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  • Looking for Stories of Inarticulate Women
  • Ava Chamberlain

Most women of the past were not writers. Most produced few, if any, texts in the conventional sense of the term. Some of these women lived in predominantly oral cultures in which neither men nor women engaged in textual production. Some lived in literate cultures but were excluded from this elite expression of agency by male control of the educational system. Many were never taught to read and write. Others were taught to read but not to write. In colonial New England, for example, literacy levels for both men and women were high because all persons, irrespective of gender, were encouraged to read the Bible for themselves. Nevertheless, the distinction between reading literacy and writing literacy reinforced women’s subordinate status. Because they could fulfill their duties as both Christians and goodwives without writing, such education was considered superfluous, especially for women in lower socioeconomic statuses (Hall 32). But even women who could write apparently did not do much of it, or if they did, the sorts of texts they produced were less likely to survive over time, to become objects of historical and literary interest. First-person writings such as diaries and letters—the gold standard for scholarly research—are rare; poems, novels, and nonfiction writings are even more so.

The fact that many women who once lived rich, articulate lives are now silent creates both an impediment and a dilemma for scholars. It limits whom we can study and what we can know about their lives. All who study women of the past have confronted these limits and experienced in some measure the frustrations they create. If we confine ourselves to those women whose voices have survived, we rule out most women. If we are not satisfied working within these boundaries, how do we access the lives of voiceless, or textless, women? One fruitful approach has been to study the lives of women in the aggregate, which has produced important composite portraits of the normative roles for women who lived in past times. But because these constructions may not accurately represent the lived experience of any one particular woman—whose [End Page 33] life undoubtedly differed from the norm in various ways—the inarticulateness of women from the past becomes a much greater impediment in the particular. And it is the study of particular women that I want to focus on.

Some years ago I found my attention drawn to one particular woman from the past. In 2012, I published a reconstruction of this woman’s life, a project that brought home to me the challenges inherent in recovering the lives of early American women. My subject’s name was Elizabeth Tuttle.1 In many ways Tuttle was an ordinary colonial woman. She was born in New Haven in 1645. After her marriage to Richard Edwards, in 1667, she moved to Hartford, where her husband’s family lived. Over the next twenty years she gave birth to the expected succession of children. Two additional facts, however, distinguish her from a typical goodwife. The first is that her marriage ended in divorce, and the second is that she is the paternal grandmother of the great Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. In combination, these two facts have perpetuated a particular image of Elizabeth Tuttle as Edwards’s crazy grandmother. Modern biographers of Edwards have routinely depicted Tuttle as a rebellious woman who by her mad threats and promiscuous behavior drove her long-suffering husband to petition for divorce. George M. Marsden, for example, describes her as an “incorrigible profligate” who was “afflicted with a serious psychosis” characterized by “repeated infidelities” and “fits of perversity” (22). To complicate this neatly gendered distribution of praise and blame we need to hear Tuttle’s side of the story. But like most women of the past, she is silent.

My curiosity about this story and this representation of Elizabeth Tuttle forced me to address directly the dilemma of how to access the life of one particular inarticulate woman. If Tuttle produced any traditional texts, such as letters or a diary, they have not survived. I found no first person writings, not even her signature on a document...