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Brabbling Women

Brabbling Women: Disorderly Speech and the Law in Early Virginia

Terri L. Snyder
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Brabbling Women
    Book Description:

    Brabbling Women takes its title from a 1662 law enacted by Virginia's burgesses, which was intended to offer relief to the "poore husbands" forced into defamation suits because their "brabling" wives had slandered or scandalized their neighbors. To quell such episodes of female misrule, lawmakers decreed that husbands could choose either to pay damages or to have their wives publicly ducked.

    But there was more at stake here. By examining women's use of language, Terri L. Snyder demonstrates how women resisted and challenged oppressive political, legal, and cultural practices in colonial Virginia. Contending that women's voices are heard most clearly during episodes of crisis, Snyder focuses on disorderly speech to illustrate women's complex relationships to law and authority in the seventeenth century.

    Ordinary women, Snyder finds, employed a variety of strategies to prevail in domestic crises over sexual coercion and adultery, conflicts over women's status as servants or slaves, and threats to women's authority as independent household governors. Some women entered the political forum, openly participating as rebels or loyalists; others sought legal redress for their complaints. Wives protested the confines of marriage; unfree women spoke against masters and servitude. By the force of their words, all strove to thwart political leaders and local officials, as well as the power of husbands, masters, and neighbors. The tactics colonial women used, and the successes they met, reflect the struggles for empowerment taking place in defiance of the inequalities of the colonial period.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6993-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: Brabbling Women in Early Virginia
    (pp. 1-18)

    In january 1662, Ann Collins, twenty-one years of age, unfree, and unmarried, stood before the York County, Virginia, court and confessed that she was “gone a Month quicke with child.” Such confessions to fornication and out-of-wedlock pregnancy were routine matters in early modern courts in North America and England. Ann Collins’s plea, however, was so striking that the court clerk took the unusual, if not downright rare, step of recording it in detail. Her statement not only named Robert Pierce as the father of her child but also offered an explanation for the pregnancy that violated the law. Summoning her...

  5. 1 Women, Misrule, and Political Culture
    (pp. 19-44)

    Lady frances berkeley, the wife of Virginia’s governor, Sir William Berkeley, was as much involved in Virginia’s politics as her husband was. During Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, she bandied words with the rebel himself, Nathaniel Bacon, Jr., as well as volleyed taunts and jeers with his followers. She sailed to England in June 1676 as her husband’s emissary to the Crown and successfully petitioned the Privy Council for soldiers to put down the revolt. She returned to Virginia in February 1677, accompanied by three shiploads of troops and Sir Herbert Jeffreys, who subsequently both succeeded her husband as lieutenant governor...

  6. 2 Sexual Stories: Narratives of Consent and Coercion
    (pp. 45-66)

    Constructing a narrative, regardless of the context in which it is offered, imposes meaning on experience. Every story is potentially an allegory, a way to infuse happenings with a moral meaning or, more generally, with a significance that they do not possess simply as events.¹ Accounts of Lady Frances Berkeley, for instance, by isolating the facts of, first, her youth, relative to that of her husband, second, their marriage, and, third, civil uprising, moralized reality in such a way as to blame her for Bacon’s Rebellion. Similarly, the stories of the white aprons also moralized reality and cast doubt on...

  7. 3 Unwifely Speeches and the Authority of Husbands
    (pp. 67-88)

    According to popular print culture, the Chesapeake had a healthy population of sexually transgressive women. Daniel Defoe’s five-times married Moll Flanders (1722), a prostitute, bigamist, and pickpocket, was transported to Virginia for her crimes; and Aphra Behn’s Widow Ranter (ca. 1690) began life in the colony as an indentured servant, married a planter, inherited his fortune, and openly pursued men younger than herself. The verses of Ebenezer Cooke’s The Maryland Muse (1708) memorialized a variety of sexually dissolute women, including “wives and widows” who were well pleased with the “tawny Thighs,” “bosom bare,” and “manly shoulders” of a local Maryland...

  8. 4 Freedom, Dependency, and the Power of Women’s Speech
    (pp. 89-116)

    Disputes between household masters and their dependents regularly punctuated the domestic lives of seventeenth-century Virginians. Those who headed households had the authority, within reason, to physically correct their wives, children, and indentured servants and held unlimited power of correction over their slaves. In particular, masters used their legitimate right to discipline their often unruly and unfree labor force of indentured servants and slaves. A few blows with a stick might chasten a grumbling laborer, just as a few switches with a whip could encourage a dawdling servant to step more quickly. Beyond masters’ immediate aims to punish their dependents, the...

  9. 5 Widows, Fictive Widows, and the Management of Households
    (pp. 117-139)

    When katherine thorpe died in 1695, she left a curious and controversial legacy. Thorpe, a wealthy York County widow, made a deathbed bequest that put James Whaley in full possession of her estate. According to the two women who attended her final days, Thorpe swore with great “ardency” that Whaley was her “husband before God” and, had a minister had been present, she would have a marriage solemnized between them. She wanted to marry Whaley, she declared, in order to “putt him in possession” of her estate so that he “may not suffer wrong.” When Whaley walked into the room,...

  10. Conclusion: Toward the Eighteenth Century
    (pp. 140-144)

    Eighteenth-century Virginia planters William Byrd II and Landon Carter often sat as magistrates in their local county courts; but unlike their seventeenth-century counterparts, they seemed to encounter few brabbling women in their courtrooms. Neither man commented extensively on the appearance of women in public spaces such as courtrooms. Much to their irritation, however, both found their households full of disorderly women. Carter, for instance, wrote disdainfully about his slave, Nelly, calling her “Mrs. Impudence” and concluding that she was so bad-tempered that “no husband will keep to her long.”¹ For his part, Byrd complained frequently of the tempestuousness of his...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 145-178)
  12. Index
    (pp. 179-182)