Women and Nature: Saving the

Women and Nature: Saving the "Wild" West

by Glenda Riley

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Long before Rachel Carson’s fight against pesticides placed female environmental activists in the national spotlight, women were involved in American environmentalism. In Women and Nature: Saving the "Wild" West, Glenda Riley calls for a reappraisal of the roots of the American conservation movement. This thoroughly researched study of women


Long before Rachel Carson’s fight against pesticides placed female environmental activists in the national spotlight, women were involved in American environmentalism. In Women and Nature: Saving the "Wild" West, Glenda Riley calls for a reappraisal of the roots of the American conservation movement. This thoroughly researched study of women conservationists provides a needed corrective to the male-dominated historiography of environmental studies.
The early conservation movement gained much from women’s widespread involvement. Florence Merriam Bailey classified the birds of New Mexico and encouraged appreciation of nature and concern for environmental problems. Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice published widely on Oklahoma birds. In 1902 Mary Knight Britton established the Wild Flower Preservation Society of America. Women also stimulated economic endeavors related to environmental concerns, including nature writing and photography, health spas and resorts, and outdoor clothing and equipment. From botanists, birders, and nature writers to club-women and travelers, untold numbers of women have contributed to the groundswell of support for environmentalism.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this thoroughly researched environmental history, Riley (history, Ball State Univ.) shows how between 1870 and 1940 large numbers of women helped forge the American conservation movement. The text examines the ways American women have valued the natural world, whether collecting native plants, evoking the Western landscape in literature or art, conducting preservation campaigns through women's clubs, or simply traveling in the wilderness. Although Riley's treatment lacks the sustained narrative interest of Vera Norwood's seminal Made from This Earth (LJ 2/15/93), it brings special strengths to the study of the feminine relationship to nature: a concentration on women's influence in changing the prevailing cultural perception of the Western wilderness from dangerous and desolate to healthy and inspiring; and information on scores of courageous, dedicated, and often forgotten women. The book's detailed list of sources and extensive endnotes are a valuable resource. Recommended for women's studies and environmental history collections.--Joan S. Elbers, formerly with Montgomery Coll., Rockville, MD
Riley (apparently, history, Ball State U.) answers the unasked question of whether women have played more than a marginal role in caretaking the US West. Concentrating on women environmentalists from the 1870s to 1940s (though a chapter is devoted to work since the 1940s), the author argues that the conservation movement had a special resonance for females though they approached the preservation of nature and other cultures differently than men; in turn, women gained politically and socially from their involvement. Illustrations include women settlers, all types of naturalists, and the land they loved. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
New Mexico Historical Review
“A thoughtful and informative portrait of women’s roles in western conservation and environmentalism. . . . It demands reevaluation of popular assumptions about women and western landscapes, and about environmental history. . . . Women and Nature provides a solid foundation for further research on women and natural resources in the West. . . . Especially valuable, making visible the untold story of women’s influence at the grassroots level.”—Dorothy C. Garceau, New Mexico Historical Review

Product Details

University of Nebraska Press
Publication date:
Women in the West Series
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"Wimmin Is Everywhere"

During the early 1890s, political humorist Josh Billings lookedaround the United States—at reform campaigns, the Farmers Alliance,and politics—and declared: "Wimmin is everywhere." Ifanyone had bothered to delve a little deeper, they would have seenthat Billings's statement applied to the emerging American conservationmovement as well.

    The vast numbers of environmentally minded women in thelate nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States are almostunbelievable. With a little digging, their stories trickle forthfrom any research or archival collection. With a bit more effort,the trickle soon turns into a flood. From birders, botanizers, andother naturalists to travelers and tourists, women were present inforce. Almost always, women's interest in nature turned into concernfor the environment's future. Thousands of women, usuallywesterners themselves, seemed especially anxious to save theAmerican West for the use and enjoyment of coming generations.

* * *

Women's environmentalism is not as surprising as it may seem.Looking back into history prior to the development of the conservationethos reveals that American women long possessed a meaningfulrelationship with the physical environment. Well before theuse and misuse of the American West became an issue, Americanwomen lived close to the land and involved themselves in the outdoorworld. A solid tradition of women's intimate alliance to natureoccurred in every cultural group.

    Even though late twentieth-century Americans have probablyover-idealized Native Americans' environmental commitment, Indianscommonly lived and worked in relative harmony with theirsurroundings. They generally perceived nature as a total cosmos,an interdependent system composed of the earth and its peoples,as well as an organizing theme of history.

    Among many Indian groups, women agriculturalists in particularhad a finger on the earth's pulse. Such peoples believed that becausewomen reproduced the species, they had a genius for otherreproductive activities, including growing crops. Thus, because oftheir closeness to the earth, Indian women could judge the vigor orsoreness of the land and try to remedy disorder.

    Native women regulated the environment in other ways aswell. They frequently served as resource managers, deciding thebest time to hunt, fish, and gather. They had to determine whenresources were plentiful or nearing depletion. As herbalists, medicinewomen, and apothecaries, they also knew what the produceof the earth could cure. Even landless, rootless native women scavengedwhatever the land would yield. Meanwhile, Indian womenwho were explorers themselves, or assisted early European explorers,opened new areas to use.

    Even after white settlers arrived, bringing with them distinctivephilosophies regarding the use of nature and its resources, manyIndian women clung to traditional beliefs. Buffalo Bird Woman, aHidatsa born around 1839, learned farming methods from thewomen of her family on land in what is today North Dakota. AlthoughU.S. government policy eventually forced her to adapt tonew methods and crops, Buffalo Bird Woman never understood themarket economy. "My mother and my two grandmothers workedat clearing our family's garden," she said. Toiling with iron hoesand an old-fashioned digging stick, they produced corn and othercommodities that Buffalo Bird Woman judged superior to the"new" crops. In 1911, she finally proved her point by winning aprize for the best corn at an agricultural fair, corn she had cultivated"exactly as in old times."

    Tension soon developed between Indian and white interpretationsof nature. During the early 1900s, one American Indianwoman repeated the longstanding charge that if land offered evena hint of profit, thoughtless and greedy whites had no concern foreither natural beauty or human history. "White people," sheclaimed, "plow up the ground, pull up the trees, kill everything.... the spirit of the land hates them." According to her, Indiansrefrained from hurting the earth, while whites' penchant for destructionhastened the end of the world.

    Like Native Americans, people of Spanish heritage developedtheir own beliefs regarding the environment. Although somesought riches and depleted resources, many others developed anenvironmental philosophy. Also like Indian women, Hispanicwomen frequently lived in communication with the land, asfarmers, ranchers, shepherds, and curanderas who could use nature'sproducts to cure human ailments. When early Hispanicwomen writers characterized the land as blessed, filled with a longtradition of families tied to and nourished by it, they depicted typicalattitudes. Rather than regarding wilderness as empty and primal,these women invested the landscape with generations ofpeople whose lives were integrated with nature.

    Similar attitudes appeared in the work of female artists of Spanishheritage. Drawing on Indian women's traditions and their ownpropinquity to nature, Hispanic women artists incorporated natureinto everything from rugs to houses. According to one enjarradora(a woman who embellished architecture), nature was ever-presentin Hispanic adobe buildings, for mud was "the flesh of theearth."

    Again like Indians, Hispanics soon saw many of their beliefs regardinglandscape fall victim to white ideas. After their arrival inNorth America during the late 1500s and early 1600s, Europeancolonists often ignored Hispanic values, even overriding nativeland management policies, which were well suited to the cultureand physical environment of indigenous peoples.

* * *

Among their cultural baggage, European immigrants brought well-formedattitudes toward physical resources. Generally, these weremale in orientation. For one, Euro-Americans generally feared wilderness,which they perceived as unoccupied, primitive, andthreatening. For another, male settlers believed they had to conquernature before it conquered them. They also defined nature—inthis case, the enemy—as female. Everything from sermons,laws, and essays proclaimed an intention to subdue the virgin environment,to master Mother Nature.

    At the same time, however, American male colonists camefrom countries—especially England—already beset by overpopulationand inadequate resources. Thus, they brought with them notionsof forest preservation, marsh reclamation, and fish and gameconservation, all of which they enacted into colonial statutes. In1701, Pennsylvania's charter required that, for every five acrescleared, one acre be left forested. From American Indians, whitesettlers borrowed the use of fire to modify forest growth.

    After the American Revolution ended in 1783, the thirteenAnglo-European dominated states also moved toward economicautonomy and an industrial revolution. The male colonists' opinionsregarding nature and its appropriate use multiplied. Duringthe 1820s and 1830s, romanticism vied with capitalism concerninginterpretations of nature. While capitalists generally argued forthe taming of nature, romantics idealized it and reveled in its"wildness."

    During the Civil War era of the 1860s and 1870s, nature andquestions regarding its future continued to engage the minds ofnumerous Americans. Although the Civil War and Reconstructiondiverted interest to slavery, war, and survival, nature held its own.Awareness of the value of plants, animals, landscape, and wildernessgrew during these years. Meanwhile, the rapid populationgrowth on the Great Plains provoked interest in a region thoughtby some to be a vast desert and by others a lush garden. With therise of the westward movement came an infusion of additionalvalues, beliefs, and attitudes toward the land, some exploitative,others environmental in tone.

    By the time the conservation movement emerged in the 1870s,1880s, and 1890s, interest in nature and support for its preservationexisted in the East, South, and West; from the Gulf of Mexicoto the Great Lakes; from the seashores to the plains. In addition,Native American environmental beliefs exerted a growing influenceon white thinking. During the late 1800s, American Indianand Hispanic values informed the philosophies of such early environmentalistsas George Bird Grinnell, Ernest Thompson Seton,and George Perkins Marsh.

* * *

As these developments took place, American women pursued ahost of nature-related activities and frequently demonstrated attitudesthat diverged from what male leaders espoused. For example,colonial women often showed a keen awareness of nature and aninterest in studying and classifying aspects of it. Jane Colden ofNew York City developed into an avid botanist who by 1757 hadcompiled a catalogue of more than three hundred local plants.

    Other women ascribed spirituality to nature. Phillis Wheatlywas an eighteen-year-old African slave who wrote poetry. Drawingon classical literature, Wheatly lauded nature's beauty and divinecreation in this excerpt from a poem written in 1773:

See in the east the illustrious king of day!
His rising radiance drives the shades away.

    After the American Revolution, women—primarily middle- andupper-class whites—continued to study nature. Because theycould work from their parlors without fear of criticism for desertingtheir homes and families, such women primarily collected andclassified botanical specimens. As early as 1824, botanist AmosEaton reported that "More than half the botanists in New Englandand New York are ladies."

    At the same time, women regularly prepared landscape and fossildrawings for state geological survey reports. Since these womenalso worked largely at home, society considered their labor "genteel."One of the earliest, Orra White Hitchcock, illustrated herhusband's publications during the 1830s and 1840s while he heldtenure as the first state geologist of Massachusetts.

    Between the 1830s and the late 1850s, many other middle- andupper-class white women delved into nature in socially acceptableways, including attending lyceum lectures on scientific topics, collectingand identifying plants, and painting nature. In 1831, MariaMartin, a Charleston, South Carolina, nature painter, first met ornithologistJohn James Audubon, who soon employed her to providedelicate watercolor backgrounds for the birds he painted forBirds of America. In 1833, Audubon, who admired Martin's penchantfor fine detail, wrote that "the insects she has drawn are,perhaps, the best I've seen."

    During the antebellum era, white women developed a particularoutlook on nature. Like Phillis Wheatly before the AmericanRevolution, antebellum white women seemed especially interestedin connections between nature and morality. According totranscendentalist Margaret Fuller, nature provided the path to spiritualand all other revelation, a conviction with which manywoman agreed.

    After the Civil War, nature-oriented women continued to liveand work all over the United States. Kate Furbish built a reputationas an innovative botanist. After her father died in 1873 andleft Furbish a guaranteed income so that she did not have to marry,she spent thirty-five years collecting, classifying, and capturing inwatercolors the flora of Maine, especially in swamps, which shefound a "delightful retreat." Furbish published articles in theAmerican Naturalist, lectured, helped found the Josselyn BotanicalSociety of Maine, and discovered two plant varieties, whichwere later named for her.

    Throughout the United States, countless other women engagednature in some way. For instance, amateur fossil and mineral collectorsbrought in valuable research specimens. It was during the1870s and 1880s that Erminnie Adelle Platt Smith established areputation as an ethnologist.

    By the time conservation evolved into an ideology, Euro-Americanwomen in all parts of the country embraced it with enthusiasm.Once such leaders as John Muir declared the wilderness"fun," meaning an opportunity for recreation and travel, more andmore women began to partake of nature's wonders. Soon, countlesswomen committed their time and energy to the conservationethic.

* * *

Despite women's dedication, however, the customary view holdsthat early environmentalism originated with such well-knownpolicy shapers as John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Theodore Roosevelt.A similar persuasion claims that legislators and their lawsrescued the western environment from overuse.

    In part, such misconceptions derive from the perennial mistakeof equating visibility with significance. From Gifford Pinchot tolesser-known legislators, these men made the headlines, not tomention the history books. Even recent histories claiming to includeindividuals who "have influenced the environmental movementin the United States" read like directories of white male environmentalists.

    But visibility is not the only test of importance, power, and contributions.Nor do politics constitute the whole of history.Women, unable to vote until 1920 and seldom allowed to holdhigh political office, appeared to be little more than bit players onthe national political scene. At local and state levels, however, aswell as in communities and families, women often wielded farmore influence than did nationally known politicians.

    The propensity of male conservation leaders to take credit forthemselves further compounded the historical problem. Duringthe early 1940s, when career forester Gilford Pinchot looked backon the origins of the conservation movement, he wrote that the"conservation" idea flashed into his mind as he rode his horse Jimthrough Rock Creek Park in Washington DC. On that afternoon in1907, Pinchot explained, a new policy for the "use of the earth forthe good of man" hit him. He carried what he termed his "brainchild" to President Theodore Roosevelt. The president, in turn,made what Pinchot called "an as-yet-unnamed program" into "themost significant achievement" of his administration.

    Despite a tendency for politicians to make great claims forthemselves, it seems unconscionable for Pinchot to grab suchpraise for himself and Roosevelt. A number of scholars maintainthat Pinchot contributed little new to conservation thought andthat he actually drew heavily on the ideas of George PerkinsMarsh. Others go so far as to attribute environmentalism to the romantictradition or to nature writers, seeing Pinchot's and Roosevelt'sactions and achievements as simply a logical "culmination"of events.

    Even if one grants Pinchot and Roosevelt a pivotal role in promotingenvironmental programs, the work of millions of averagenineteenth- and early twentieth-century Americans laid thegroundwork for their efforts. Grass-roots Americans, including asizeable number of women, played a crucial part in developingawareness, idealizing nature, and exploring environments.

* * *

If numerous white American women supported environmentalismduring the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, why arethey not included in history books and other accounts? Why arethe names and contributions of women who interacted with andworked for nature overlooked, ignored, even suppressed, while theassumption that conservation was largely a male movement remainsvital?

    A partial answer lies in English conservation history. The tendencyto overlook American women's connections to their environmentstems, in part, from early European women scientists andnaturalists, who typically harbored a continental disdain for Americanscience and intellectual endeavor in general. Such womenoften disregarded American women's efforts and mistakenly concludedthat few American women interacted with the physicalworld. As a result, European women's attitudes suggested thatAmerican women had little concern for nature.

    American women compounded the matter by giving the impressionthat, at best, they could only imitate their English sisters.Some observers condemned American women's enthusiasm forEnglish books as puerile imitation rather than a sign of genuine interest.Moreover, even when American women wrote their ownessays and books, they continued the English tradition of incorporatingestablished domestic metaphors and a romanticized, femalelanguage into their work.

    For their devotion to the accomplishments of their Englishsisters, American women suffered in the United States. The malescientific establishment failed to understand the terms of femalewritings and dismissed them as fanciful ravings. Indeed, malescientists found it difficult to comprehend such works as educatorand botanist Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps's 1829 work, FamiliarLectures on Botany: Practical, Elementary, and Physiological.Phelps offered an image of Eve hovering over her garden, a mothernourishing her plants. This Eve also knew science; she could classifythe flora before her. By combining motherhood and science, aswell as urging women to pursue the "mysteries" in the "temple ofscience," Phelps appealed to nineteenth-century women. But it isalso likely that in the eyes of male scientists, Phelps's womenlooked like dabblers rather than serious students of nature.

    During the nineteenth century, women environmentalists continuedto be overlooked because most were nonprofessionals. In aculture dominated by male professionals, the female amateurlacked standing. Especially during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, thevery decades when American science professionalized, mostwomen amateurs found themselves demeaned or ignored.

    Even women who were professionals had a difficult time gainingrecognition in the scientific and conservation establishments.A telling example was that of chemistry instructor Ellen SwallowRichards, who held a Ph.D. from the Michigan Institute of Technology.Beginning in 1873, Richards worked to bring domesticscience and emerging ideas regarding ecology together to form environmentalscience. Yet in November 1892, after Richards announcedthe new science in Boston, her declaration received lessthan a page in the Boston Globe. In the style of the era, the Globedescribed Richards as "Mrs. Robert Richards" and filled most ofthe page with illustrations of the previous evening's gathering anddescriptions of the fashions worn. The term "environment" failedto appear in the account. Only today is Richards belatedly recognizedas the founder of ecology.

    In addition, throughout the nineteenth century and even intothe twentieth, many Americans, including historians and otherscholars, believed that women feared nature. These observers fellvictim to a widespread myth—perhaps aimed at keeping "uppity"women at home—that females dreaded the outdoors. Of course,some women did perceive the outdoors as a terrifying place, as didsome men, but for the most part the stereotype of women coweringin their homes was unfounded.

    How, then, did such an inaccurate idea originate? It began partlywith nineteenth-century commentators and scholars who customarilydivided the world by gender: autonomous men farmed,hunted, or earned wages, while maternal women cooked, cleaned,and produced goods at home. This model cast women as conservativeand timorous, men as intellectual and progressive. It mademen the center and women constellations. Given such a prototype,it is unsurprising that a concomitant belief developed: aggressivemen sallied forth into the world of nature; passive women stayedindoors.

    Novelists further contributed to the myth of female fear of nature,especially among women who relocated in the nineteenth-centuryAmerican West. Male novelists often used landscape as asymbol of a woman's entrapment—of her inability to stand up toforces larger than herself. Although the best-known example ofsuch female terror is found in Ole Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth(1929), an earlier work, Hamlin Garland's The Moccasin Ranch: AStory of Dakota (1909), recounts an equally revealing example.

    Garland's Blanche Burke was driven to distraction by isolation,a bleak landscape, and the Dakota wind. "Now the wind had dominionover the lonely women," Garland wrote, "wearing outtheir souls with its melancholy moaning and its vast and wordlesssighs." When Blanche had to return home from town, "She waslike a prisoner whose parole had ended."

    Surely women like Blanche Burke existed throughout the Westin the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But the rich scholarshipof the last two decades indicates that the majority of womencoped, eventually prevailing over their physical environments.Sheer numbers of women who lived, worked, and played in naturedisprove the notion of female fear—and the supposition thatwomen were not involved in nature and its preservation. Evenbefore John Muir and others suggested that wilderness couldmean play and sport, so many women who loved the outdoors existedin the annals of American history that it gives lie to the oldshibboleth.

    Women could, and often did, go where they chose in the outdoorworld. After all, the "domestic sphere" was easily enlarged ifone felt so inclined. Wherever men and children went was women'ssphere, including the outdoors. In addition, nature was filledwith such "domestic" phenomena as pregnancy, birth, families,nurturance, and death. Understandably, women frequently usedfemale metaphors in describing nature; women themselves sawnature as their appropriate realm.

    Nor did these women creep into nature reluctantly, hiding behindthe backs of men. They frequently led the way, ready to meetand embrace nature. Women—perhaps pluckier, healthier, or moreoptimistic than Blanche Burke—exulted in the physical splendorof the West, rhapsodizing over "flowers up to your neck" and callingthe region a "paradise in the Wilderness." In fact, in theAmerican West so many women ventured into every aspect of theenvironment that they deserve some discussion here.

    Numerous women worked directly on the land. U.S. censusdata indicate that the number of women who farmed on their ownincreased during the closing decades of the nineteenth century.Such figures exclude additional women on the land: Indian womenwho farmed, women who hired out as farm laborers, former wiveswho continued to run family farms and ranches after divorce orthe death of a spouse, and Mormon women who managed familyfarms while their husbands lived with other families or went onmissions.

    Another important group of female farmers who tackled the environmenton their own were "girl homesteaders." Largely whitebut sometimes women of color, these unmarried women took upland between the 1870s and 1920s and demonstrated a better rateof "proving up," or finalizing their claims, than did male homesteaders.

    Such women feared neither hard work nor nature. Single, divorced,or widowed, these women killed snakes, hunted wildgame, built their own claim shacks, plowed their own fields, andharvested their own crops. From Oklahoma Territory to DakotaTerritory, women homesteaders learned how to drive wagons andplows and to care for a variety of stock.


Excerpted from Women and Nature by Glenda Riley. Copyright © 1999 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Glenda Riley is Alexander M. Bracken Professor Emeritus of History at Ball State University. She is the author of Divorce: An American Tradition (Nebraska 1997) and Taking Land, Breaking Land: Women Colonizing the American West and Kenya, 1840-1940. She lives on a small horse ranch in historic Lincoln County, New Mexico.

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