- “Defective in One of the Principle Parts of Virility”Impotence, Generation, and Defining Disability in Early North America
In the winter of 1728–29, Anna Maria Miller, a resident of Philadelphia County, entered a petition with the local legislature asking to “be relieved from her unhappy Marriage” to her husband, one George Miller, to whom Anna Maria had been married for about two years. Miller first named George’s “frigidity and incapacity” as her reason for seeking a dissolution of the marriage, on the grounds that he lacked the “ability to perform his Conjugal Duty,” shoring up her claim with her assertion that George was “defective in one of the Principle parts of Virility necessary for Generation.”1 In her petition, Anna Maria requests that her husband be examined by a board of local doctors, in order that they might testify to “his natural and incurable impotency,” so that she, in turn, might be legally and spiritually released from the marriage. Although Anna Maria Miller’s petition was ultimately denied, leaving George and Anna Maria to perhaps live out the rest of their lives together in, as Martin Duberman put it in a 1976 discussion of this case, “mutual hatred” (398), this petition and those like it gesture toward an exciting and challenging avenue for the development of early American disability studies. While this petition, in particular—often referred to in the fairly limited amount of scholarship that has engaged with it as the “Boehm/Miller documents”—has been primarily considered by historians, and especially legal historians, of marriage and the family, Anna Maria Miller’s indictment and request for a dissolution of her marriage to George Miller on the grounds of his impotence constitutes more than just an illustration of the early eighteenth-century specificities of Pennsylvania divorce law. In what follows, I explore the implications of this case—and other petitions for the dissolution of marriage, [End Page 79] based on either male or female “impotency” (a specific condition distinct from barrenness or sterility)—as they both index and challenge descriptions of what might constitute disability during the early eighteenth century in North America.
The Boehm/Miller documents present a particularly fascinating and difficult case insofar as the question of fertility and the ability to reproduce has and continues to present something of a limit case for disability studies more broadly. In today’s twenty-first-century social, legal, and cultural context, the status of “invisible” disabilities, and the question of whether infertility can or should be understood as a disability, looms large in popular cultural discussions of both definitions and protections of disabled peoples. While the early-eighteenth-century subjects of this article lived in a world with historically, culturally, and religiously distinct understandings of what “disability,” “ability,” and “debility” might mean, they, too, struggled with the lack of a consolidated or clear-cut conception of the difference between visible and invisible “infirmities,” with uneven cultural and religious understandings of what sex and marriage meant or should be, and with what “perpetual infirmity” did, could, and should mean when it came to activities performed “in naked bed.”
This article aims to contribute to the development of an early American disability studies by reading the Boehm/Miller divorce petition as a case study, in order to identify the many, and sometimes conflicting, strands of cultural, legal, and theological ideology that, together, constituted popular definitions of ability or disability with regard to sex. This article considers early sexual ability and disability within the context of marriage, specifically due to the fact that many well-documented cases, throughout the second half of the seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth, demonstrate that the ability or inability to perform certain sexual functions bore the potential to occlude one’s participation in marriage entirely.2 Insofar as marriage constituted a form of civic and religious community affiliation and participation, and insofar as marriage in the north American colonies during the eighteenth century, as Susan Klepp notes, was “nearly universal” (4), sterility, impotence, barrenness, and other forms of inhibited reproductive capacity that we would now broadly define as “infertility” promised serious material consequences and often constituted significant barriers...