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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · October 15, 2018

OI Books: A Transformative View of Race and Gender

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Today’s post is part of our series marking the 75th anniversary of the Omohundro Institute by exploring the OI books that have had an impact on a scholar’s life.

By Julie Richter

I was in the middle of my dissertation research when Mick Nicholls, then a Research Fellow at Colonial Williamsburg, introduced me to Kathy Brown. Mick encouraged us to talk about our research in county court records. Kathy was in Virginia so she could immerse herself in the court records for three Tidewater counties: Lancaster, Norfolk, and York. I also used the York County Court records in my dissertation and we quickly learned that we had a lot to discuss. During these conversations I realized how much I had missed thinking and talking about women as historical actors. While women appeared as minor figures in reading assignments during grad school, only one of the classes that I took as a Ph.D. student at William & Mary included a focus on women and this focus lasted just a week. I found that these readings were a disappointment as they were book chapters and articles published in the 1950s.

As I talked with Kathy during her research trips to Virginia and her time in Williamsburg as an Institute Fellow, I found myself re-energized in terms of my own work. I also felt challenged to re-think my ideas about the experiences of women—Indian, European, and African—who lived in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century York County as a result of our conversations. In addition to pushing myself to read colonial court records to learn about the many roles of many different women, I learned the importance of adding an analysis of gender and gender roles in order to assess the way in which Virginia’s social order evolved.

I like the title of Brown’s book—Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia—because it grabs your attention and it immediately lets you know that this book about Virginia is different than others that you’ve read. Brown’s detailed analysis of the statutes drafted, debated, and approved by Virginia’s leaders added layers of complexity to our understanding of the colony’s formative years and placed gender front and center in early Virginia’s development.

First, her book introduced readers to a group of elite colonists who moved more deliberately towards slavery than the planters in Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975) did. While it is true that many early colonists struggled to survive in the initial years of the settlement, Brown showed us a group of elite planters who were determined to seize any available advantage to bolster themselves and their reputations as they established their families and created plantations on land previously used by generations of Virginia Indians. These advantages included the decision to exploit African men and women decades before the elite planters approved the 1662 legislation that established legal slavery in the colony.

In addition to showing readers that Virginians saw Africans as enslaved for life as early as the 1630s, Brown placed women—Indian, English, and African—in the center of the discussions that Virginia’s legislators had in the Statehouse at Jamestown, taverns, churches, county courthouses, and homes as they worked to establish the colony’s social order. Women did not have to set foot in the Statehouse to help shape the colony’s development: Virginia’s leaders crafted roles for the female colonists based on their race and the role that the legislators wanted them to have.

Brown makes it clear to her readers that women in early Virginia did not always remain quiet or accept the roles that lawmakers created for them. Their actions and words had an impact. In particular, I like the details in Chapter 3—“‘Good Wives’ and ‘Nasty Wenches’: Gender and Social Order in a Colonial Settlement”—because Brown shows us women who looked for ways to protect their limited authority. We read about the efforts of the women of Warraskoyack (later Isle of Wight County) who wanted to maintain their right to inspect Thomas/Thomasine Hall and pass judgment on this individual’s gender identity. In addition to the matrons of Warraskoyack, Brown’s careful reading of extant records provides us with images of women of different races and different statuses who were politically savvy and willing to argue their cases in front of local justices of the peace. In other chapters, women including Elizabeth Key, Nanny Hannah, and Elizabeth Nicken used their knowledge of Virginia’s laws to protect themselves and their families as best as they could. After Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), Cockacoeske, Queen of the Pamunkey, negotiated with English Commissioners and gained control over some of tribes that had been part of Powhatan’s Confederacy.

Based on the evidence that Brown presented, I believe that there is a clear answer to a question posed in a 1619 petition to the Virginia General Assembly: “In a newe plantation it is not knowen whether man or woman be more necessary.” The words and actions of women captured in entries in the General Court records and cases recorded by the clerks of colony’s county courts prove that women were essential to Virginia, both for the labor they performed (whether domestic or agricultural) and the ways in which the presence of Indian, English, and African women pushed legislators to use gender and race to define a social order and to create a sense of what it meant to be a Virginia colonist.

Brown continued a number of discussions in her endnotes that guide a reader to a treasure trove of primary and secondary sources. When one reads the details and the analysis that Brown included in her endnotes, it is easy to see that she wanted to engage a wide range of scholars with her work. There is something for historians who study Colonial America, early Virginia, economics, women, gender and sexuality, and the law in this book. In addition, I think there is plenty in this book for public historians to consider as we think about ways in which to engage twenty-first-century men, women, and children in discussions about the lives and experiences of all early Virginians and how learning about the development of slavery is critical to understanding social, economic, and racial divisions that exist today.

Before giving a copy of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs to a group of public historians, I would ask them to read Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (1982) because it helps us to think about the settings in which public historians can plan programs and presentations. Isaac encouraged us to see eighteenth-century buildings and landscapes as places of action. He argued that it is essential to think about the ways in which Virginians used buildings and the various rooms inside these structures in order to learn about the colony’s social order and the ways in which the gentry faced challenges to this order on the eve of the American Revolution.

While Isaac’s work helps us to think about the ways in which Virginians found meaning in their lives, the actors on Isaac’s stage were predominately male and white. Brown’s book helps historians to think about all of the people who helped to shape the way in which Virginia developed. Throughout her book, Brown included details about actions and encounters that took place in a wide range of spaces and included both males and females. Virginia’s women stood on the stage whether it was located in a county court, a small house, an outbuilding, a tavern, or a tobacco plantation. Their words and actions had consequences and helped to shape life in early Virginia as well as in other regions and time periods.

I look forward to discussing Brown’s book with students who will register in my Spring 2019 capstone course at William & Mary entitled “Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia.” Although I have read about Virginia’s good wives, nasty wenches, and anxious patriarchs many times, I never rely on my many notes in the margins of Brown’s book or sticky notes (that have more notes on them) when I use it in class. Instead, I re-read the entire book because I know that I will find another detail that I had not fully thought through or need to reconsider in light of questions from students. At the beginning of the semester I tell my students that it is essential to understand Brown’s book in order to understand early Virginia. I also hint that they may need to read and re-read an assignment in order to feel prepared for class discussions and that the extra time they take to re-read portions of the book will be well worth it.

The conversations generated by Brown’s book are among the best I have had with students at William & Mary. We talk about the historical evidence that Brown presents throughout her book and whether or not we agree with her interpretations. We discuss historiography because her work provides a context for other work on the colonial Chesapeake including Lorena S. Walsh’s Motives of Honor, Pleasure, and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Chesapeake, 1607-1763 (2010) and John C. Coombs’s “The Phases of Conversion: A New Chronology for the Rise of Slavery in Early Virginia” in the July 2011 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly. At some point in the semester, we will spend time talking about the impact of the legislation approved at Jamestown and in Williamsburg on gender, race, and power in the twenty-first century. I think these conversations reflect the importance of learning about history and working to see how the past continues to shape our lives today.

After being introduced to Women’s History and Material Culture at Smith College, Julie Richter worked at Colonial Williamsburg and received her Ph.D. in American History at the College of William & Mary.  She is the Interim Director of the National Institute of American History and Democracy and a Lecturer in the History Department at William & Mary.

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