Ink Fingerprints: What Ordinary Women Can Tell Us About Reading, Relationships, and Resisting Anti-Intellectualism
In communities and state legislatures across the United States, a concerted movement is underway to limit the types of ideas students are exposed to. Often hidden behind demands for parental rights, balanced treatment, and a desire to avoid division, these efforts target students’ ability to think freely, ask probing questions, and engage in long-overdue debriefings with the past. In some communities, these efforts have resulted in the banning of books on topics such as anti-racism, the Holocaust, and gender nonconformity. The assumption seems to be that if ideas that bend the arc of history further toward justice can be eliminated from classrooms, they can be eliminated from culture – that education is at odds with our domestic spaces and our most intimate family relationships. In fact, what history confirms time and time again is that the pursuit of intellectual freedom is the most “kitchen table” of problems – a lesson we would be wise to remember when exploring the intellectual lives of non-elite and BIPOC women around the world. centuries.
In the Parliamentary Archives there is a manuscript, confiscated in August 1646 when agents of the Stationers Company, by order of the House of Lords, arrested the Leveler Richard Overton for seditious printing. Riddled with editorial changes and ink fingerprints, the manuscript and its history stand as a silent testimony to the dynamic nature of ideas and the domestic nature of justice. At least some of these prints belong to Richard Overton, who printed the pamphlet. The neat hand that produced the clean copy has not been definitely identified, although it bears some resemblance to his wife Mary’s signature. While we remain uncertain about the material details of the manuscript, we are quite certain that the Stationers agents who arrested Richard Overton viewed the couple’s most intimate spaces as a significant source of intellectual dissent.
“What history confirms over and over again is that the pursuit of intellectual freedom is the most ‘kitchen table’ of problems”
Unfortunately, the couple paid an equally intimate and more devastating price for their resistance to censorship. While her husband remained in Newgate Prison, Mary and other members of her family continued the work of distributing dissident pamphlets undeterred until she and her brother were themselves arrested. Parliament committed Mary and the baby she had given birth to the previous summer to Bridewell, where the baby died. Richard Overton commemorated Mary’s imprisonment and the loss of their child by proclaiming her one of the many “wives of the people who defend their liberty and freedom”.
Whether it’s Alice Walker’s mother’s garden, Elizabeth Lilburne’s unsigned contributions to the Leveler pamphlets, Joy Harjo’s kitchen table, where “children are instructed on what it means to be human women have found ways to defy, if not completely reject, the constraints on their minds and the minds of those they most often hold in the most surprising ways. My own grandmother was a child of the Great Depression, the only surviving daughter of a family of six surviving children. A brother and a sister succumbed to the disease, while a second brother died in a tragic domestic accident. Her constant refrain, as soon as she deemed me old enough to hear it, was that her parents had too many children. There was rarely money for even the smallest of luxuries and never money for education. As soon as she was of working age, she did, noting at one point that she was working nights at the local cannery because the men were taking the day shifts. Towards the end of her life, she began keeping a diary, writing memories and admissions, including the admission that she had chosen to terminate two unplanned pregnancies.
“Women have found ways to defy, even completely reject, the constraints on their minds and the minds of those they hold most often in the most surprising ways.”
For my grandmother, it was her truth. No family should have more children than they want or can support. None of my grandparents went to college, but they valued education above all else. And although they didn’t have the resources to fully pay for my mother’s and uncle’s education, all of their children went to college, producing four master’s degrees and a doctorate. My mother and my uncles were supported emotionally and materially when possible. The simple truth is that my grandmother’s decision to end those pregnancies made those degrees possible. The other simple truth is that my grandmother terminated these pregnancies while abortions were still illegal in the state where she lived. Not everyone will see his choice that way, but for me these firings were acts of political defiance and part of his own personal fight for the education of his children, their ability to ask probing questions and to distort kinda the arc of the story. closer to justice.
In the frantic assault on intellectual pursuit, we must not forget that the struggle against the occult forces of ignorance is taking place in humble settings among women with fierce clarity. We should not forget it as a historical proposition of where to look for evidence of past struggles, nor as a guide for current practice. Anti-intellectualism tends to be episodic; the work of intellectual research is continuous, domestic and intimate.
Featured image of Gareth David on Unsplash