Claiming the Pen

Claiming the Pen: Women and Intellectual Life in the Early American South

Catherine Kerrison
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Claiming the Pen
    Book Description:

    In 1711, the imperious Virginia patriarch William Byrd II spitefully refused his wife Lucy's plea for a book; a century later, Lady Jean Skipwith placed an order that sent the Virginia bookseller Joseph Swan scurrying to please. These vignettes bracket a century of change in white southern women's lives.Claiming the Penoffers the first intellectual history of early southern women. It situates their reading and writing within the literary culture of the wider Anglo-Atlantic world, thus far understood to be a masculine province, even as they inhabited the limited, provincial social circles of the plantation South.

    Catherine Kerrison uncovers a new realm of female education in which conduct-of-life advice-both the dry pedantry of sermons and the risqué plots of novels-formed the core reading program. Women, she finds, learned to think and write by reading prescriptive literature, not Greek and Latin classics, in impromptu home classrooms, rather than colleges and universities, and from kin and friends, rather than schoolmates and professors. Kerrison also reveals that southern women, in their willingness to "take up the pen" and so claim new rights, seized upon their racial superiority to offset their gender inferiority. In depriving slaves of education, southern women claimed literacy as a privilege of their whiteness, and perpetuated and strengthened the repressive institutions of slavery.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5433-2
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. ONE Toward an Intellectual History of Early Southern Women
    (pp. 1-33)

    It was one of those delightfully mild days that occasionally grace the Virginia Tidewater in winter. The clear weather on that December day in 1711 beckoned irresistibly to the two women, who left the house together for a walk. Mrs. Dunn had been staying with her friend Lucy Byrd on and off for over a year, seeking refuge from an abusive husband. Perhaps they sought privacy for their conversation, away from the omnipresence of the house slaves. Perhaps Mrs. Dunn confided the fears, resentments, and injuries she suffered living with her clergyman husband who, she said, beat her. In any...

  6. TWO “The Truest Kind of Breeding”: Prescriptive Literature in the Early South
    (pp. 34-69)

    In 1770, Mary Ambler traveled to Baltimore from Fauquier County, Virginia, with her two children to be inoculated against smallpox. She recorded her experiences in a diary, together with as complete a list of her expenses as she could recall. Then, as if her attention was suddenly diverted, she finished with words she hoped would guide the days of her daughter’s life that lay ahead. “From Mr Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women,” she inscribed the passage, “this Paragraph is transcribed for the use of the Copi[e]st & She begs her Daug[hte]r to observe it well all her Life.”

    If to Your...

  7. THREE Religion, Voice, and Authority
    (pp. 70-104)

    The women we have met thus far were Anglicans, members of the established church in the southern colonies and of elite families. As such, they had an interest in upholding the social order in which they were prominent. Nor is it accidental that they should figure in the historical record: they were more likely to be able to write than women of lower economic ranks, and their elite social status would encourage the preservation of their papers (even if not nearly in the same quantity as men’s papers). But the Anglican Church faced two serious challenges to its spiritual authority...

  8. FOUR Reading Novels in the South
    (pp. 105-138)

    “Began a very clever Novel—Evelina it was call’d,” Frances Baylor Hill recorded on a late October day in 1797. She had spent most of the previous week looking after a household of sick children, her nursing chores interspersed with sewing projects. She was ready for the diversion of a good read and more than willing to slight her needlework. “Knit a short piece,” she explained, “for I was reading the best part of the day.”Evelina(1778) had claimed her; she finished the first volume in three days. In mid-November, she picked up volume 2, finished it in four...

  9. FIVE Reading, Race, and Writing
    (pp. 139-184)

    Even as southern women enjoyed increased reading and writing literacy, as well as access to the genteel print culture of the Anglo-Atlantic world, their understanding of what they read nonetheless differed from other women’s. We have seen several circumstances peculiar to the southern experience that help explain why: the ways that climate and terrain influenced the colonists’ choices of tobacco and rice economies, and the social orders that resulted; the struggles to define and assert authority; and the isolation of living on an agricultural landscape. They differed as well in their writing, which never matched other women’s in quantity (either...

  10. Conclusion: The Enduring Problem of Female Authorship and Authority
    (pp. 185-194)

    We should not be surprised that, after surveying the intellectual landscape of the eighteenth-century South, historians concluded that women were absent from it. William J. Scheick ruefully admitted the frustration of his fruitless search for “pre-Revolutionary southern women authors,” explaining this dearth of evidence as the result of the demographic majority of men and of the arduous labor of survival in the seventeenth century that deprived southern women of time and opportunity for reading and writing.¹ This book has tried to insert women into that landscape. But to construct this history, we must think in new ways and look in...

  11. Postscript
    (pp. 195-198)

    I am a late bloomer. It was not until I returned to school after a sixteen-year hiatus that I discovered the new social history, colonial Virginia, and women’s history. My utter delight in all three combined to direct my research interests to eighteenth-century southern women. A seminar in the history of the book, the influence of Cathy Davidson’sRevolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, and the absorbing letters of two Yorktown girls began to narrow that focus further still. Then a friend suggested I apply the analytical approach of my work on those letters to...

  12. Abbreviations
    (pp. 199-200)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 201-258)
  14. Index
    (pp. 259-265)