I would like to start this post by stating that I found Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs (1996) to be thoroughly enjoyable, intriguing, and enlightening. Analyzing the intertwining relationships of gender, race, and power (and class I would add) in Virginian colonial society could have proved to be a daunting task, but Brown provides a coherent and organized narrative that, despite its length, continues to provide new insights and compelling examples throughout. In her descriptions of private and public spheres for men and women, the poor and elite, and slaves and free peoples, Brown illuminates the complexities of human relationships and personal identities functioning within a colonial, patriarchal, and increasingly racial society.
One of the most cohesive narratives Brown presents in this book is the impact that gender had on race relations in the earliest years of colonial Virginia. While Brown’s exposition on English society in England prior to colonial settlement in Virginia is important, that exposition is perhaps most important, in regards to gender and race, for its discussion on division of labor between men and women in relation to England’s rural communities: “While men plowed, planted, and tended crops, women processed agricultural products” and helped men in the fields during harvest time (25). Brown explains that the rising prices of agricultural products prompted increased women’s involvement in the role of agricultural production; thus, as she later discusses the laboring women of early Virginia, English women, in particular the “good wives,” were quite used to helping their husbands in the fields. Brown goes on to discusses the developing tobacco planter society in Virginia and the necessity of women’s physical help in the tobacco fields; as African slaves were brought to the colony in increasing numbers, African women complicated this agricultural community when tithing and taxation laws were first established.
Brown defines this moment as one of the most important for the racialization of Virginia’s colonial society: as both slave and free African women became taxable because of their field labor (which meant African women were more suited than English women to the physical work of men), and once law mandated that the children of a woman slave would remain slaves, Virginians came to accept “the appearance that slavery was a natural condition for people of African descent” (135). This narrative evidences Brown’s argument that slavery based on race became a social construct in colonial Virginia; while “otherness” in general is initially distinguished Africans from the English, the color of their skin came to matter more after the 17th century when more and more Africans were becoming baptized, Christianized, and more “civilized.” Importantly, as Brown argues, this racialization of Africans helped transform the term “wench” from one that applied to all women who were not “good wives” to racial epithet for African women specifically.
Personally, I did not find Brown’s chapters on elite Virginian planter society of the 18th century quite as compelling as a whole; however, these chapters were useful in that they helped me learn more about how the elite classes emerged from the extreme hardship that was early settlement, the identity crisis that elite men faced as colonists, and, most notably, alter my perceptions about women’s exercise of power in elite society. There is no denying that these women were most definitely privileged, but elite women were drastically confined to the social lives cut out for them by the patriarchal institutions and laws of their time. While the avenues of gossip, church, courtship, extended visitation, and fashion might seem trivial as outlets of power and identity to us today (and many men of the time believed so as well), these spaces represented the only ways in which elite women were able to express themselves publicly because, as Brown states, men dominated the public sphere.
Ultimately, I appreciated Brown’s monograph as it is immensely informative and interesting with the bonus of a remarkably accurate, catchy title.