How Women Won the West


August 6, 2017
calamityJane copy

Calamity Jane, wikipedia

Scott Pett’s upcoming class, “Women in the American West,” students will
learn about the hardships, hopes, and homes of the “American West” through the eyes, voices, and memories of women. Pett plans to use film, memoirs, biographical fiction, and poetry to discover how our ideas of the nineteenth-century and present-day West have been created and complicated. We checked in with the new WI professor to find out more.

WIH Reporter: What is important to know about your upcoming class?

Pett: This will be a multimedia class. We’ll be reading a few different kinds of writing from different women—some who were born and raised in the West and some who migrated there. We’ll also view excerpts from a terrific film, “The Homesman” (2014), starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones.

There is a lot of ground to cover (bad pun intended), so the class will be focused on breadth rather than depth. I will start each class with a lecture and discussion about particular women artists, activists, and public figures like Georgia O’Keefe, Laura Gilpin, and more. We’ll talk about representations of women in Hollywood westerns like Westward the Women (1951), which is almost too laugh-out-loud ridiculous to be offensive. We will also discuss the suggested texts for the course. And, if anyone would like to do a brief presentation on an ancestor of theirs, I think that would be a lot of fun.

WIH Reporter: What mistaken impressions do we have about the American West and women?

Pett: Perhaps the biggest thing is that we tend to think and talk about “the West” in the singular. For some reason, it’s easier to talk about the West that way, as one big region. There is a kind of romance to it; the singular West gives us some closure to and hope about the supposed destiny of American nation building.

But in fact, there are a plurality of “Wests” with distinctive geographies and overlapping social histories. Do we mean the Rocky Mountains? The US/Mexico borderlands? The plains of Oklahoma? The Pacific islands? “The West” is all of these.

Of course, we also have to make sure to think about “women” as a plural category, rather than singular. We tend not to think about the experiences and voices of black women in the American West, nor do we give much thought to places like L.A. It doesn’t fit within the master narrative of a singular “West,” which conjures images of wild, rural, lowland landscapes.

WIH Reporter: People are fascinated with Native Americans, and the interaction with settlers of the American West. Abductions of women were rare, but there were many stories about this. Although your class deals with literature, and this concerns chronicles or newspaper articles, can you comment about the interactions?

Pett: What little I know about this subject, I’ve learned from reading Mary Rowlandson’s account of her experience (1682), the novel Hope Leslie (1827), Dorothy M. Johnson’s story “Lost Sister” (1957) about Cynthia Ann Parker, and lastly the account of a young Mormon girl named Olive Oatman.

Captivity narratives were often sensationalized. They made for tantalizing reading in periodicals like Saturday Evening Post, while also reinforcing perceptions of American Indians as savages and white settlers as enlightened. Such a spin made it easier to justify the destruction and displacement of indigenous peoples in the name of protecting white womanhood.

With the exception of Rowlandson, who was kidnapped later in life and only separated from her family for a few months, these women and the literary characters they inspired had a difficult time being reintegrated into white communities. In the case of Cynthia Ann Parker, Texas Rangers “recaptured” her. Newspapers recorded how “she vainly tried to escape” white society. After years of being away from her family, she had come to identify culturally and ethnically with her tribe. She had become “thoroughly Indianized,” to use the words of an article purporting to tell the story of another woman taken captive, Frances Slocum, who also later refused to leave her Native family.

But, depending on an author’s agenda, there were competing narratives about the dangers of settler abduction. Propaganda novels like M. Emilia Rockwell’s A Home in the West (1858) were written to reassure women who were afraid to emigrate to places like Iowa because of captivity narratives. In her novel, Rockwell assures her readers that Indians, while “savage,” were not a threat. The goal was to convince women that westward expansion was in the best interest of both their families and the nation.

Q: What would surprise us to know about the American West in terms of women’s experiences?

One surprising thing is that in certain places—Wyoming and Utah territories, for example—white women were allowed to vote up to 50 years before the rest of the country! They didn’t necessarily do this for the right reasons, for example to make sure black citizens remained disempowered, and there were efforts to repeal in both cases. In Utah, women’s suffrage was later repealed as part of an effort to prevent the normalization of polygamy, which was its own unique experience for some women. I find that whole history very fascinating.

WIH Reporter: Do you have a quote from a woman of the American West from literature that symbolizes the experiences of women there?

Pett: For me, there is probably no more interesting and important figure than the ambitious writer and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, an East-coast transplant whose work captured the life of mining communities in places like Idaho and California. She also lived in Mexico, Colorado, and South Dakota. She was likely the first woman to illustrate an American novel, which happened to be Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. She was very accomplished, but is now mostly forgotten except for being the inspiration (and sometimes direct source material) for Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose (1971). Over a period of 35 years, Foote carried on a very intimate, conflicted, and beautiful correspondence with her friend Helena Gilder, which allowed them to express “the cries that one woman utters to another.”

Here is one of my favorite excerpts from a letter from Mary to Helena:

“I read in the Bible last night that a ‘meek and quiet spirit’ is the only thing for a woman. But how can one ever do or be anything if meekness and quietness are the best things in life. I know plenty of women who have meekness but they have attained it only by giving up all hope or thought for themselves. I could not do that without giving up ambition too.”

Scott Pett’s class begins on September 8th, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. For more information, or to register, click here.