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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies
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Engendering the American West and Manifest Domesticity

There is a region of America that I have come to call Hisland. In a magnificent western landscape, under perpetually cloudless western skies, a cast of heroic characters engage in dramatic combat, sometimes with nature, sometimes with each other. Occupationally, these heroes are diverse: they are mountain men, cowboys, Indians, soldiers, farmers, miners, and desperadoes, but they share one distinguishing characteristic - they are all men. It seems that all rational demography has ended at the Mississippi River; all the land west of it is occupied only by men. This mythical land is America’s most enduring contribution to folklore: the legendary Wild West.

Susan Armitage, “Through Women’s Eyes”

Susan Armitage, a feminist scholar of the West, in the above passage defines her field in terms of the absence of women in classical accounts of the West and the westering experience, and via reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian classic Herland; recuperating and ascertaining the presence of women in the West has been one crucial dimension of engendering (the study of) the West. One of the earliest attempts to document the lives of women in the West is certainly Elizabeth Ellet’s Pioneer Women of the West (1901), which is based on private sources and biographical material. Dee Brown in his 1958 study of women in the West titled The Gentle Tamers clearly relates notions of the ‘Wild West’ to the ‘civilizing’ female touch of the “petticoated pioneers” (297), yet refutes historian Emerson Hough’s “sunbonnet myth” (Passing 93), which implied that women’s presence in the West was merely passive and decorative. Even if

Brown documents the female experience in the West as varied by pointing to its oppressive as well as emancipatory dimensions, he still remains largely stuck in a pre-feminist rhetoric, and with the then-common racial bias refers to white women only. Brown’s study shows the very limited presence women were granted in the classical discourse on the West, in which two images prevail: on the one hand, the “weary and forlorn frontier wife, a sort of helpless heroine” who is generically derived from the captivity narrative and is often described as a ‘Prairie Madonna,’ and on the other hand, “the westering woman as sturdy helpmate and civilizer of the frontier” (Myres, Westering Women 2); additional stock characters include “the good woman, the schoolmarm, [and] the kindheart- ed prostitute” (Riley, Female Frontier 10). All of these characters have limited agency and are circumscribed by roles which mostly keep them indoors. Additionally, hardly any mention is made in these early studies of Native American, Mexican American, and other non-white women.

An early and noteworthy instance of US memorial culture dedicated to the role of women in the history of the West is the Madonna of the Trail series of twelve statues, which commemorates the endurance of pioneer women in the US. Commissioned by The National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution and created by sculptor August Leimbach, the statues were dedicated in 1928 and 1929, and today are still placed in each of the twelve states along the National Old Trails Road, which led from Cumberland, Maryland, to Upland, California. In the Ohio dedication ceremony, Harry S. Truman stated that the women “were just as brave or braver than their men because, in many cases, they went with sad hearts and trembling bodies. They went, however, and endured every hardship that befalls a pioneer” (qtd. in Algeo, Harry Truman’s 50). The monuments are placed mostly in small towns in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Even if the monuments seek to remind us of the hardships undergone by women in the West, their representation of women as mother and nurturing presence in the West affirms traditional gender roles and once again asserts woman’s out-of-placeness in the West.

Critical engagement with representations of the West in regard to race and gender and the reconstruction of ‘other,’ non-hegemonic voices in the West has been more prominently on the agenda of historians and other scholars in the past decades. Women’s diaries of their westward journeys have become a valuable source for writing a bottom-up social history of women in the West, to which many scholars have contributed important studies and anthologies such as Julie Roy Jeffrey’s Frontier Women: “Civilizing" the West? 1840-1880 (1979); Lillian Schlissel’s Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey (1982); Lillian

Schlissel, Vicki Ruiz, and Janice Monk’s Western Women: Their Land, Their Lives (1988); Glenda Riley’s studies Women and Indians on the Frontier, 18251915 (1984) and The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains (1988); Elizabeth Jameson and Susan Armitage’s Writing the Range: Race, Class, and Culture in the Women’s West (1997); and Susan Cummins Miller’s A Sweet, Separate Intimacy: Women Writers of the American Frontier, 1800-1922 (2000). All of these studies contributed to complicating our sense of women’s presences and roles in the American West, as a result of which also fictional representations of women in the West have changed over time, as can be seen, for instance, in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Ethan and Joel Coen’s True Grit (2010), or Logan Miller’s Sweetwater (2013).

Illustration 3: The Frontier Woman as Madonna

W.H.D. Koerner, The Madonna of the Prairie (1921).

A second dimension of gender scholarship has been to investigate the particular logic of female absence in conventional accounts and representations of the West. In a Freudian spirit, Leslie Fiedler has defined the American West as symbolizing a male homosocial and at times interracial space “to which White male

Americans flee from their own women into the arms of Indian males, but which those White women, in their inexorable advance from coast to coast, destroy” (Return 50). In the context of westward expansion, women have been commonly portrayed as “obstacles to the male hero’s freedom” (Georgi-Findlay, Frontiers 6) in popular culture, which is why they are often left behind - in the East, in the domestic space of the house or the log cabin, or in the garden.

Yet, processes of gendering do not only relate to women but work in a dialectical dynamic that co-constructs femininity and masculinity, as Annette Kolodny’s work on the American West shows. Kolodny points out in The Lay of the Land (1975) that women were absented and excluded from conventional accounts of settlement and westward expansion, whereas the land itself was coded in overtly feminine terms in

what is probably America’s oldest and most cherished fantasy: a daily reality of harmony between man and nature based on an experience of the land as essentially feminine - that is, not simply the land as mother, but the land as woman, the total female principle of gratification - enclosing the individual in an environment of receptivity, repose, and painless and integral satisfaction. (4)

It is the symbolic capital of the feminine, so to speak, that is appropriated to signify metaphorically on the male experience of settlement in a patriarchal fantasy of ‘exploring’ the ‘virgin land.’

This particular form of engendering the American West is not only evident in the 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century primary sources which Kolodny analyzes, but also in earlier Americanist scholarship such as Smith’s Virgin Land, whose guiding metaphor of a feminized landscape by implication affirms the male figure as colonist, settler, and cultivator. Kolodny’s account of this gendered discourse is nuanced and quite explicit: by taking the metaphors of discovery, expansion, and possession literally and seriously in a reading that is both feminist and ecocritical, she views the conquest of the West as “rape” (Lay 4).

Among the newly canonized writings on the West by women, we find European women’s travel accounts, for example by Frances Trollope, Ida Pfeiffer, and Frederika Bremer, as well as white American writers’ fictional and often semi-autobiographical representations of life in the West, for example Caroline Kirkland’s A New Home, Who’ll Follow? Or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839), Eliza Farnham’s Life in Prairie Land (1846), Catherine Stewart’s New Homes in the West (1843), or, much later, Willa Cather’s My Antonia (1918) and O Pioneers! (1913). I will exemplarily single out for closer analysis Caroline Kirkland’s text, which after once having been dismissed by Henry Nash Smith as

“extremely simple” (Virgin Land 263) has seen a feminist reappraisal over the last decades. Published under the pseudonym “Mrs. Mary Clavers, An Actual Settler,” Kirkland in this novel wrote back to male-authored works (by James Fenimore Cooper or John Filson, for instance) that prominently featured romanticized representations of the West by describing

the very ordinary scenes, manners and customs of Western Life. No wild adventure, - no blood curdling hazards, - no romantic incidents, - could occur within my limited and sober sphere. No new lights have appeared above my narrow horizon. Commonplace all, yet I must tell it. (New Home 10)

The irony of Kirkland’s “pioneer realism” and early local color writing (Zaga- rell, Introduction xiv) is often quite biting; by resorting to the conventional topos of modesty often used by female authors, she presents as mere “gossip” (Kirkland, New Home 3) what clearly constitutes a critique of patriarchal norms and especially of Jacksonian ideals of manhood. The text unfolds in satirical sketches that depict the settlement of the protagonist in Western Michigan in 1837 and often ridicules male efforts at empire-building, the ‘frontier democracy,’ and the garden myth (cf. Georgi-Findlay, Frontiers 28; Gebhardt, “Comic Displacement” 157). Kirkland also “exposes pastoral conventions as inadequate for writing a western narrative, especially from a woman’s viewpoint” (Georgi- Findlay, Frontiers 31); her female characters are often isolated, lonely, and dependent on husbands who are abusive alcoholics, utterly inept farmers, or both. At the same time, Kirkland articulates a classist, ‘civilized’ ideal that connects femininity, domesticity, material culture, and consumerism to a rural setting that quite obviously still lacks proper refinement (cf. Merish, “Hand”).

The ideology of domesticity by Kirkland and other 19th-century women writers has also been critically examined with regard to the dominant discourses of expansionism and empire; a third aspect to be addressed in relation to the gendering of the West in terms of space and agency thus concerns the ways in which white women were not only the objects and victims of patriarchal expansionism, but were also complicit in affirming the ideologies of manifest destiny and exceptionalism. Moving beyond a simplistic and binary feminist critique of the frontier myth, Brigitte Georgi-Findlay has shown that women’s writing reveals that “the cultural domestication of an eccentric West” does not simply present

a female countervision to male fantasies of conquest and possession, but is in fact complementary to them: the ideal of domesticity, read in a context of empire building, also functions as an instrument for imposing cultural and social control and order upon the “disorderly” classes of the West. (Frontiers 29-30)

Amy Kaplan’s concept of “manifest domesticity” similarly describes the “spatial and political interdependence of home and empire” (Anarchy 25) as a kind of “imperial domesticity” (ibid. 29) that can be found in white women’s writing of the time: “‘Manifest Domesticity’ turns an imperial nation into a home by producing and colonizing spectres of the foreign that lurk inside and outside its ever-shifting borders” (ibid. 50). (White) women in the West or moving to the West thus sided with white patriarchy in affirming the civilizing project and its accompanying violence instead of critiquing it.

If, as Kathleen Neils Conzen has suggested, the West is “a family story” negotiating the “insistent themes of family, kinship, and community” (“Saga” 315), the family in the West also figures as national allegory. As Richard Slotkin and others have argued, the ideology of US domestic expansion (particularly after the Louisiana Purchase) has always obscured processes of empire-building and conquest that were anything but a domestic affair by presenting them as family matters, so to speak. On the whole, 19th-century white female perspectives both affirmed and appropriated the myth of the West and its “moral authority” (Slotkin, Fatal Environment 126), as recasting the West as a domestic space only reinforced the ostensibly intra-national quality of expansion.

In conclusion of this section, I would like to briefly discuss Nebraskan writer Willa Cather as an outstanding figure of a generation of women writers who addressed the West in the early 20th century. According to critics of her time, Cather’s depictions of the West in O Pioneers! and My Antonia are regionalist without being provincial, and nostalgic yet modern (cf. Reynolds, “Willa Cather’s”). Cather shows her protagonists to share a deep mythic connection to the land that evolves from the ultimately redemptive and rewarding hardships of farm life; narrator Jim Burden for example muses on the transformations of the Nebraska of his childhood in My Antonia: “[A]ll the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea” (97). Jim projects the “heartland’s vitality” and seemingly organic growth (another aspect of the geographic determinism we are already familiar with from Turner’s works) onto Antonia, who thus “embodies the ideological fantasy [...] of national development” (Matthews, “What Was” 294) along the lines of a much older - and deeply problematic - agrarian vision.

 
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