Glenda Riley, “The Female Frontier” (1988)

Glenda Riley opened her 1988 work, The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains, by lobbing a volley towards past Great Plains historians. Riley justified this volley by drawing from questionnaires she circulated to academics, students and lay people in the 1980s. (Riley, 1988: 14) She said that while academics were largely skeptical of the traditional myth and image of women on the Great Plains, it was students and laypeople that continued to accept these traditional images and myths. Within the first three paragraphs of chapter 1, she said Frederick Jackson Turner, George F. Parker, Everett Dick, Walter P. Webb, et al., were largely responsible for portraying frontierswomen as “one-dimensional stereotypes.” Women were often victimized as passive agents who were “gaunt and sad-faced… sitting on the front seat of the wagon, following” their “lord where he might lead” her. Or women were portrayed as “leathery, stooped, and lifeless figures who either begged to return home or persevered until they were broken entirely.” Riley uncovered a body of knowledge that undermined the “puerile stereotypes” ascribed to women on the Great Plains and in the American West, and she challenged a traditional way of looking at the past. (Riley, 1988: 1-2)

The historiographic crux of Riley’s argument elevated culture as the primary determinant of understanding how frontierswomen carried on their lives, and through this she discounted the environmental determinism Walter Webb advanced in his 1931 work, The Great Plains. (Riley, 1988: 12) Riley organized her work into two categories, and this included 1) women on the Prairie; and 2) women on the Plains. Women did much more than follow their lords. They managed households, preserved familial, religious and ethnic traditions by acting as local historians, Bible recorders, and genealogists, they shaped their domestic and local economy, and they participated in community and civics.

In this, Riley aptly accounted for the cultural roles of women, and also men. She said the socio-economic system of the nineteenth century required men to be “the primary breadwinners,” and this meant that women were expected to marry. (Riley, 1988: 15) If women wanted something else, they often would not marry, or they “forswore marriage entirely.” Instead, they could enroll in religious institutions that had missions dedicated to improving healthcare and education for the needy, unfortunate, or downtrodden. For example, in 1853 the Sisters of St. Joseph’s built the first hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in 1872, the Sisters of Charity (or the Grey Nuns) came to Dakota Territory. Eight years later the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary arrived. Once in the territory and on the Great Plains, they set out with the progressive mission of improving educational and healthcare facilities for otherwise marginalized groups. (Riley, 1988: 19)

Several thoughts came to mind while reading Riley’s work. The first was how breaking into established cultural orders and institutions can take on at least two forms. One way to change tradition and reframe the conversation is to go through back channels within the established institution, and try to reform it from within. Another way is to publicly denounce the institution. In the sense that Riley published her work in an academic press, it appears that she utilized both courses. She networked and made contacts within academic publishing houses, and they eventually printed her scholarship. This in turn brought about change in the historiography of the Great Plains and the American West, and this is at least one broad roadmap for any historian to incorporate and follow.

Another thought was that in 2013, Riley’s 1988 volley toward the traditional historians of the Great Plains and American West might at first read a bit bombastic. It does not read bombastic in the sense that Riley was out of line. Not in the least. Rather, it is a reflection of pathfinders and scholar-activists who, in some ways, appropriated and used the type of academic rhetoric that was used to marginalize them in the first place. In other cases, Riley’s rhetorical flourishes ensured that women — her included — would not be ignored. For Riley to call foundational historians of the American West “puerile,” and in an academic press, almost guaranteed that historians would have to bring their attention to bear on her and her scholarship. In this sense, Riley could also have a different sub-title to her book that read something along the lines of, The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of our Grandmothers and Great Grandmothers on the Prairie and Plains. This alternative and fictional sub-title might speak a bit more to 21st-century heritage and Public Historians rather than to 1980s feminist history.

A final remark about the continued shift in women’s scholarship looks to how Euro- and Anglo-American women view themselves, and how Margaret D. Jacobs treats this group in her 2011 work, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. But that is easily a topic and point of consideration for another review.


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