After Dr. McCoy’s brief mention of “Virginia’s Verger” in class last week, I decided to search a little for the original document–Purchas his Pilgrimes–which, written by Samuel Purchas, a settler in the New World, turned to out be brimming with intertwined racism and sexism. Can you guess how shocked I am (hint: not at all)?
As we discussed in a recent class, the etymology of “Virginia” is rooted in a longstanding religious emphasis on purity–a belief so strong that it inspired the naming of the first British colony in the Americas to reflect Great Britain’s pride in the virginity of Queen Elizabeth I. My skin is crawling already, but it gets worse. Purchas speaks of the “Natives” (yes, oddly enough, the people who had already been there before he arrived) raping the pure, untouched land that God had promised to the British. Personifying the land as a white, virginal woman, Purchas laments that “Virginia was violently ravished by her owne ruder Natives, yea, her Virgin cheeks dyed with the bloud of three Colonies” and immediately after, calls for retaliation: “Justice cryeth to vengeance, and in his name adjureth Prudence and Fortitude to the execution.”
Purchas seems to feel that the settlers have some sort of religious-based duty to protect the “purity” of the land in a way that they would protect the “purity” of a woman. For me, this sort of wording immediately brings to mind our country’s history of legal (and often violent) repercussions against non-white men for so much as looking the wrong way at a white woman–Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird may be fiction, but society’s fear of a black man threatening the purity of a white woman was (is?) all too real. When racism and sexism work together like this, the two perpetuate one another and their effects are compounded: this deeply ingrained aspect of colonial society served to simultaneously characterize white women as property, and non-white men as potential thieves of said property. Of course, neither autonomous human women nor already-inhabited land could rightfully be considered someone else’s property, but “divine right” was a pretty convenient, catch-all sort of excuse at the time.
In Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, virginity manifests itself in ways that are slightly different, but still toxic. Just a few pages into the novel, Florens quotes her mother as having once told her “Only bad women wear high heels.” Traces of these attitudes are scattered throughout the chapters that follow as well; one that struck me, in particular, was the scene where Dorothea, Lydia, and Judith mock Anne for the “behavior” that, presumably, caused her to get pregnant and, consequently, disowned by her family–as if it doesn’t take both woman and a man to conceive a child. It is in situations like these that characters can be seen as treating virginity as a valuable asset–and in some cases, a woman’s only asset–to be carefully guarded. As if this script wasn’t toxic enough on its own, when layered with colonial race relations as well, the narrative becomes one in which non-white men are viewed as trying to steal white women’s virginity from white men. This is precisely the narrative that Purchas makes use of in “Virginia’s Verger,” and he makes it rather clear that settlers’ attitudes of entitlement towards women and towards land were usually about equal.