Roger Williams’ Women’s Voices: The Rhetorics of Feminine Speech in Puritan Polemics


Location: 339 O'Shaughnessy


New England Puritans were hardly famous for their appreciation of women’s speech, and we would not expect one of them to adopt a feminine persona for rhetorical effect in public debate. The radial minister Roger Williams, however, does just that in a cluster of polemical publications. Two of his major works on religious tolerance are presented as dialogs between the allegorical sisters “Truth” and “Peace,” and Williams is unnervingly fond of comparing the forcing of a believer’s conscience to the rape of a woman. While Williams has been lauded for his progressive stance on religious freedom and on Native American rights, his gender politics were harsher than most, and this peculiar rhetorical strategy needs to be viewed as part of the patriarchal regime rather than in opposition to it.

In this short paper, I will outline a basic explanation whereby the Puritan silencing of actual women created idealized feminine positions that could be used (typically by men) to some rhetorical effect. Though an unlikely venue for directly challenging gender roles, such a strategy has some promise for female agency in less tightly policed settings—though unfortunately the only example of its use by a woman I can offer so far is in the execution letter by the Quaker Mary Dyer.

Presenter: Anton Povzner
Research Workshop: November 2
339 O'Shaughnessy

Anton Povzner is a second-year PhD student in English literature, specializing in early Anglophone America. He is broadly interested in the topic of self and the historical formation of the individual. Roger Williams, however, recurs as an object of study in various contexts including territorial rhetoric and sovereignty.

In order to advance the program’s commitment to inter-disciplinary research and inquiry into the subject of gender, the Gender Studies Program is pleased to announce an upcoming series of research workshops. The events will include presentations by advanced undergraduates majoring in Gender Studies as well as graduate students and faculty members from a variety of departments who work in the area of gender and sexuality. The workshop will begin with the week’s presenter giving a brief lecture on his or her current research in the field, followed by a seminar-style discussion. 

Workshops are held on Tuesdays from 3:00pm-4:00pm and Thursdays from 5:00pm – 6:00 pm in 339 O’Shaughnessy unless otherwise specified below. The Joint Panels will be held on Fridays from 4:00pm-6:00pm in 119 O'Shaughnessy. 

If you would like to reserve a date for a presentation at one of the Research Workshops please contact one of our Research Workshop coordinators: Stacy Sivinski or Dominique Vargas.

Sponsored by the Marian Mullin Hancock Gender Studies Fund.

Research Workshops webpage