Legacy Volume 28, No. 2 (2011) 28.2

Special Issue: Women in Early America: Recharting Hemispheric and Atlantic Desire

Guest Edited by Tamara Harvey, George Mason University


Women in Early America: Recharting Hemispheric and Atlantic Desire

Tamara Harvey, George Mason University

In her introduction, Harvey notes that the articles in this special issue of Legacy expand on and challenge conventional understandings of early American women writers. They draw on less studied archives, and reject easy binaries between categories of otherness. Despite the healthy quantity of scholarship on women in the early Americas, the roles women play in mapping, as well as metaphors associated with mapping, are often left uninterrogated. As maps of the early Americas often employ women as vehicles for their colonialist projects, this critical reckoning is essential. Harvey locates this project within a larger enterprise concerning transatlantic and hemispheric studies. She therefore rejects “add[ing] women to the mix” (160) in favor of a theoretical paradigm that acknowledges the importance of interdisciplinary work and, simultaneously, the inevitable failure of mapping projects to incorporate all marginal subjects. This practice, she argues, will challenge problematic binaries of center/periphery through a refusal simply to build a better map. Adequately charting the early Americas is, in some ways, unavoidably impossible, but attention to the fissures in these maps makes possible an awareness of the inequities of early America, even as it allows us to recognize how women still possessed agency within ostensibly rigid systems.

Female Bodies and Capitalist Drive: Sansay’s Secret History in Transoceanic Context

Michelle Burnham, Santa Clara University

Burnham’s essay examines an epistolary novel, Secret History; or, the Horrors of St. Domingo (1808), arguing that the text recognizes the cycles of imperial violence that is central to the construct of the colonial Caribbean; it does this through complex interlockings of sexual desire and capitalist relations. Women’s bodies, in Secret History, function as “a kind of switch” (178) that reveals connections between erotic and economic drives. The psychoanalytic concept of driveallows Burnham to read these triangles not as closed geometry, but as a ceaselessly kinetic interplay. The novel maps marital relations onto colonial relations, and colonial relations onto marital relations, as is evident in the connection between its subtitle and title, which link a violent slave revolt to the horrors of matrimonial dissolution. Through a love triangle among three characters, Secret History parallels the Atlantic trade triangle, suggesting that more than one kind of appetite evokes obscenity. This exchange is not unprecedented in descriptions of oceanic trade dynamics; female bodies often appeared at moments of encounter, particularly at sites of anticolonial resistance. In Secret History, women’s bodies reproduce these moments, framing capitalist drive as inextricable from pornographic obscenity, and enabling the subsequent birth of violent revolution.

Native American Women and Religion in the American Colonies: Textual and Visual Traces of an Imagined Community

Mónica Díaz, Georgia State University

In her article, Díaz discusses nuns’ writings about women such as Sister Antonia de Cristo from New Spain and Catherine Tekakwitha, a Mohawk convert in New France. Díaz argues that these women’s stories indicate the key roles that Native American women played in helping to define and expand Catholic ideology and praxis in the colonial Americas. Furthermore, their lives illustrate how Indigenous women allied themselves to each other across ethnic lines as they participated in the Church, recounting their activities in a number of genres including personal accounts, letters, and legal documents. Díaz focuses not only on written texts, but also on portraits of these women as she takes a cross-genre and hemispheric approach to studying these women’s agency as converts and colonial subjects. After briefly overviewing the merits of a hemispheric approach regarding studies of Native and other women in the colonial period, Díaz begins by analyzing the lives of women in eighteenth-century New Spain before considering seventeenth-century New France. She discusses Native, European, and criolla women’s imagined communities as they formed promotional networks with priests. Finally, she examines portraits of devout Native women to analyze their visual rhetoric and how that rhetoric demonstrated ethnic autonomy in New Spain while, in New France, building a case for sainthood. While male religious officials made examples female Native converts to reach larger Native populations, these women did not passively participate in the Church’s agenda. They were instead active agents who formed imagined communities and networks that promoted Native women’s own agendas regarding religious spaces and practices.

Fulfilling the Name: Catherine Tekakwitha and Marguerite Kanenstenhawi (Eunice Williams)

Andrew Newman, Stony Brook University

Newman discusses the lives of Catherine Tekakwitha and Marguerite Kanenstenhawi (who was better known as Eunice Williams)—both women with ties to the Iroquois Jesuit mission village Kahnawake, founded in 1676 in New France. Women were instrumental in developing the community and also had different beliefs about identity and communal roles than women in nearby Native villages and in French and English settlements. It was in this space that Tekakwitha was known for her religious devotion and became an unofficial Catholic saint and that Kanenstenhawi/Williams, a Puritan captive, became an exemplar in the Iroquois Catholic community. Newman looks particularly at naming practices, especially baptism and requickening, to consider challenges to western beliefs regarding the link between names and identities. He argues that transitions between names represent various entanglements wherein people’s life histories become connected across space and time. Not only does Newman link the stories of these two women who were impacted by the same community, but he also links Tekakwitha to a fourteenth-century Italian ascetic mystic and Kanenstenhawi/Williams’s English identity to her Mohawk one. Newman argues that the process of requickening, in particular, helps scholars bridge the gap between Native lives and European writings, which is especially the case for the life story of Tekakwitha because of discrepancies in written records about her life. Ultimately, Tekakwitha’s enactment of Catherine of Siena’s life shaped Pierre Cholenec’s and Claude Chauchetière’s writings on Tekakwitha. Meanwhile, the ways that Tekakwitha fulfilled the expectations implied by her Christian name help scholars understand how Kanenstenhawi/Williams fulfilled the expectations that came with her Mohawk name.

Taking Possession of the New World: Powerful Female Agency in Early Colonial Accounts of South America

Rocío Quispe-Agnoli, Michigan State University

In “Taking Possession of the New World,” Rocío Quispe-Agnoli examines colonial Spanish women’s accounts of Indies, or narratives regarding service in the colonization of the New World, which these women addressed to the Spanish crown. Between 1534 and 1620 in Perú, there were more than one hundred encomenderas, or women who were given labor grants from the Spanish king that included up to thousands of Indian laborers as a reward for services to the crown during Spain’s wars. These women produced a large body of legal texts, and they could access wealth and power during a period of great cultural transition in Perú that allowed women greater agency. Quispe-Agnoli reads the texts of Spanish and Inca encomenderas as contact zones wherein women could perform authority and power textually. She examines in particular the accounts of Indies written by Inés Muñóz de Ribera, who was one of the earliest female conquistadores and encomenderas in Perú. Through closely reading such texts, Quispe-Agnoli discusses what she calls “dual gendered voices” in that the discourse in these writings deals with the kinds of power and knowledge that are usually attributed to men while they also engage with issues usually associated with women’s roles. Building off of the work of scholars who have noted the existence of parallel gendered categories that allowed elite Inca women to claim power in religion and government, Quispe-Agnoli calls attention to flexibility regarding gender identities and roles. Such flexibility is seen particularly in times of disruption and uncertainty— such as that which existed during European invasions in the Americas—and is illuminated in the writings of Spanish and Indigenous women.

Hard-Hearted Women: Sentiment and the Scaffold

Jodi Schorb, University of Florida

In this article, Schorb argues that Michel Foucault’s theory of public punishment, which focuses on the spectacular display of the body, fails to account for the “moment of truth” (290) that fascinated colonial American execution accounts: the condemned person facing either eternal salvation or damnation. Women are especially significant vehicles of affect; execution ultimately has a gendered power that shapes the way it produces an affective response in the condemned. Women’s bodies in execution narratives, therefore, function not solely as figures of public shame, but as mechanisms for communal identification through the sermons that chronicled their deaths. Schorb analyses execution sermons written about three women, Sarah Threeneedles, Margaret Gaulacher, and Esther Rodgers, noting that each cultivates a felt response from audiences in response to the death and suffering of another. The death of Threeneedles, who gave birth to two illegitimate children and murdered the second, generated numerous sermons that worried over the disputed reality of her repentance more than her criminal acts. Similarly, Cotton Mather overcompensates for Gaulacher’s scanty penitence, in an attempt to make up for her “hard heart” (300). The chronicle of Rodgers’s confessions transforms her from sinner to saved through not only the fact of her religious conversion, but also through the heartfelt emotions she expresses in the shadow of her impending death. These narratives indicate a movement in execution accounts toward a sentimentalism that belies earlier renderings of female criminals as invariably hard-hearted.

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From the Archives

“And the author of wickedness Surely is most to be blamed”: The Declaration of Debora Proctor

Abby Chandler, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Martha Proctor’s illegitimate pregnancy, occurring at the turn of the eighteenth century, served as the catalyst for one of the most extensive court descriptions of sexual misconduct in colonial Massachusetts history. Debora Proctor, Martha’s mother, sent a lengthy statement to Essex County justices that documented the events in question. The Proctor case is not unique in its inclusion of the testimony of a woman; many other bastardy and paternity trials that took place in colonial New England includes women’s statements, particularly those of midwives. Although the women charged with misconduct could be represented only by male family members, the statements of mothers were nonetheless accepted by the courts. Submitted in an attempt to save her daughter from a conviction of fornication and bastardy, Debora Proctor’s Declaration is a piece of writing that says as much about Debora Proctor as about Martha. It plays skillfully with language, it emphasizes Mrs. Proctor as the head of household, rather than her husband, and it characterizes Thomas Choat, the accused father of Martha’s child, as operating outside the boundaries of appropriate Puritan behavior. In spite of Martha’s subsequent conviction, the Declaration nevertheless is significant for its testimony not only to Martha’s experience, but to Debora’s view of herself as “deputy husband”: an authorized, agential representative of her household.

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Book Reviews

An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790-1840 edited by Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley

Lisa M. Logan, University of Central Florida

Cultural Narratives: Textuality and Performance in American Culture before 1900 edited by Sandra M. Gustafson and Caroline F. Sloat

Kristina Bross, Purdue University

Letters and Cultural Transformation in the United States, 1760-1860 edited by Theresa Strouth Gaul and Sharon M. Harris

Konstantin Dierks, Indiana University, Bloomington

Dissenting Bodies: Corporealities in Early New England by Martha L. Finch

Kelly Wisecup, University of North Texas

Creole Subjects in the Colonial Americas: Empires, Texts, Identities edited by Ralph Bauer and José Antonio Mazzotti

Nicole N. Aljoe, Northeastern University

Suffering Childhood in Early America: Violence, Race, and the Making of the Child Victim by Anna Mae Duane

Courtney Weikle-Mills, University of Pittsburgh

Women, Religion, and the Atlantic World (1600-1800) edited by Daniella Kostroun and Lisa Vollendorf

Martha L. Finch, Missouri State University

Indigenous Writings from the Convent by Mónica Díaz

Laura Arnold Liebman, Reed College

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