The past few weeks we have spent time talking about men who have been recognized nationally for their actions. Men who served in the armed forces and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Over the next few weeks, I want to tell the stories of three women that, unless you have visited Colonial Williamsburg (or have watched their livestreams on Facebook/YouTube) you likely have never heard of them.
The three women's stories that I would like to share are Mrs. Rachel Singleton Whitaker, Mrs. Clementina Rind, and Mrs. Ann Wager. All three of these women became widows. All three of them are portrayed by interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg (more on that later). All three of these women had jobs outside the home. They are what is known as feme sole - women alone.
Mrs. Rachel Whitaker was born the daughter of tavern keepers. She married her husband, Simon Whitaker in 1764. They had one son. Rachel was widowed shortly there after at the age of 18. After her husband's death she went to court to fight for her portion of her husband's will. Rachel continued the family tavern business.
As I mentioned previously, Mrs. Whitaker is one of the stories that is brought to life by an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. She is portrayed by Emily Doherty, who some may remember as part of the play Tag, Rag, & Bobtail - in which Emily portrays a wife of an American soldier during the Revolutionary War who travels alongside her husband. I had the privilege of interviewing Emily about her role as Mrs. Rachel Whitaker.
What drew you to the person you portray?
"The thing that draws me the most to Rachel Whitaker is her story of loss and resilience. She is a single parent, she has a strained relationship with her son when he enters young adulthood, and she works hard to keep her family intact and supported. Those are universal concepts that I think are important when relating people of the past to a modern audience, and they intrigued me when I first started researching Rachel."
What is one special fact about Mrs. Whitaker that you enjoy sharing?
"I love sharing Mrs. Whitaker’s court battle for her “widows third” of her late husband’s estate. It is nuanced; it shows Rachel’s knowledge of how the court system operates, and how the court system often is broken for people who don’t have the privilege to ensure it’s working for them. The property Rachel fights for are living humans: enslaved men and women. This makes Rachel complicit and an active agent in the institution of slavery. It’s complicated and messy and that’s why I love it."
What perspectives do you personally agree or disagree with Mrs. Whitaker on?
"I find the institution of slavery abhorrent. I would like to believe that if I lived in the 18th century I would be anti-racist, but the truth is that I would likely not question the society I was born into. That knowledge fuels me to try to do more work for a just anti-racist society today, and that begins with learning from and acknowledging our past. Rachel has taught me how easy it is to be complicit in unjust systems, and has made me work harder to be aware of how my actions can cause a domino effect."
What is the most fun part of playing Mrs. Whitaker?
"I honestly love playing Rachel before her husband dies. Those first two years of marriage I have chosen to interpret her as full of light and hope, and it’s bittersweet knowing what’s about to come next for her. I once had a gentleman tell me after we had a conversation about my upcoming marriage that he was sure I would have a long and happy life with my husband. I thanked him- and I wished I could give him the end of her story."
What is one of the most commonly asked questions you receive from audiences while in character? And what is a question that you wish more people would ask?
"I am commonly asked if I chose to get married or was forced into it. There’s still a vast misconception that arranged marriages were prevalent in 18th century English society, and while on some of the highest levels there may have been more pressure to make a certain match, for most common men and women that simply isn’t the case. I always say that there is some element of need in any marriage, but that affection often plays a large part as well. Legally, parents could not force their children to marry.
I wish more people would inquire about Rachel’s son. His military career is interesting and he never fully recovered from the mental and physical injuries he received during the War for American independence. He’s an example of how the war tore families apart in more ways than physical, and I wish I had the opportunity to explore that more."
In learning about ordinary lives in the past it helps us to better understand the ordinary lives of our time.
Much thanks again to Emily Doherty for the time she took in answering my questions.