Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Committee Member 1
Committee Member 2
Committee Member 3
Early New England women chose to pass down what they owned and valued: clothing, cupboards, pewter dishes, commonplace books, etc. But some women passed down something more: a written testament, which sought to shape public opinion in colonial New England. A "testament" usefully suggests a text that both serves as a witness to lived experience as well as the means by which the individual herself can frame the narrative for those who come after. This project aims to examine not only written records but also their audience: who were the heirs to these testaments and how were the records preserved through centuries of movement through archives? What happens when we look to unconventional genres for evidence of women's self-fashioning?
Through an examination of four testaments - the petition of Abigail Faulkner, a white woman in Salem, MA, convicted of witchcraft (1711); the execution narrative of Katherine Garret, a Pequot woman in Connecticut, executed for infanticide (1738); the will of Naomai Ommaush, a Wampanoag woman on Martha's Vineyard (1749); and the recorded testimony of Dinah Sisson, a free Black woman in Newport, RI (1794), I demonstrate how some 18th-century women seized certain genres in order to register their personal experience publicly. Each of these women insisted on access to this discourse during a moment when women's voices were subject to institutions that threatened to overwrite them.
Though scholars have already explored the notion of women as makers of public opinion in post-Revolutionary War and antebellum America, I hold that women during the colonial period sought participation in the same publics and counterpublics that would ultimately form "civil society." American women after 1790 were responsible for studying and then seizing the rights and obligations of citizenship, while colonial women, like those discussed in this chapter, engaged with public opinion on a local level, without nationalistic aims. Their interventions, recorded as written testaments and made public, allowed their message to be conveyed through generations.
In each chapter, I frame the central text as a testament, demonstrating how each woman attempted to shape public opinion to achieve her own particular end. Women's testaments, like other archival records, hold meaning in later periods and contexts--meanings that sometimes do not reflect the goals of their creators. Accordingly, I also explore the genealogy of each record and discuss how the record's meaning(s) has been shaped by the archives in which it has been placed. In each chapter, by positioning the record within a series of other records, I offer an alternative reading of the record that runs counter to its generic conventions.
Tardif, Elyssa, ""I Have Thought Proper to Inform the World": Reading Unconventional Testaments of 18th-Century New England Women" (2013). Open Access Dissertations. 47.