Academic journal article Early American Studies

From the Scarlet Letter to Stonewall: Reading the 1629 Thomas(ine) Hall Case, 1978-2009

Academic journal article Early American Studies

From the Scarlet Letter to Stonewall: Reading the 1629 Thomas(ine) Hall Case, 1978-2009

Article excerpt

On March 25, 1629, the Council and General Court of colonial Virginia heard the case against Thomas Hall, an indentured servant living in the settlement of Warraskoyack.* 1 The minutes of the session do not specify Hall's crime; although a charge of fornication with a female servant called "greate Besse" seems to have precipitated the trial, the court's real challenge was to make a decision about Hall's ambiguous gender. Hall's selfidentification as "both man and woeman" is recorded in the minutes, and she/he alternated between male and female clothing, evidendy on the basis at least in part of economic considerations. The transcript of the case provides an invaluable glimpse into everyday articulations of gender and social position in colonial Virginia, as discussed effectively and at length by other scholars. In what follows, I seek not to offer another analysis of Hall's experiences, or of the possible insights into colonial perceptions of masculinity, femininity, or ambiguous gender presentation that the account offers. Rather, I examine the modern scholarly and political contexts through which the Hall case has been discussed. Ignored until 1978, Hall and the events detailed in the trial have since then inspired quite a range of different readings. The one point of consistency across the thirty-five years of scholarship is the fact that Hall and the other parties present before the General Court in Jamestown on March 25, 1629, have been interpreted in ways that precisely trace shifting models for theorizing gender and sexual identity during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. First interpreted through the lenses of feminist and then gay and lesbian politics in the period from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, Hall's experience is understood by twenty-first-century scholars as an early example of resistance against what Anne Fausto-Sterling, in 2000, terms "the constraints of our sex/gender system."2

Taken as a whole, this body of work implies the historical possibility of an originary feminist or queer (or both) American community before the fact, effectively eliding important distinctions among different groups as well as downplaying their significance in our own period. The earlier work, in the 1970s and 1980s, imposes notions specific to that era: Hall's seventeenth-century experience is presented according to late twentiethcentury ideas about genderand sexuality-based oppression. Later examinations, from the 1990s to today, reflect the turn toward greater theoretical sophistication initiated by "social history" approaches. Each of these later scholars emphasizes historical context. Nevertheless, this recent work is marked by a consistent tendency toward unnecessarily suggestive diction and leading phrasing. In sometimes marked contrast to their emphasis on historicization, these scholars engage in "sentence-level" depictions of Thomas(ine) Hall's experience that still too closely evoke our own period's notions of sexuality and gender identity.

The Thomas(ine) Hall case describes seventeenth-century gender fluidity, ambiguous body presentation, and nonnormative sexual behavior: historians reading the account are quite right to engage with contemporary theories of gender and sexuality. Judith Halberstam, writing in 1998, describes the difficulty of navigating the intellectual Scylla and Charybdis faced by scholars of feminist or queer history, between "untheoretical historical surveys" that effectively erase nonnormative sexualities and genders from history, and "ahistorical theoretical models" that potentially impose anachronism. As Halberstam suggests, "Debates about the history of sexuality and the history of gender deviance have also very often reproduced this split, rendering historical sexual forms as either universal or completely bound by and to their historical moment." Halberstam offers a "perversely presentist model of historical analysis" that "avoids the trap of simply projecting contemporary understandings back in time, but one that can apply insights from the present to conundrums of the past. …

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