Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Leisa Meyer


This dissertation examines discourses and experiences of reproduction in Virginia, 1630-1785. I define reproduction as an experiential reality that contoured women's lives in specific ways, as a central demographic phenomenon that shaped colonial populations, and as a discourse of power in the colonial project. Informed by feminist theory, queer theory, and postcolonial theory, the dissertation examines the relationship between reproduction and colonialism in the development of a plantation economy in Virginia. I draw on a varied archive of court documents, colonial records, newspapers and other print culture, plantation records, diaries, letters, and medical texts. Chapter 1, "'A considerable parcel of breeders': Reproduction and Discourses of Racial Slavery in Colonial Virginia," examines the ways that development of racial slavery in Virginia was based, in part, on the appropriation of black women's reproduction. I examine the roots of the 1662 law that defined slavery as a condition of birth, finding the legal and cultural precedent for the law in the conflation of servitude and bastardy. I further examine the vernacular discourses of slavery that used reproduction to define enslaved people (especially women) as a kind of property legally similar to livestock. I close the chapter with a discussion of the Virginia House of Burgesses debates around defining slaves as real or personal property, and I argue that these debates were a consequence of defining slavery as a status of birth. In Chapter 2, "Wicked, Dangerous, and Ungoverned: The Transgressive Possibilities of Reproduction," I examine the ways that childbearing could transgress colonial hierarchies and boundaries, especially in cases of bastardy and interracial birth. Throughout the chapter, I am particularly interested in understanding the relationship between domination and transgression, and the specific ways that reproduction could inhabit the space between those two poles. In Chapter 3, "Knowledge 'not fit to be discust publiquely': Colonialism and the Transformation of Reproductive Knowledge," I examine the ways that colonialism transformed Virginians' reproductive episteme. I attempt to reconstruct knowledge about reproduction in this space and time, and I show how childbearing became a potent intimate zone for the negotiating of colonial power relations. In the final chapter, '"She lives in an infant country that wants nothing but people': Discourses of Reproduction, Print Culture, and Virginia's Colonial Project," I examine the competing discourses of reproduction that informed Virginia's colonial project. I argue that two competing discourses about reproduction - one that privileged "prolific reproduction" and another that privileged "rational reproduction" - show the ways that the experience of colonialism transformed ideas about reproduction. This transformation occurred because the exigencies of the colonial project prioritized the maintaining of colonial boundaries and hierarchies over the early notion of peopling a "virgin" land.



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