Brabbling Women: Disorderly Speech and the Law in Early Virginia / Edition 1

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Do not look for women who conformed to seventeenth-century models of polite decorum in this absorbing book. Terri L. Snyder offers us a close reading of early Virginians' attitudes toward women's speech along with a fresh look at how women earned men's displeasure in this regard. The women we are introduced to here were unruly according to their society's ideals. If popular culture, including ballads, broadside verse, and early novels reproved such women, Snyder suggests that such warnings were well grounded; brabbling and unruly women were familiar figures in real life as much as they were cautioned against in song and story. . . . Snyder looks as other domestic crises, including adultery and conflicts over women's status as domestic servants or slaves. In each arena, women—slave, indentured, or free—managed to find some way to speak about the inequalities they faced and the injustices they suffered. Their tactics, as well as their triumphs and failures, are engagingly chronicled."—William and Mary Quarterly

"In addition to its strength as a work of gendered legal history, the book adds new depth to our understanding of the role of elite women in the official politics of the colonial period. Snyder's treatment of the part played by female rebels and loyalists during Bacon's Rebellion is particularly compelling."—American Historical Review

"By mining court records, Snyder has crafted a thoughtful and thorough look at outspoken women in seventeenth-century Virginia. The diversity of their experiences is unexpected—some entered the political forum and openly participated in Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 and in the tobacco-cutting riots in 1682. Others boldly sought legal redress for complaints. Wives protested the confines of marriage, and indentured or enslaved women spoke against their masters and the hardships and inequality of servitude. This well-written book would make good reading for those interested in women's history, gender studies and language, as well as the history of colonial Virginia and the south."—Virginia Libraries

"Terri L. Snyder's rich examination of women's lives through early Virginia court records and literature makes an important contribution to the scholarly debates about women's status."—Journal of American History

"Terri L. Snyder's research deals with an important and often neglected topic: the interaction of women of all social ranks with the courts and other structures of authority in a colony outside New England. Her approach to her topic is unusually imaginative, and she is well-versed in the secondary literature of both colonial America and early modern England."—Cynthia A. Kierner, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

"Brabbling Women is a thoughtful, well crafted analysis of gendered power in colonial Virginia that adds new dimensions to the existing literature on this topic. As a microhistorian and a legal historian, Terri L. Snyder is without peer among the scholars who have mined the court records of colonial Virginia to learn more about its gender history."—Kathleen M. Brown, University of Pennsylvania

"This is an enlightening and intriguing book about the many disorderly women in seventeenth-century Virginia. Terri L. Snyder's focus on outspoken, 'brabbling' women brings to light the chronological and regional specificity of women's experiences in early America."—Mary Beth Norton, Cornell University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801440526
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 5/15/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Terri L. Snyder is Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Brabbling Women in Early Virginia 1
1 Women, Misrule, and Political Culture 19
2 Sexual Stories: Narratives of Consent and Coercion 45
3 Unwifely Speeches and the Authority of Husbands 67
4 Freedom, Dependency, and the Power of Women's Speech 89
5 Windows, Fictive Widows, and the Management of Households 117
Conclusion: Toward the Eighteenth Century 140
Notes 145
Index 179
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