern Slavery

This paper compares the lives of poor northern women with the lives of southern slaves. (3+ pages; 2 sources; MLA citation style)


Life in the United States has always been marked by class distinctions. What we are witnessing today—a vast amount of money going to the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the poor—is not new. It’s a phenomenon that has been part of American economics since the founding of the nation.

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This paper examines the life of the poor, especially poor women, in the North and contrasts it with the live of the slaves in the South. It also discusses how the two systems varied.


Christine Stansell’s book City of Women, as its title implies, deals mostly with the lives of working women in New York City. The earliest period she describes (1789-1820) was characterized by a tremendous growth in the city, in size, importance, wealth—and the number of poor who struggled to make a living there. In a time when women simply did not work outside the home, a family was dependent on the husband’s salary, and many times his work was seasonal (sailor, builder, etc.) and the family would be without any income during the winter. This meant that poor women somehow had to find work, even in a society that disapproved of the idea and refused to understand why it might be necessary.

Wealthy married women, however, were at the other end of the scale. Invoking images of themselves as protectors of the home and the bearer and guardian of the children, they did well: “For privileged women, this perspective on woman’s social role was to foster the cult of domesticity.” (Stansell, p. 22).

In the decades before the Civil War, the continuing development of the city brought with it a continuing dependence of women on men. But capitalism and patriarchy didn’t mesh well:

“By 1860, both class struggle and conflicts between the sexes had created a different political economy of gender in New York, one in which labouring women turned certain conditions of their very subordination into new kinds of initiatives.” (Stansell, p. 217).

Women began to fight for their rights just as the nation was coming apart. Ironically, northern women generally agreed to put aside their struggle for equality until after the conflict. However, the mere fact that they could organize and work together to better themselves made their struggle vastly different from that of the slaves.

When we turn to the institution of slavery as described by Solomon Northup, a free black who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, I think we find many of the same conditions prevailing as governed the lives of poor women. The huge difference is that the severity of the conditions under which the slaves laboured was far worse than anything the women faced.

The account of Northup’s kidnapping and sale into slavery is a tale that shows human begins at their absolute worst. If there’s anything more despicable than selling a fellow human being for profit I have yet to discover it. Like the northern women who worked to make a profit for their employers, slaves were used on the great plantations to make a profit for their owners. Many southerners simply could not conceive of a way of life that did not include the use of slaves; their blindness and unwillingness to let their “property” go were one of the causes of the Civil War.

Northup says that one of his masters, Edwin Epps, “he is a man in whose heart the quality of kindness or of justice is not found.” (P. 138). This must be true for most slaveholders. As Northup says, “The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them [the owners] has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering … it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life.” (Northup, p. 157).


The basic difference between the systems, I believe, is that the working women in New York were able, over the years, to better themselves and gain a voice in deliberations over their own future. The slaves never reached this status in the entire history of “the peculiar institution.”


Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. Baton Rogue: Louisiana State U. Press, 1968.

Stansell, Christine. City of Women. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

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Northern Poverty and Southern Slavery. (2021, Feb 17). Retrieved June 14, 2021, from