Even in their dresses the females seem to bid us defiance : Boston women and performance 1762-1823
This dissertation constructs a cultural history of women's performances in Boston from 1762-1823, using materialist feminism and ethnohistory. I look at how "woman" was historically understood at that time, and how women used those discourses to their advantage when constructing performances that allowed them to intervene in political culture. I examine a broad range of performance activities from white, black, and Native American women of all classes. Chapter two discusses three of Boston's elite female intellectuals: Mercy Otis Warren, Judith Sargent Murray, and Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton. Though each woman's writings have been examined individually, I examine them as a community. With the connections and public recognition they built, they helped found the Federal Street Theatre where they could have a ventrioloquized embodied performance for their ideas on women's rights, abolition, and political parties. Chapter three looks at the construction of three solo performances: Phillis Wheatley performing her poetry in 1772; the 1802 theatre tour of Deborah Sampson Gannett, who fought as a man in the revolution; and the monologues and wax effigy creations of Patience Lovell Wright circa 1772. These women depended on their performances for sustenance, and in Wheatley's case, to secure her freedom from bondage. I look at the way these women created a mythology about themselves and crafted a marketable image, both on and off the stage. In particular, I examine the ways each grappled with a charged discourse surrounding their bodies. In chapter four I look at fashion as performance. I explore homespun dresses as political propaganda, Native American and black women's use of clothing to express cultural pride that white Anglo society had attempted to erase, and the way that women used mourning costumes to perform and create nationalism at the mock funerals held for Washington after he died in 1799. In my conclusion I contrast the 2008 miniseries John Adams with a solo performance of Phillis Wheatley. I briefly trace the trajectory of the history of women during this time. I argue that focusing on performance identifies and legitimizes other sources of evidence and locates examples of women's agency in shaping popular culture.