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Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia

A conversation with the curator of an exhibit about the oft-overlooked lives of women in early colonial Virginia.
JUNTO: Congratulations, Kate, on Tenacity, and thank you for agreeing to talk to us about this exciting and important exhibition! 2019 marks several landmark historic anniversaries in Virginia. Can you tell us about the exhibit’s role in commemorating these events? What were your goals for this particular project?

KATE: The Commonwealth of Virginia is acknowledging four historic events that took place in 1619: the first legislative assembly meeting at Jamestown; the first official English Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation; the arrival of the first documented Africans; and the recruitment of Englishwomen to join the colonists in Virginia. While Tenacity touches, perhaps indirectly, on all four of these significant events, we took this opportunity to more fully explore the theme of women in early Virginia. Our overarching goal was simply to speak the names of the women who have been, for so long, written out of traditional narratives. To give them a voice, to tell their stories. To reinsert women— Virginia Indian, African, and English— into their rightful place in history. But even further, we wanted our visitors to feel connected to these women, to see themselves in this history, and to feel that the bond that we share in our common humanity is stronger than the 400 years that separate us.

JUNTO: The story of Jamestown might be well known, but you approached the wider history of seventeenth-century Virginia in some really innovative and compelling ways using traditional sources, objects, and interactive components. What was your method? Was there anything in Tenacity that took things somewhere new or unexpected, or sources that stood out for you in your research?

KATE: At the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, we excel at telling personal stories, and that skill really shines in Tenacity. We wanted to tell as many of these women’s stories as we could, to introduce as many women as possible, and to constantly encourage our visitors to confront this untold or forgotten part of Virginia’s founding era. People ask all the time, “what new stories did you uncover for this exhibition?” The unfortunate truth is that none of these stories are really new, per say. They are just tragically underutilized and untold. We’re changing that, but interrupting the traditional Anglo- or male-centric narrative is itself seen by some as unexpected. You can tell a comprehensive (a much more comprehensive) history of early Virginia through the lives of women who were here.
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