A Field of Their Own: Women and American Indian History, 1830-1941

A Field of Their Own: Women and American Indian History, 1830-1941

by John M. Rhea

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ISBN-13: 9780806155432
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/18/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

John M. Rhea holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Oklahoma, Norman. He is the editor of the Great Plains Journal.

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A Field of Their Own

Women and American Indian History, 1830â"1941

By John M. Rhea


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5543-2



On December 17, 1904, Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood, then in her seventy-fourth year and a noted matriarch of the women's rights movement, an accomplished lawyer, and two-time presidential candidate, stated in testimony before the United States Senate Select Committee on Woman Suffrage, "I come from the District of Columbia, where no man has the privilege of voting, and so long as this state of affairs continues I am just as good and have just as many privileges as any man."

Accompanying Lockwood were Clara Bewick Colby, corresponding secretary of the Federal Women's Equality Association and longtime Indian rights advocate, and Dr. Clara W. McNaughton, vice president of the Federal Women's Equality Association. A triumvirate of accomplished politically active women, they each embodied the reality of Lockwood's subtle observation, namely that postbellum events in the District of Columbia provided Washington women with a unique opportunity to achieve an extraordinary degree of political, economic, and social power. Set in motion by political indiscretion and corruption, the leveling effect of Congress's universal disenfranchisement of the district's males in 1873 proved to be of inestimable value to its women at a precarious moment in the American women's rights movement.

While early women's rights advocates and congressional radical Republicans formed a weak yet enduring political coalition during the Civil War, a coterie of influential women's rights activists — who either lived in or were intimately associated with the capital — coalesced in the late 1860s to form the movement's federal vanguard. In this capacity women such as Victoria Woodhull, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Caroline Dall, Paulina Davis, Sarah Spencer, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Sarah Johnson, and Jocelyn Gage promoted a radical civil rights ideology that profoundly influenced the rhetoric, goals, and popular image of the national women's movement. Suddenly placed on a parallel political and social plane with district men, women gained unprecedented access to Congress and other national seats of power. This amplified influence, coupled with the district's universal disfranchisement, poised Washington women to play a leading role as social activists, reformers, and Indian assimilationists.

Proposed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863, the "new nation" idealism President Abraham Lincoln promised in his Gettysburg Address offered expanded equality and progressive civil rights. As it had for freed people, new nation idealism would come to have a lasting impact on a broad range of American women. Shaping both the message of the federal vanguard and the everyday aspirations of women across the republic, thought of a new egalitarian nation gave cohesiveness to an otherwise complex network of women's rights agendas that was often demarcated by those who advocated comprehensive as opposed to utilitarian reforms. The new nation era women's rights vanguard united a range of women activists through a new "feminized" professional model that often transcended political division, economic status, and class distinction. Emerging alongside a small far more visible group of women who gained access to the traditionally male professions — law, medicine, business, politics, and academia — the new categories of feminized professional identity were based on self-conferred non-institutional pedigrees, peer validation, and autonomous disciplinary and procedural criteria. Social commentators and popular media christened these autonomous professionals the "New Woman."

To this end the Washington-based New Woman movement consolidated a preexisting body of ideas about innate competency that advanced women's intrinsic capacity for individuality, self-sufficiency, property rights, political participation, legal equality, intellectual thought, and economic opportunity. Inspired by transcendentalist assertions of each soul's inherent divine perfection, American women in the early women's rights movement embraced competency as their guiding ideology. Side by side, competency and women's professionalization would become the hallmarks of the post–Civil War New Woman movement.

As contemporaries of Belva Lockwood, Clara Colby, and Clara McNaughton, Helen Hunt Jackson and Alice Cunningham Fletcher were also beneficiaries of new nation idealism and women's emerging autonomous professional status in postbellum Washington, D.C. Although Jackson only resided in Washington briefly, like Fletcher her activities in the city included cultivation of political and social connections that later proved beneficial to her Indian activism. By 1904, when Lockwood made her observation about universal district disenfranchisement, Jackson had been dead for almost two decades, while Fletcher still struggled to maintain her autonomous professional status in a late-nineteenth century world that had radically redefined the meaning of professionalization.

Personally spared the heartache of trivialization, Jackson did not live to see professional historians unceremoniously shelve her pioneering Indian history, A Century of Dishonor with the work of other Victorian era "scribbling" women. For Fletcher the roller-coaster ride from zenith to nadir of the New Woman movement was trying at best. She made failed attempts to solidify her methods, interpretive systems, and scholarship within academic organizations, ventures that took both a financial and emotional toll. As the century that fomented the Civil War burned out and the next blazed forth, Fletcher watched as her scholarly work and that of other women American Indian scholars was either ignored or, on rare occasion, dismissively noted by later frontier historians. Today, removed by more than a century from the women who fashioned American Indian scholarship, the fragmentation of their history and intellectual legacy need not continue.

Yet venturing into a scholarly frontier and reconnecting the historical and intellectual threads that bound together the new nation and the New Woman is essential to understanding the historical forces that came to identify women with the American Indian cause, and consequently molded Jackson and Fletcher within the preprofessional community of Indian scholars. By framing Jackson as a poet, author, and Indian rights activist and Fletcher as a pioneering anthropologist and Indian social activist, each woman's scholarly contribution has been cleaved from its seminal role in the construction of American Indian history. Jackson and Fletcher's place in historical evaluation has been minimized and their works treated as disconnected compensatory curiosities, obscuring their roles in defining key historical methods and interpretations that shaped academic scholarship on American Indians.

Born in 1830 and 1838 respectively, Helen Hunt Jackson and Alice Fletcher came of age and inclination far too late to participate in the formative years of the women's rights movement, yet their professional lives and intellectual contributions were bound together by its historical development. Where Jackson maintained a curious mixture of progressive idealism and anachronistic social strictures, Fletcher fully supported women's rights. Notably, while Jackson embraced public speaking and women's suffrage, Fletcher did not. Both Jackson and Fletcher nevertheless benefited from women's new and expanding role in public policy. In this manner the women's rights movement proved a liberating experience for many late-nineteenth century women. However, its inability to cement an expanded range of professional identities within enduring institutions or to foster equal professional partnerships between men and women limited its ability to transform American society. This failure helps to explain why Jackson and Fletcher, unlike George Bancroft, Hubert Howe Bancroft, Francis Parkman, Henry Adams, Justin Winsor, Josiah Royce, and Theodore Roosevelt, are remembered today more as discrete anomalies, than as pioneering American Indian scholars.

The vocational goals of women's rights leaders and women scholars of American Indians often overlapped, but there were significant historical differences. Plotted by the work of Rebecca J. Mead and Sunu Kodumthara, the women's rights trajectory detailing how regional political achievements of western suffragists shaped national success, simply does not apply to the social and political regime developed by women scholars of American Indians. Women's contributions to the construction of American Indian scholarship remained largely a capitol affair. The difference was one of constituencies: Western women could campaign on their own behalf while the majority of American Indians were effectively legal wards of the U.S. Congress, the Interior department, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Unlike the diffused political power of the postbellum women's rights movement, women scholars of American Indians found their political power focused on Washington, because most American Indians remained federally administered non-citizens. Whereas women's suffrage could be decided on the territorial and state level, no territorial or state law could trump federal Indian policy. This fundamental difference reveals why women scholars of Indians cultivated a close political relationship with Congress and the executive branch between 1877 and 1907.

In measuring the actual power exercised by these women scholars, it is important to remember that no suffragist or women's rights leader had the power to walk into the congressional clerk's office, take pen in hand, and amend bills pending before Congress, but Alice Fletcher did. Nor did any suffragist or women's rights leader control the allotment of personal property and land across approximately one-third of North America; Alice Fletcher did. As a special Indian agent, Helen Hunt Jackson wielded similar influence over the lives and property of the Mission Indians of California.

Even among women's rights leaders who were not Indian scholars, American Indian affairs played a prominent role in fostering professional credibility and political stature. Belva Lockwood's pioneering access to the Supreme Court was intimately tied to her position as counsel for the Eastern Cherokees, and both Lockwood and Clara Bewick Colby took in Indian children. As historians Peggy Pasco and Margaret Jacobs note, care for Indian children strengthened women's political credibility as responsible social reformers. The relationship between women's rights and women's American Indian scholarship raises the question, how did a women's rights vanguard emerge in Washington and subsequently give rise to a lateral political movement that fostered Indian scholarship opportunities for women like Jackson and Fletcher?


Traditional historical scholarship on women's rights emphasized the political push for suffrage, tracing the movement's origin to the well-known 1848 Seneca Falls convention. Since the 1980s a growing cohort of historians have challenged this view with new evidence that questions the originality of the Seneca Falls resolutions and the ideological centrality of suffrage. This work has collectively pushed the historical chronology of the American women's rights movement to the era of the Second Great Awakening (1790–1845) and linked the articulation of women's rights to the Transcendentalist movement of the 1830s.

As a cultural product of the Jacksonian age, Transcendentalism has been interpreted as a reaction to orthodox Calvinism, secularization, the growing conservatism of Unitarian reform, and the social chaos created by emerging industrialization. The central egalitarian belief that all "men and women [a]re fundamentally divine" posited Transcendentalism to champion the early republic's burgeoning preoccupation with social assimilation and democratization. Paralleling the cultural impact of Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis six decades later, Transcendentalism inspired a growing contingent of women's rights advocates and abolitionists to coalesce amorphous Second Awakening evangelical ideas about equality and intrinsic human rights into an influential social and political ideology.

In organizational decline by the 1860s, Transcendentalism's lasting legacy was its stealthy ability to infiltrate the ideology of affiliated social and reform efforts, where it thrived as an unseen yet powerful intellectual force. As Caroline Healey Dall, a noted Transcendentalist, women's rights activist, and confidant of Jackson and Fletcher related in 1860, "When, in 1844 Margaret Fuller gave 'The Great Lawsuit' ... she stated with transcendent force the argument which formed the basis of the first 'Woman's Rights Convention' in 1848." Dall stated the case more explicitly in her 1895 history of New England Transcendentalism: "The characteristics of the Transcendental movement were shown in the temper of its agitation for the rights of women and the enlargement of her duties."

As with other cultural and social movements, scholarly debate surrounds the origins of American Transcendentalism, yet historical analysis traces its essential social and political reform ideas to a small cadre of New England women fervently dedicated to the emerging politics of human rights. Prominent among them were Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Margaret Fuller (Ossoli), Pauline Wright Davis, and Caroline Healey Dall. From 1830 to 1850 these women translated Second Great Awakening idealism into a mainstream Transcendentalist rhetoric that helped foment the national abolitionist and women's rights movements. Both abolitionist rhetoric and the politicized imagery of African American enslavement were effectively appropriated by women's rights proponents.

Deftly employed by an emerging group of outspoken liberal women activists, the slave metaphor became political code for the contentious issue of women's rights. The invocation of brutalized, chained, and cowed slaves became a rallying cry during women's abolition lectures, where it was aimed at overturning European American male hegemony. Such public displays not only flouted traditional gender strictures, which forbade female usurpation of male authority, but also came into conflict with the new "separate spheres" gender sensibilities evolving within the emerging American middle class.

The social and intellectual spark that ignited this new outspoken class of liberal antebellum women activists was struck by pioneering challenges to traditional gender and power hierarchies unleashed during the evangelical fury of the Second Great Awakening. Drawing on traditional cooperative gender and labor roles found in American agrarian society, the Second Great Awakening emphasized the personal priesthood and kingship of each believer, inflaming egalitarian sentiment among its male and female converts. Convinced that the end times were at hand, a notable contingent of Second Awakening believers accepted the eschatological assertion that God would "pour out" His "spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy." Equating prophesy with preaching many evangelicals consequently promoted, or at least tolerated, the public ministry of women preachers. Largely forgotten today, these women ministers forged in the passionate spiritual crucible of the Second Awakening provoked the first national women's rights debate.

Nancy Towle (1796–1876) one of the most illustrious of the Second Awakening preachers asked, "Respecting the preaching of females. ... I would reply, 'Where did Mary, Anna, Deborah, Miriam, Esther ... speak, — but in the church?'" Towle added, "May the Lord, raise up a host of female warriors, — that shall provoke the opposite party, from their indolence." Towle's male compatriot Lorenzo Dow, an itinerant Methodist preacher and avid abolitionist, encouraged her religious work and sanctioned women's public ministry. Dow asked, "Why, a female, should not be accountable, to God, for her talents, and ministrations, — as the opposite gender, — I know not."

Echoing Towle and Dow, Harriet Livermore, one of the most popular women preachers of the late 1820s and 1830s, emphasized the equality of men and women. A skilled sentimental orator, Livermore built on Transcendentalist and Second Awakening egalitarian ideals, eventually linking women's rights with political reform and Indian assimilation. For American women Livermore anticipated a divine transformation, "How long, O Lord ... ere women shall be clothed with the sun, walk upon the moon, and be crowned with Apostolick [sic] glory?" The political nature of Livermore's religious message prompted one contemporary critic to note, "The objection, after all, is not so much against female preachers, as against the doctrines which some of them may chance to advocate."


Excerpted from A Field of Their Own by John M. Rhea. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Acronyms and Abbreviations,
Introduction: "White" Women and the Specialized Field of American Indian Historical Scholarship,
1. Women's Rights, American Indians, and Capitol Politics,
2. The Washington Vanguard and the Birth of Women's Indian Scholarship,
3. American Darwinism, Women, and American Indians,
4. Helen Hunt Jackson and the History of American Indian Treaties,
5. Alice Fletcher and the Scholarship of American Indian Politics,
6. Professionalization and the Twilight of Women's American Indian Scholarship,
7. The Pacific Frontier: Women Historians and a New Kind of Indian History,
8. Déjà Vu: Oklahoma Women and the New Ethno-Political Indian History,
Conclusion: Women Historians, American Indian History, and Gender Politics,

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