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4 Freedom, Dependency, and the Power of Women's Speech Give an ear unto a Maid, That lately was betray'd And sent Into Virginny 0: In brief I shall declare, What I have suffer'd there, When that I was weary, Weary, weary, weary, 0. "The Trappan'd Maiden," English ballad (r6go) D I S PUTES B ETWEEN HOUSEHOLD masters and their dependents regu­ larly punctuated the domestic lives of seventeenth-century Virgini­ ans. 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 particu­ lar, 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 bru­ tality they used was a symbolic act, one by which they demonstrated their authority and maintained dominance in their households as well as in their tobacco fields. 1 The dominion of masters was, of course, not absolute or inescapable; but if they chose to use it, they had the power to threaten their dependents, restrict their movements, and traumatize them with beatings that probably, as intended, silenced many of their voices. Masters ranged across a continuum from benev­ olent to brutal, but their excesses defined and established the terms of mastery in colonial Virginia. While masters had the authority to correct their indentured ser­ vants, they also had distinct obligations to them, and many servants held their masters to these conditions. Masters were expected to pro- 90 Brabbling Women vision servants adequately and respect the terms of the indenture agreements. Virginia law gave indentured servants the right to peti­ tion a magistrate for a variety of grievances: if legitimate correction shaded into excessive abuse; if their diet or provisioning was insuffi­ cient; or if they had been illegally detained, denied their freedom dues, or were not used in accordance with the provisions of their inden­ tures.2 If the single justice to whom a servant made her petition found the complaints credible, her master would be warned at the county court where the matter would be decided.3 Servants of both sexes were well aware of their legal right of petition, and they participated regu­ larly in the local courts of the early Chesapeake. Used skillfully, the right to petition allowed servants the ability to broker the terms of their labor.4 In the seventeenth-century Chesapeake, indentured men and women petitioned the courts on a variety of matters. They complained of bat­ tery or ill-use, accused their masters of failure to train them accord­ ing to the terms of the indentures, and demanded their freedom dues. Although petitions of men always outnumbered those of women, the latter made complaints to the court at a rate that was roughly propor­ tional to their numbers. The petitions also suggest that indentured servitude differed by gender. Female servants were more likely to re­ ceive beatings from both masters and mistresses and were more vul­ nerable to sexual abuse. Male servants, on the other hand, were more often detained beyond the term of their service and more likely to complain that they had not been educated according to the terms of their indentures.5 Yet despite their vulnerability, female indentured servants were more likely than their male counterparts to succeed with their petitions.6 While African American slaves had no recourse for making legal complaints about their treatment, they did have limited legal avenues through which they might obtain freedom. This was especially true before 166o, when slavery in early Virginia had not yet been entirely fixed as a permanent, inescapable condition. For instance, slaves worked for cash and purchased their freedom, made contracts in ex­ change for manumission, and petitioned the courts for their freedom.7 Gaining freedom often depended upon Christianity: if slave petition­ ers could prove that they had been baptized, their chances of being freed, while never guaranteed, did improve. In 1 6 5 6, for instance, Eliz­ abeth Key of Northumberland County, the daughter of an enslaved black mother and a free white father, petitioned for her freedom on the The Power of Women's Speech 9I basis of her Christianity and her paternity. Her suit was granted by the lower county court but overturned...


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