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Introduction: Brabbling Women in Early Virginia As for myself ... this is to be my own story. DANIEL DEFOE, Moll Flanders (1722) IN JANUARY r 6 62, Ann Collins, twenty-one years of age, unfree, and unmarried, stood before the York County, Virginia, court and con­ fessed that she was "gone a Month quicke with child. " Such confes­ sions 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 state­ ment not only named Robert Pierce as the father of her child but also offered an explanation for the pregnancy that violated the law. Sum­ moning her powers of speech, Collins declared that she would have "never yielded" to Pierce's "desyres" but had done so only because he had made significant pledges to her, which she recounted quite pre­ cisely. Robert Pierce, she swore before the court, hadpromised to "free rrie from my master whatsoever it would cost him" and had implied that she would enjoy his very substantial material prospects in "stocke Cattle servants & a plantacon." Collins believed, or wanted the justices to believe, that she had traded sex-frequent sex, as it turns out, for she sometimes took a "bout" with Pierce "8 or 9 times a day"-for freedom and marriage. Pierce was ordered into custody. That act, too, was a routine one, for seventeenth-century justices almost automatically accepted women's assignations of paternity. Through her speech and, more particularly, her narrative of offers made, bargains reached, and consent obtained, Ann Collins framed herself as a wronged party and aimed, with her words, to expose Robert Pierce's shiftiness. In order to clear his name, he would have to live up to the terms he had offered and marry her. That outcome was no doubt exactly what she intended.1 I 2 Brabbling Women The story of Ann Collins illustrates the central aim of this study: to understand the nature and power of women's speech in the politics, courtrooms, and neighborhoods of seventeenth-century Virginia. The title of this book is taken from a statute enacted by Virginia's House of Burgesses in I 662 that attempted to solve the problems caused by unruly female voices in the colony. The law, "Women causing scan­ dalous suites to be ducked, " sympathized with Virginia's "poore husbands" who were "often brought into" costly and "vexatious" defamation suits because their "brabling" wives slandered and scan­ dalized their neighbors. It stipulated that in future suits husbands could choose either to pay damages or have their troublesome wives publicly ducked.2 In early modern British parlance, brabbling signi­ fied a wrangling, quibbling, quarrelsome, or riotous disposition. It was not an expressly gendered term, but Virginia's lawmakers chose to in­ flect it as such both in the text of the law and the punishment it pre­ scribed. That it was even written and enacted suggests tensions over ungoverned female speech and, by extension, anxieties over reversals in traditional patterns of household authority: "poore" husbands, in­ deed, mastered by theirbrabbling wives. In response to the danger that women's words might compromise patriarchal authority, lawmakers shored up the dominion of husbands over their wives. The statute's stiff penalties reflect their drive to prevent women, and women's speech, from exacerbating weaknesses in the domestic and public pol­ itics of early Virginia.3 At its simplest level, a woman employed brabbling speech in an ef­ fort to gain leverage in her dealings with all manner of early colonial authorities, ranging from political and legal officials to lovers, hus­ bands, masters, and neighbors.4 By focusing closely on episodes of women's speech, disorderly and otherwise, we can trace the intrica­ cies of their struggles to empower themselves amid the changing sea of inequalities that existed in early Virginia, particularly after mid­ century. Most of these women, who appear as masters, servants, and slaves, as widows and wives, and as neighbors and subjects, were British in origin or ancestry. Relative to their white counterparts, the voices of free and unfree African or Native Virginian women rarely survive in seventeenth-century legal documentsi but even as the most marginalized of British subjects, they form part of the basis for this study. All of these brabbling women were active in many venues in early Virginia. On Virginia's political stage...


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