Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, Jamestown Women

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to watch the new TV series, Jamestown, that recently premiered in the UK. But the television critic Mark Lawson has. Last week he wrote a column that criticised the show, and other recent British period drama, for featuring female characters who were, in his own words, “feisty, cheeky and rebellious.” In the name of historical accuracy, Lawson called out the makers of Jamestown for pandering to 21st-century sensibilities. Apparently, he believes women four hundred years ago raised neither hand nor voice against the patriarchy. Instead, they “willingly accept[ed] sexual and social submission.”

Fortunately, there were plenty of historians ready to respond. On Twitter, Suzannah Lipscomb offered her own research on sixteenth and seventeenth-century French women as a counterpoint to Lawson’s ahistorical assumptions. The women in Lipscomb’s archives “called each other ‘drunk’, ‘harlot’, ‘shitty whore’, ‘lice-ridden’ (pubic lice), ‘drunken whore,’” and much more besides. “One woman yell[ed] to her adulterous husband that ‘he would just as soon fuck a cow up the arse’ in 1582.” As Yvonne Seale put it in her thoughtful response, “The weight of patriarchy could crush, but it also inspired rebellions, whether small and symbolic or larger scale.”

To imagine that past women were simply and uniformly submissive is an odd, and ideologically-inflected fantasy—made even odder by Lawson’s comparison between the Jamestown women and “jihadi brides flown out to Islamic State soldiers today, or the arranged marriages that still exist in some communities.” It seems absurd “in this day and age” that educated men like Lawson need to be reminded that women have agency (even those who wed jihadis!), and that, as Rebecca Rideal writes in her Guardian response, “despite mutating societal limitations, women have always had a voice, a presence and a history that runs alongside, and often in reaction to, men.”

Aside from bringing this case-study in public historiography to the attention of Junto readers, I also wanted to add something that so far seems to have been missing from the responses of British historians. The archives on which they have drawn range from medieval to early modern Europe. But I haven’t seen any responses to Lawson that focus on Virginia women themselves.* Surely, there could be no better time for a dose of Kathleen Brown’s established classic, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill, 1996):

English women were among the troublemakers who refused to behave deferentially to plantation commanders and gentlemen… In 1637, after learning that the wealthy Norfolk County justice Captain Adam Thorowgood planned to remove goods from her husband’s possession, Ann Fowler retorted, ‘Let Capt. Thorougood Kiss my arse.’[…] The General Court heard several cases during the 1620s in which women physically assaulted individuals whom they believed had wronged them… Margaret Jones stands out for the wide range of her misdeeds [which you can read for yourself!] (p.95)

It seems pretty likely that the makers of Jamestown at least glanced at Brown’s book, given its towering status in the field, and its direct applicability to their subject. If they did, it would be more than Lawson bothered with. I know the book is getting on in years, though. You may well have more recent suggestions for a Jamestown Women Syllabus. Please share them in the comments! I’d also love to see more examples of early America’s rebellious, “feisty” women. I look forward to beginning next autumn’s survey classes with a discussion of this whole debate—a case study, if ever there was one, of the way our lazy assumptions can transform the world into a much more boring place than it really was; and how historians’ archival work unsettles those assumptions and forces us to think with more complexity about submission, agency, and power in the past.

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* Jo Cohen did note the connection before Lawson’s article was published!

7 comments on “Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, Jamestown Women

  1. Historiann says:

    Great points here, Tom. I agree that women were frequently in-your-face in the earliest English settlements in colonial America, but you have to admit that producers of historical dramas have a problem if they want to create characters that modern audiences can or want to relate to. Fiesty women resisting patriarchal prerogatives in early Jamestowne is an easy sell, but the problem is that women were also frequently the subjects of patriarchal backlash, and that’s much dicier to depict. Women were also very invested in policing and shaming one another, as the French historian above notes–and that’s a complicated thing to depict, too.

    I’d rather have SOME historical dramas than none, even if I think their dramatic license offends my sensibilities as a historian. I haven’t yet seen this show, but just based on the still that’s offered here: everyone’s clothing is way to clean and nice looking, and the hair is all wrong. (But tucking dirty, lousy hair under caps, as women did in early VA, isn’t sexy! Long flowing hair is sexy now! So long, flowing, and non-lousy hair it is.)

    • Tom Cutterham says:

      Thanks — your comments are really important for thinking more deeply on the questions about agency and patriarchy. Might come back to this with a more thorough analysis once I’ve actually seen the show!

    • Vivian Bruce Conger says:

      Interesting points. I think it is a fine line to walk between depicting early American women as victims (and often passive victims) of the patriarchy and as determined, powerful voices willing and able to fight back. Both are correct, and it is a complicated narrative that doesn’t easily translate into documentaries or Hollywood films.

  2. willraffle says:

    My turnoff moment came with the trailer. Although there were some token Indians scattered about, the set-up implied a Jamestown devoid of any women at all, forgetting Native women, which will yet again marginalise Powhatan contact and perpetuate the ‘virgin land’ myth.

  3. Victoria says:

    Try A History of Mail Order Brides in Early America by Marcia Zug. The work talks about the women of Jamestown (as well as other parts of the modern day United States) and explores how women leveraged their relative scarcity to gain economic and social advancement in the colony.

  4. Karen says:

    Sometimes it feels like the greatest threat to the present is not that people don’t know history, but that people don’t know correct history. The assumptions that women in the past were passive creatures is just as much a 21st century bias being placed on the past as the idea that all pictures of female friends are pictures of same-sex couples. I would love to be in your class for this discussion! 🙂 The lens through which TV and film view history will always come with a dose of pandering to the audience…that is, of course, their business. But, that doesn’t mean that EVERYTHING they do is off-base…

  5. Richard Bowers says:

    Down here in North Florida, we just remember that by the time Jamestown was settled, St. Augustine was into urban renewal!

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