C19: Unsettling the Gendered West

C19: Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists

Unsettling the Gendered West

Panelists: Carrie Johnston (Bucknell University), Sigrid Anderson Cordell (University of Michigan Ann Arbor), Michael Read (University of Rochester), Michelle Jarenski (University of Michigan Dearborn), Victoria Lamont (University of Waterloo)
Moderator: Melissa Homestead (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

“Unsettling the Gendered West” considers how nineteenth-century women writers used genre as a political tool for destabilizing notions of the American West as masculine, anti-modern, and untouched. As recent work by Nina Baym and Krista Comer has shown, despite decades of recovery work, there is still considerable work left to be done to account for women writers’ use of the West as an imagined and political space. Organizing this roundtable around the theme of unsettling, we will examine the ways that nineteenth-century women writers have used genre to locate themselves in the West—both imaginatively and geographically—asking how these narratives have unsettled preoccupations with the West as an extension of the predominantly white, masculine public sphere. Taking scholarly conversations about border studies and the post-western into account, this roundtable will also evaluate gendered representations of the contested nature of the occupation of western territories and U.S. borders. The presentations in this roundtable make visible the ways nineteenth-century women writers deployed a wide range of genres and generic conventions – including domestic fiction, romance, captivity narratives, westerns, and travel narratives – to unsettle ideas about the West long before scholarly conversations caught up with them. Further, as the panelists demonstrate, nineteenth-century interventions heavily influenced modes of writing about the West in the early twentieth century.

Michael Read, University of Rochester, excavates the twinned discourses of anti-slavery and anti-Mormonism – in particular anti-polygamy – in women’s texts about the West between 1855 and the 1890s. If women writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe could inform the way politicians approached the problem of slavery, Read asks, what role did their work play in affecting how politicians approached polygamy, that other relic of barbarism? During this time anti-Mormon authors produced dozens of books set in the West, works which blended the tropes of domestic fiction, tales of seduction, and captivity narratives. Through close and distant readings of the texts (using TEI mark-up and topic modeling), Read traces how politicians drew upon this corpus to bring about successive, unsuccessful attempts to wrest control of Mormon household governance from patriarchs who practiced polygamy.

Carrie Johnston, Bucknell University, will examine Anglo-American domesticity in the West by considering the male-dominated genre of railway fiction, in which women characters ultimately end up as wives and mothers who establish the parameters of Anglo culture in the West and its relationship to the region’s indigenous populations. Analyzing two railway stories written by women and published in 1893 issues of _McClure’s Magazine_, Johnston will demonstrate the ways women writers work within the generic conventions of railway fiction to subvert expectations about women’s moral, “civilizing” role in settling the western territories. By connecting the narrative emergence of the woman as a symbol of domesticity and civility to commercial campaigns that used women to draw travelers to the West, such as the Santa Fe Railway’s employment of “Harvey Girls,” Johnston will argue that women writers shifted the perception of the Anglo-American home in the West from the moral center of society to the center of consumer culture.

Building on Johnston’s attention to economic and commercial interests connected to white settlement in the West, Sigrid Anderson Cordell, University of Michigan, takes up the periodical print context of regional short stories by Beatriz Bellido de Luna. Although practically unknown today, De Luna’s regional fictions appeared in the _Argonaut_, _Land of Sunshine_, and the _Los Angeles Times_ throughout the late nineteenth-century. De Luna’s stories focus on economic and social tensions between newly arrived white settlers and Spanish-heritage, or Californio, residents, tensions that take on added valence within the context of western periodicals obsessed with attracting new settlers to California. De Luna drew on the romance plot to figuratively work through the problems of settlement and Anglo-Californio relations, in many cases creating scenarios where romance is inextricably linked to economic opportunity. As Cordell argues, reading De Luna’s fiction in its periodical context makes visible the ways her regional romances both problematized and carved out imaginative space for white settlement and investment.

Victoria Lamont, University of Waterloo, turns to popular westerns by women that used violence as a trope to reimagine western space, arguing that our current understanding of the western as a genre written exclusively by and for men is inaccurate. Lamont focuses on Emma Ghent Curtis’s _The Administratix_ (1889), Frances McElrath’s _The Rustler_ (1902), and B.M. Bower’s _Chip of the Flying U_ (1906), three westerns that make visible the ways women drew on the trope of vigilante violence, a mainstay of the popular western, as a motif for exploring the limits and uses of women’s authority and power. In each example, Lamont argues, women writers turn their gaze directly upon a subject conventionally deemed foreign to women’s experience, while also complicating the myth of vigilantism as necessary violence carried out by heroic male heroes in defense of “civilization.”

Shelly Jarenski, University of Michigan, focuses on the ways that the study of race can unsettle our image of the West, and how female authors of color complicate popular notions of western spaces and bodies. Jarenski studies the travel writing of Juanita Harrison in order to illuminate how African American women in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries used the myths of the American West as an opportunity to pursue freedom of movement and identity formation that was unavailable in other regions. Harrison’s autobiography chronicles the world tours she embarked upon alone as a woman of color, which were funded by real estate investments in California. By fashioning herself as an explorer, a fighter, and a self-made woman, Harrison privileges the rhetoric of experience as transcendent, demonstrating her ability to promote female independence and African American equality by remaking the rhetoric associated with western identity.

Melissa Homestead, University of Nebraska, will serve as respondent for the roundtable to initiate conversations about the breadth and agility of women’s use of genre as a political tool. Nineteenth-century women writers opened up new opportunities that revised popular conceptions of the political and social issues of their day, ultimately influencing twentieth-century literary, cultural, and economic trends.