Cattle Branding and the Traffic in Women in Early Twentieth-Century Westerns by Women
Lamont, Victoria, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
"The wild cow is a female. She has healthy calves, and milk enough for them; and that is all the femininity she needs. Otherwise than that she is bovine rather than feminine." Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics (1898) "Woe to those who refuse to pay their toll; they would be rounded up like cattle...." Emma Goldman, "The Traffic in Women" (1911)
The gun-slinging superwoman may be the most familiar way popular western conventions recently have been put to an arguably feminist use. However, this discourse is not characteristic of the earliest popular westerns written by women, which show remarkably little interest in reinventing women in the cowboy-hero's image. A much more prevalent convention, but one virtually unknown to current scholarship, is exemplified in Frances McElrath's The Rustler (1902), published in the same year as Owen Wister's classic The Virginian. McElrath's text concerns a square dance attended by an orphaned teenager named Mavvy (short for Maverick, a name for an unbranded, orphaned calf). She has been dragged to the dance by her adoptive father, a notorious cattle rustler, who forces her to accept the sexual advances of another rustler. To Mavvy's rescue comes Horace Carew, who will soon become the leader of a group of gentleman vigilantes, organized to stop cattle rustling. Horace has just been rejected by his beloved, the genteel easterner Hazel Clifford. As these courtship dramas play out, the square dance caller instructs the male dancers to "lock horns with your own heifers, and rassle 'em to their places" and to "corral the fillies, rope your own, and back to your claim with her!" (McElrath 63-64). The square dance call aptly summarizes one of the novel's central themes. Set in Wyoming during the 1892 Johnson County Rustler Wars, The Rustler is a story of two women's encounters with the "marriage roundup." In this and other women's westerns of the early twentieth century, analogies between cattle roundups and marriage markets mark a crucial shift in Anglo-American feminist discourse: they both resonate with analogies between patriarchy and slavery in feminist abolitionism and anticipate the argument of later feminist thinkers from Emma Goldman to Gayle Rubin that marriage enslaves, objectifies, and commodifies women.
The more familiar pattern of feminist intervention in early twentieth-century popular western discourse is the female individualism of figures such as Annie Oakley, Elinore Pruitt Stewart, and the rodeo cowgirl. All are feminized versions of the western male hero. For example, Oakley earned celebrity status as a sharpshooter with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, while taking great care to preserve her reputation as a respectable lady. (1) Stewart, who was renowned for the letters she published in the Atlantic Monthly detailing her experience, represented herself as the female version of the independent homesteader. Early twentieth-century rodeo cowgirls competed in the same events as men--although not against them--and were "the first significant group of professional women athletes in North America" (Savage 80). (2) Today, the tradition continues with action-adventure heroines including the protagonist of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Sarah Connor of the Terminator series.
The westerns discussed in this essay--McElrath's The Rustler (1902), B. M. Bower's Lonesome Land (1912), and Katharine Newlin Burt's The Branding Iron (1919)--change our current understanding of the importance of western mythology in women's literary history, for they show that it was more than the repository of a conservative and limiting feminist individualism or an exclusively patriarchal discourse that women write against. (3) The decline of feminist abolitionism and the rise of social-Darwinian and eugenic feminisms left a rhetorical void in feminist discourse that the popular western could partially fill. Louise Michele Newman has pointed out that aligning feminism with social-evolutionary progress made it problematic for white feminists to criticize patriarchy within their own culture. According to the eugenic theories underpinning much early twentieth-century feminism, white women were more highly evolved than women of "inferior" cultures because civilized cultures are more protective of their women; hence white feminists were forced "to acknowledge that patriarchy had been key to their own racial advancement" (Newman 8). In this evolutionary model, the end of patriarchy was not the goal of feminism; rather, primitive and exploitative patriarchies must give way to the more advanced, protective version.
While the rhetorical power of the analogy between patriarchy and slavery had been undermined by the racialization of feminist ideology, the popular western contained tropes and conventions that allowed for modes of critique that were foreclosed elsewhere. Popular westerns by women drew analogies between the cattle roundup and the marriage market in order to expose the "protection" of white women in marriage as a disguised version of patriarchal ownership. They also invoked the myth of the western frontier as the origin of a uniquely American civilization to represent patriarchy as a mode of savagery still latent in Anglo-American culture. Furthermore, by depicting the West as a space in which patriarchy is exposed and feminist consciousness is raised, these texts satisfied an ideological need in the racialized feminisms that predominated in the early twentieth century. The West displaced abolitionism as the origin of American feminism, supporting the desire of Anglo-American feminists to distance themselves from their African American counterparts.
As Karen Sanchez-Eppler and others have shown, early nineteenth-century feminists regarded woman suffrage and the abolition of slavery as complementary causes because of the many similarities in the condition of women and African Americans (Andolsen 3-4; Sanchez-Eppler 14-49; Yellin 24-25). This relationship changed during debates leading to the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1869, which extended the ballot to African American men but excluded woman suffrage because it was viewed as too radical a change (Yellin 5-10). Thereafter, Anglo-American suffrage leaders used more explicitly racist rhetoric, arguing, for example, that women should be given the vote because they were socially and intellectually superior to black men, who already had it (McPherson 358-60). According to historian Ann D. Gordon, by the late nineteenth century this discourse of sisterhood had "virtually disappeared from what historians call 'the woman's movement'" (4). In its place were social-evolutionary discourses that differentiated white women from men and from women of more "primitive" races. White women's rights were more frequently justified on the basis of "racial commonalities" between white men and women and were interpreted as typifying the social advancement characteristic of "higher" (that is, white) civilization (Newman 40, 22). Eugenic-feminist arguments were tied to the dominant narrative of national development, according to which the United States was a nation regenerated by its return to rugged, frontier conditions (Slotkin 11). Popular images of the West from this time period display nostalgia for a passing frontier yet figure its disappearance as the inevitable outcome of Anglo-Saxon evolution toward a higher state of civilization (Nemerov 300-01). Anglo-American feminists participated in this discourse by exploiting early woman suffrage victories in several western states. (4) A 1916 cover of the periodical the Suffragist proclaimed, "[E]ver farther and farther west men have migrated seeking freedom; it has been left for women to turn back to the East bringing the gift of freedom." (5)
Slavery was still commonly invoked in turn-of-the-century discourse concerning women's rights, but the abolitionist roots of American feminism were muted once patriarchy was redefined as a characteristic of "inferior" races. Antebellum analogies between slavery and patriarchy implied an identification between the tyrannical slave owner and the tyrannical husband. Conversely, late nineteenth-century women's rights discourse was more likely to attribute the existence of patriarchy in America to "alien" cultures. An example of this can be found in "A True Story," a pro-suffrage narrative about a Chinese American prostitute named Li Po Ton by Carrie Chapman Catt, a suffrage leader. According to Suzanne M. Marilley, Catt represents prostitution in America as a Chinese import, arguing that the lack of the vote does not oppress white women so much as it prevents them from helping disadvantaged women of color such as Li Po Ton (180-85). Although Catt and other feminists often described prostitution as a form of slavery, they abandoned the image of the supplicant African American slave woman as their slogan, which had once "signif[ied] both the situation of women in a patriarchal society and the situation of blacks in a slave society" (Yellin 171). Instead, they used references to biblical and classical slavery to illustrate white women's oppression. By the late nineteenth century, the two-fold self-identification of anti-slavery feminists as both liberators of the slave and victims of slavery themselves gave way; instead, feminists emphasized the liberator figure with imagery that featured strong, vigorous, white women (Yellin 171-75). African American suffragists continued to focus on how the vote would help African American women improve their own condition (Terborg-Penn 55), yet they were relegated to separate suffrage societies and excluded from the mainstream movement.
Formal histories of the American women's rights movement wrote abolition out more systematically. Opening with the assertion that "the prolonged slavery of woman is the darkest page in human history" (Stanton, Anthony, and Gage 13), History of Woman Suffrage, nonetheless, largely ignores the achievements of African American woman suffragists (Terborg-Penn 110). Yet this work still stresses the importance of the abolition movement in mobilizing Anglo-American women politically and contributing to the ideas of early feminists such as Emily Collins, who recalls that "[e]very work of denunciation of the wrongs of the Southern slave was, I felt, equally applicable to the wrongs of my sex" (Stanton, Anthony, and Gage 89). Almost twenty years later, Charlotte Perkins Gilman would characterize the enslavement of women as a primitive phase in the social evolution of human civilizations: "There seems to have come a time when it occurred to the dawning intelligence of [the] amiable savage that it was cheaper and easier to fight a little female, and have it done with, than to fight a big male every time. So he instituted the custom of enslaving the female" (Women and Economics 60). While Gilman sporadically refers to American slavery and abolition, she does not give either phenomenon a prominent place in her history of women's oppression and resistance. However, Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler's 1926 post-mortem on the suffrage movement describes the "anti-slavery and anti-liquor movements" as "two great reforms" that "appealed strongly to the humanitarian sympathies of the better educated women." When "the majority of men not only did not want their help but expressed their antagonism in phrases and tones of bitter contempt," these women "chafed at the restraint of individual liberty, and the bravest boldly defended the right of any woman to give service to any cause and in any manner she chose" (Catt and Shuler 13). Despite language that identifies women as slaves who "chafed at the restraint of individual liberty," Ellen Carol DuBois argues that Catt's abolitionists are less subjugated victims than they are courageous rebels. Stressing the racial difference between African American slaves and their white female rescuers, Catt disavows the ideological debt that American feminism owes to abolitionism--particularly for its concept of common humanity, which early nineteenth-century feminists borrowed from Garrisonian abolitionism (57).
Rather than liken patriarchy to enslavement, early twentieth-century westerns liken it to commodification. Perhaps the most extended example of the "marriage roundup" is found in McElrath's The Rustler, which uses the Johnson County Rustler Wars (Wyoming, 1892) as the backdrop for a feminist critique of women's status as commodities within a marital economy. (6) Its two main female characters are from different classes--Hazel Clifford is a genteel eastern visitor to Wyoming, while Mavvy is a poor orphan who has fallen into the hands of cattle rustlers--but both are vulnerable to the traffic in women. With no man's name to identify her and therefore no legitimate place in society, the orphan Mavvy is at the mercy of whatever man happens to find her. Unfortunately, she is found by the cattle rustler Nathan Grimes, who uses her as a servant and for the sexual amusement of his rustler friends. Hazel's position is not as desperate, but it is not fundamentally different either: her father has died, leaving his estate in disarray. Hazel is therefore under economic pressure to marry one of two men who pursue her: Horace Carew, a gentleman rancher, and Jim, a working-class cowboy.
Without the protection of patriarchal ownership, then, both women are identified with the maverick, or brandless, cattle that occasionally escape the roundup:
There was once a man living on the southern range, Maverick by name, who accumulated a large herd of cattle by the simple method of branding as his own all stock which in the great general roundups of the olden days had escaped the branding-iron. The method was attractively easy, and when fully appreciated was adopted by the majority of the large outfits all over the country as a means of increasing their herds, all calves or other stock found brandless being designated mavericks, or unclaimed ones, and branded forthwith. (McElrath 73)
Both Hazel and Mavvy are "found brandless" at certain points in the text. As described by a minor character in the text, Mavvy's origin parallels that of the orphaned calves for which she is named: "She's the one that's called the Maverick. If she ever had another name I reckon they've forgot it. They [the Grimeses, a family of cattle rustlers] took her out of the poorhouse somewhere, and I don't guess she has a very good time with them two" (65). Similarly, Hazel is "found" by Jim on the open range when an injury to her horse leaves her stranded. Bitter because of the way Hazel rejected him, Jim kidnaps her.
Like The Rustler, Bower's Lonesome Land centers on a heroine who realizes that marriage exploits women rather than protects them; this understanding enables the protagonist to contemplate divorcing her abusive husband. American readers were not unreceptive to this message, for the novel was praised by critics and underwent numerous reprintings. (7) Bower was an extremely successful and prolific popular western novelist whose work continues to receive scant attention in comparison to that of male contemporaries, such as Zane Grey. (8) Bower's early reputation as a popular and respected western author was firmly established when she published Lonesome Land in 1912, which may explain why Bower takes more risks with the conventions of the genre in this novel than in her earlier, arguably more formulaic, fiction. (9) The story begins with Val Peyson's arrival in the town of Hope, Montana, where she is to marry her lover, Manley Fleetwood, who has been preparing a home for her during their three-year separation. Val arrives in Hope with high expectations of the new life Manley's letters have promised, but she has been misled. Val expects their home to be "a picturesque little cottage" (59), but it is actually a run-down shack. Manley has also hidden from Val his weakness for alcohol. His vices are compounded throughout the novel until he eventually becomes a cattle rustler and physical abuser. As in The Rustler, Manley's activities as a rustler function as a metaphor for the mastery he claims over his wife.
Whereas Hazel is literally rustled by Jim, Val is figuratively rustled because her decision to marry Manley is based on lies and false promises, which, we are reminded throughout the novel, call into question the legitimacy of their marriage contract. The pivotal deception occurs in the novel's opening chapters when Val arrives in Hope expecting Manley immediately to whisk her off to be married. Unfortunately, Manley is too drunk to meet her, so Val is greeted by Manley's friend Kent, whose excuses on Manley's behalf give Manley enough time to sober up. The marriage proceeds as planned, with Val none the wiser. Subsequently, Kent blames himself for Manley's abuse of Val, believing that she would not have married him had she, a strong believer in temperance, known about his alcoholism. The novel suggests that because Val was not fully informed when she entered the marriage contract, the marriage is as illegitimate as Manley's ownership of the rustled cattle--which, in case we miss the point, are branded with Val's initials.
In early twentieth-century popular westerns by women, the cattle roundup performs a rhetorical function similar, although not identical, to that which Sanchez-Eppler ascribes to certain analogies prevalent in antebellum abolitionist literature. In Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body, Sanchez-Eppler demonstrates that narratives depicting the sexual exploitation of African American slave women made it possible for white middle-class women to articulate anxieties about their own sexual victimization that were otherwise "unacknowledgeable" according to the conventions of true womanhood (36). However, abolitionist analogies emphasized the common humanity of Anglo- and African American women, while branding analogies played up the difference between women and "chattel." These branding analogies, therefore, expose the crudities of patriarchy, which trades women as though they were cattle; these tropes imply that patriarchy is only superficially different from the actual bovine system of cattle trading. The implied argument is thus slightly different from that of the abolitionist feminists, who maintained that common humanity overrides both race and gender and entitles both Anglo- and African American women to the same human rights. Branding tropes, in contrast, base their implied argument on the obvious difference between (white) women and "chattel" and register the move away from the ideology of common humanity that had characterized abolitionist feminism. Nonetheless, they too enabled Anglo-American authors to represent taboo sexual content via displacement.
The Rustler implies that the unfortunate orphan Mavvy--whose name, it is worth repeating, is short for Maverick, or unclaimed calf--is a white slave, exploited for her sexuality just as cattle are. At the square dance described above, Mavvy's surrogate parents--the same people who found her "brandless" in the poor-house--force her to accept the unwanted attention of a man named Bill Lowry:
"Please don't," she pleaded, "I ain't a-goin' to dance." "Not with me?" cried Lowry. The Grimes woman prodded Mavvy in the side with her finger. "Go along, do it," she said. "I shan't," said Mavvy. "Not a-goin' to dance? Not a-goin' to dance when I ask you?" shouted Lowry boozily. "Then I tell you what I'm goin' to do; I'm goin' to have a kiss from you for refusin'. Oh, jenks! I am." (66)
We later learn that Bill Lowry is Grimes's partner in cattle rustling, a business relationship solidified through the gift exchange of Mavvy. The roundup metaphor thus signifies two classic functions of the sex/gender system: the control of female sexuality and the gift exchange of women to solidify patriarchal kinship structures (Rubin 545-46).
In a highly suggestive episode in Lonesome Land, Manley's stolen cattle function as surrogates for Val, displacing onto the bodies of cattle the power Manley claims over Val's body and sexuality. Having returned to the ranch with several stolen calves, Manley orders Val to prepare the branding fire. Val, who does not yet know that Manley is a rustler, wonders why the rush, whereupon Manley snaps, "What the devil is it to you?... I want the fire, madam, and I want it now. I rather think I know when I want to brand without asking your advice" (240). This exchange is typical of how Manley speaks to Val at this late stage in their marriage. Having become "hardened" to being "brutalized" by Manley, Val "did not mind very much" (241). Immediately following this example of Manley's domination over Val, the narrative shifts to the plight of Manley's stolen calf. "He drove a big, line-backed heifer into a corner, roped and tied her down with surprising dexterity, and turned impatiently" to order Val around some more (241). Val responds with both obedience and sarcasm: "''Ere it is, sir--thank you, sir--'ope I 'aven't kep you wyting, sir,' she announces, after she fumes for two minutes inside the corral, and she cynically hums her way quite through the hymn which begins 'Blest be the tie that binds'" (242). This reference, which can be read ironically as referring to the bonds of marriage, reminds us of the bound heifer in the previous passage, highlighting the common plight of Val and the branded calves. As each calf is branded, Val hears, "with an inward quiver of pity and disgust, the spasmodic blat of the calf in the pen when the VP went searing into the hide on its ribs" (243). Here the calf's body performs a function similar to that of the African American slave woman's body in antebellum slave narratives described by Sanchez-Eppler. The master's sexual exploitation of the slave woman registers a critique of patriarchy but enables white women to remain "true women." Similarly, in this scene the power that Manley has over Val's body is displaced onto the body of the calf in order to represent a critique of patriarchy without compromising Val's role as the plucky western heroine, whose psyche, "hardened" to her husband's abuse, is contrasted with the calf's sensitive hide. Again, however, the abolitionist priority of expressing a common humanity across races is no longer a part of the discourse.
A particularly explicit inscription of the "marriage roundup" analogy appears in Burt's The Branding Iron (1919). While The Rustler was an obscure and little-known novel and Lonesome Land enjoyed moderate popular success, The Branding Iron was targeted by its publisher, Houghton Mifflin, as a likely bestseller. (10) The novel's central message is the right of its heroine, Joan Landis, to belong "to her own self" (46). The novel takes its title from the incident that precipitates the main action, when Joan is branded--literally--by her jealous husband Pierre. Both Joan and Pierre are depicted as white savages; the branding of Joan is indeed a sign of the savage ways of the nameless "wild country" where they live (Burt 3). When Joan is introduced, her primitive nature is emphasized. Her face is "heavy" and "unlit from within, but built on lines of perfect animal beauty," while her body is "stretched there across the floor, heavily if not sluggishly built, dressed rudely in warm stuffs and clumsy boots" (4). This "animal beauty" compels male characters in the text to want to own and control her. In a chapter entitled "Pierre Takes Steps to Preserve His Property," Pierre brands Joan out of jealousy over the amount of time she spends with the local preacher. Whereas McElrath and Bower displace the physical dimension of patriarchal oppression onto the bodies of cattle, Burt literalizes the branding metaphor. Pierre tells Joan, "You belong to me an' not to [the preacher]," and compares her fate to that of "stock all over the country marked with them two bars.... The Two-Bar Brand, don't you fergit it!" (46-47). Then, "[h]e lifted his brand and set it against the bare flesh of her shoulder" (48).
In the opening chapters of The Branding Iron, the "real" of marriage--patriarchal ownership--is immediately self-evident to the reader, while in the earlier novels it is first disguised as chivalrous protection and then gradually unmasked. In The Rustler, Mavvy turns to the gentlemanly Horace for protection from the unwanted attentions of Lowry: "He made a drunken grab to catch her hands. The girl drew them away with a frightened scream. Her terrified eyes instinctively crossed the room and begged protection from the gentleman in the doorway" (66). Horace rescues Mavvy from Lowry, strikes up a friendship with her, and eventually marries her. His intentions are not altogether pure, however, for initially he is drawn to Mavvy because she has information about the activities of the cattle rustlers. Mavvy also proves herself a better protector of Horace than the reverse, for when she learns of a plot to kill him, she intentionally rides his horse into the ambush and is shot in his place.
Like Mavvy's, Hazel's plight is compared to that of the unclaimed calf, particularly when an injury to her horse leaves her stranded alone on the open range. Just as Horace rescues Hazel from Lowry's attentions at the square dance, Jim makes a timely appearance and responds to Hazel's signals for help. As the scene progresses, however, Jim is slowly transformed from Hazel's protector into her master:
"Thank you, Jim," she said, as she sprang onto Whitefoot. She reached out her hands for the reins, which Jim still held. "What are you going to do?" she asked, surprised and pleased at this show of courtesy. Without answering the question in words, Jim showed what he was going to do by springing onto the horse behind Hazel's saddle. He still retained the reins. He set spurs to the horse. It was done so very quickly, that, before Hazel recovered from her surprise sufficiently to speak, they had started off. "Oh!" she exclaimed. .... "There's no use your fighting me, you've got to go with me," he muttered between his teeth; "don't scream unless you want something tied over your mouth. (93-94)
The above scene begins conventionally enough with the cowboy's rescue of a stranded lady traveler, but it ends when Hazel is literally "rustled" by Jim, whose dominance over her is identified with his spurring of the horse. Chivalric protection is unmasked as exploitative ownership.
Lonesome Land gives its heroine a potential savior in the person of Kent, the gentleman cowboy who befriends Val and does his best to protect her from Manley's abuse. However, eventually the novel forecloses the possibility of rescue. At first Kent's presence in the novel suggests that Manley's bad character, not the institution of marriage, is responsible for Val's plight, which would certainly be different if she had married a man like Kent. Nonetheless, while Kent is presented as a good man and a sympathetic character--chivalrous, honest, and strong--he too eventually claims ownership of Val in the same way that Manley does. The comparison between these two men is reminiscent of Harriet Beecher Stowe's comparisons between "good" slave owners (Shelby) and "bad" ones (Legree) in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Ultimately, the existence of "good" men who own slaves does not obviate the evils of the institution. Similarly, Kent's relationship with Val demonstrates that a "good" master is still a master, no matter how well-intentioned.
Like McElrath, Bower devotes a full chapter to deconstructing the distinction between chivalrous protection and patriarchal ownership. Just as Jim "rescues" the stranded Hazel, Kent "rescues" Val from a grass fire that, owing partly to Manley's negligence, has encircled the ranch. In The Rustler it is the setting of Hazel's abduction--the unfenced range--that recalls the scene of branding and so identifies her with the rustled calf. Here the metaphor is established through the fire that surrounds Val, which, in addition to drawing from the classic literary association of fire with masculine sexuality, reminds Kent of the branding fire: "He untied his silk neckerchief, shook out the cinders, and pressed it against her closed eyes. 'Keep that over 'em,' he commanded, 'till we can do better. My eyes are more used to smoke than yours, I guess. Working around branding fires toughens 'em some'" (127-28). During the fire, Val is "branded" by a piece of burning debris: "A brand flew low over Val's head as she ran staggeringly.... A spark from the brand fell upon her hand, and she looked up stupidly, the heat and the smoke were choking her so that she could scarcely breathe" (126). Later, when the fire has been extinguished and Kent holds the fainting Val in his arms, he notices her "branded" hand: "His gaze traveled on down her slim figure to her ringed fingers lying loosely in her lap, a long, dry-looking blister upon one hand near the thumb; down to her slippers, showing beneath her scorched skirt. And he drew another long breath. He did not know why, but he had a strange, fleeting sense of possession ..." (129). By taking Manley's place as Val's protector and saving her from the fire, Kent has become a competitor with Manley for ownership of Val, a relation of which he is only dimly aware but one that is quite explicit in the above imagery. The metaphorical branding fire has left Kent's "brand" on Val's hand, in close proximity to the rings that mark Manley's competing claim. Kent exercises his own claim not only by carrying her inert body, but also with his palpable, traveling gaze. By exposing Kent's protective impulses as a masked desire to own and control Val, the novel dismantles the myth that protecting women is an attribute of more advanced cultures, for the more "civilized" cowboy Kent proves to be no different than the dissolute Manley.
Kent's metaphoric rustling of Val during the prairie fire is mirrored in a later incident in which Kent alters the brand of one of Manley's rustled calves:
To heat the spur red-hot, draw it across the fresh VP again, and again, and finally drag it crisscross once or twice to make assurance an absolute certainty, did not take long. Kent was particular about not wasting any seconds. The calf stopped its dismal blatting, and when Kent released it and coiled his rope, it jumped up and ran for its life, the cow [its mother] ambling solicitously at its heels. (274)
The repetition of certain details identifies Kent with Manley, who, as I have described earlier, is also in a hurry to finish the task and makes his calves "blat" when he brands them. As a metaphor for Kent's relationship with Val, this act of brand-altering can be read in two ways; it may signify either Kent's desire to undo Manley's claim and have Val for himself or his role in freeing Val from Manley so that, like the calf rejoining its mother, she can reunite with her family, a desire Val expresses more than once. The question looms throughout the novel: Is Kent a competitor with Manley for ownership of Val or is he co-conspirator in Val's escape from Manley?
A fundamental premise of the feminist critique of patriarchy is that the recognition of the system as such is the first step toward dismantling it. All three of these novels describe female (and sometimes male) characters who undergo a shift in consciousness that enables them to disentangle themselves from patriarchal relations. After she is kidnapped, the formerly flirtatious Hazel becomes conscious of her status as an object of exchange, for in kidnapping her Jim shows Hazel her real standing as a commodity: "Jim has brought me here to show me my work and to punish me," she thinks (141). With this knowledge, Hazel is empowered to resist Jim's patriarchal rule. She does so by mothering the neglected children living in Jim's rustler hideaway. She nurses them, opens a school for them, and eventually earns the devotion of the whole rustler community. In so doing, Hazel literally reorganizes the social structure of the rustler community according to matriarchal rather than patriarchal principles. The text juxtaposes the authority Hazel derives from her motherly influence with the authority Jim derives from property ownership: "Jim had far exceeded his expectations. In money he was rich, and in position he was a robber baron. He maintained his place strenuously at the head of affairs, levying tribute from every one who came under the protection of the Hole-in-the-Wall" (153). Meanwhile, Hazel continues with her "gentle measures," which are "designed to frustrate the very work he was carrying on. He had brought her to the camp to witness with her own eyes his supremacy, and instead of bowing before it like the rest, she had quietly gone to work to undermine his power" (153). Hazel is not merely an annoyance to Jim; "she's dangerous," he thinks (153). Hazel is hazardous because of the structural relationship between Jim's authority and hers. Jim's patriarchal rule is signified by Hazel's passive subjection, so her refusal to perform in this role and her matriarchal reorganization of the rustler community amount to a breakdown in both the signification and structure of Jim's power.
Lonesome Land focuses as much attention on Kent's awakening to patriarchal relations as it does on Val's. Val has learned hard lessons from her marriage to Manley, and so she carefully negotiates her friendship with Kent. "I do so need a friend!" she tells him; someone "to whom I can talk when that is the only thing that will keep me sane" (213). She makes him "shake on it" and warns him not to make love to her: "I never did have much patience with the rule that a man must either be perfectly indifferent, or else make love. I'm so glad you--understand" (216, 217). With legal rituals and terms, Val defines their relationship as a legalized contract, one that identifies Val as a person rather than chattel. However, Kent has difficulty finding non-possessive ways to interact with Val. Val becomes an author to earn extra money and to gain psychic relief from her situation. Yet when she asks Kent's opinion of her work, he is too preoccupied with her physicality to pay much attention to her ideas:
Kent, perforce, listened to the story. Afterward, he assured her that it was "outa sight." As a matter of fact, half the time he had not heard a word of what she was reading; he had been too busy just looking at her and being glad he was there. He had, however, a dim impression that it was a story with people in it whom one does not try to imagine as ever being alive, and with a West which, beyond its evident scarcity of inhabitants, was not the West he knew anything about. (237)
Kent is unable to criticize Val's work objectively because he regards her as an ornamental object rather than a speaking subject. His role as protector also requires that he shield her from the criticism of what he clearly regards as mediocre writing.
The novel ultimately refuses Kent an outlet for his possessive/protective impulses, for he is denied an active role in the dramatic action sequence that concludes the narrative, which is set into motion when Val releases some of Manley's stolen calves. This action is reminiscent of Hazel's matriarchal undoing of Jim's authority in The Rustler, an act of matriarchal intervention in patriarchal systems of signification and possession. Hence the sight of Manley's VP-branded calves suckling mothers with different brands soon leads to Manley's undoing. In the pursuit that follows, Manley almost strangles Val to death, shoots a man, and steals Kent's horse; finally, the sheriff overpowers him. In an unusual departure from the conventions of the genre, the novel's cowboy hero is left out of the plot events that deliver justice to the antagonist. Instead, Kent remains with Val in her cabin as the resolution plays out. In a reversal of the grass-fire episode, in which Kent covers Val's eyes and assumes the power to see and act on her behalf, he now listens as Val describes Manley's violent demise, which she watches through a pair of field glasses: "'Why, your horse--' she gasped. 'Michael--he's got his feet straight up in the air--oh, Kent, he's rolling over and over! I can't see'.... She shivered and hid her face upon one upflung arm" (320). At first, Kent "gathered her in his arms," saying, "Don't cry--it's better this way" and other conventional words of comfort, but then "he realized suddenly that this was no way to comfort her, and stopped" (321). Convention dictates that when Manley dies, the good guy should get the girl, but Kent realizes that "this was not the time for love-making; and since he was denied that outlet for his feelings, he did not know what to do" (321). Kent has been left out of the events leading to Val's liberation from Manley, and the novel ends without the conventional transfer of Val's ownership from Manley to Kent. This ending fulfills a wish Val expresses earlier, "to solve my problem and--and leave you [Kent] out of it" (307). By leaving Kent out of the resolution of Val's problem, the novel transfers ownership of Val to Val herself.
All three novels use the "marriage roundup" metaphor to expose as false the distinction between "bad" patriarchy--the kind that enslaves and exploits women--and the benevolent protection of women that some eugenic theorists associated with the more "advanced" races. Furthermore, the western setting of these narratives encoded them as stories about racial progress, for American frontier mythology was deeply implicated in contemporary theories of whiteness as a racial identity. According to one such theory, white people in the United States could claim common racial ancestry as descendants of an ancient northern European race known as the Teutons, whose principles of organization were the prototype for American democracy. Manifest destiny, including the "settlement" of the American West, was the most recent phase in the global progress of the Teutonic people (Babb 38-40). Hence narratives about the American West, from the histories written by Frederick Jackson Turner (11) and Theodore Roosevelt to the fictional stories of Owen Wister, were about the origins of white America. In this time period, social-Darwinian thinking was deeply entrenched (Cuddy and Roche 11); in the novels I am discussing, then, the most tyrannical patriarchs--the dissolute rustler Nathan Grimes and the drunken Manley Fleetwood--would also be read as the least evolved. To subject white women to the possessive instincts of such men would lead to racial regression; therefore, liberating female reproductive sexuality from the constraints of patriarchal ownership and control would result in racial progress, since the most primitive men would lose the basis of their power over women.
This argument is most explicit in The Branding Iron, a novel with pronounced differences from the other novels discussed in this essay. Unlike The Rustler and Lonesome Land, The Branding Iron employs the branding metaphor in overt rather than covert terms--recall that The Branding Iron depicts literally a woman being tied and branded. The Branding Iron also is an explicitly white-supremacist text, laying bare the racialism that informs but is not manifest in the other two texts. A significant part of the story takes place in the metropolitan East, which is represented as a racially mongrelized setting where the branding of women continues in a "civilized" guise. The Branding Iron explicitly links patriarchal critique and racial progress by introducing the figure of the racial other into its romantic plot. It does so not, as one might expect, through a Native American character, but through the figure of a Jewish character named Jasper Morena.
After Joan is branded by Pierre, she flees to New York City, where she meets Morena, a theatre producer, and becomes an actress in one of his productions. At this point, a sub-plot develops in which Morena learns that his wife, Betty, is having an affair with his best friend. Responding with the same possessive jealousy that made Pierre brand Joan, Morena tells his wife, "[Y]ou have been rash to pit yourself against me. You must have known that I would break you utterly. I will break you, my dear, and I will have you back, and I will be your master instead of your servant, and I will love you" (265). Morena's branding iron is public humiliation: he exposes Betty's affair, making it impossible for her to sue for divorce or seek refuge with her family, which has disowned her, leaving Betty with no option but to remain under Morena's control.
The similarity between the two brandings--one unfolding in a primitive, western environment, and the other in a civilized, eastern setting--invites us to figure out the difference, which is racial. Despite Jasper Morena's very successful negotiation of civilized society, he is represented as a savage at the core, and his savagery is connected to his Jewishness. Morena is at his most racialized and savage at those moments when he asserts his property rights over his wife to the other men who make claims upon her. To Betty's brother, he declares, "'I love my wife'--his voice was especially Hebraic and especially abhorrent ... 'and as a husband I mean to keep her from the ruin this divorce would mean to her'" (244). His racial identity is similarly highlighted when he confronts his best friend about the affair: "'My friend,' he began, and the accentuation of the Hebraic quality of his voice had an instantaneous effect ... 'I thought I knew you fairly well ...'" (261). Another classic marker of savagery in the popular western tradition is that the savage's conduct is controlled by instinct. (12) Again, Morena displays this trait: "Jasper was perfectly conscious that his own gesture and speech ... were too eager, too ingratiating, that they had a touch of servility. He hated them himself, but they were inherited with his blood, as instinctive as the wagging of a dog's tail" (239).
The apparently civilized Morena proves to be a savage at heart, while the apparently savage Pierre turns out to be capable of civilization. Having found religion, Pierre travels to New York to prove to Joan that he is a repentant man. Joan's natural attraction to Pierre is so intense that she forgives him and the couple reunite, despite his earlier brutal treatment of her. As the novel's final chapter plays out, Pierre shows Joan and the reader that he has learned to control his savage impulses, something that Jasper Morena, for all of his genteel cultivation, simply cannot do. Pierre demonstrates his strength of will, and therefore his racial superiority, in a confrontation with a rival for Joan's affection who had shot Pierre and left him for dead:
[Pierre's] own face was a mask of rage.... [I]t was the Westerner's intention to kill. For a minute, no longer, he was a lightning channel of death. But Pierre, the Pierre shaped during the last four difficult years, turned upon his own writhing, savage soul and forced it to submit.... All the patience and the hunger and the beauty of his love possessed his face. There was simply no room in his heart for any lesser thing. (309)
Rather than play out a conflict with his antagonist for ownership of Joan, Pierre politely asks the man "to leave [him] with [his] wife" (309).
That a Jewish figure is selected to represent the racial other is loaded with ideological meaning because race theories of the period categorized Jews as a primitive race of whites from which the more advanced Aryan race had evolved. Hence Jews were regarded by some race theorists as Caucasian and by others as "a denigrated racial other" (Young 84). The Branding Iron posits liberated female sexuality as a solution to the problem of determining the racial status of ambiguous figures such as Jasper Morena. Debates about women's political status were fraught with anxieties about the infiltration of American political society by the racial other, whose assimilation into the American "melting pot" made his presence harder to detect and extricate. Antiquated discourses of gender and race were resurrected to imagine a solution to this so-called problem of racial infiltration--namely, the white woman's instinctive attraction to men of her own race and aversion to the racial other (Young 107-09). Only white women had the instincts necessary to keep the race pure. Since liberating women from the political economy of sex meant liberating them from their role as the exchanged and allowing them control over their bodies and desires, empowering women would help reproduce white America. So, when Joan Landis is finally free to choose for herself, the man she chooses is the white one.
The novels I have been discussing have received very little scholarly attention, yet the themes they address recently have been noticed in the work of their more well-known contemporary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose importance in the history of American literary feminism is well established. As Jennifer Tuttle points out, Gilman may have rejected the rest cure that S. Weir Mitchell prescribed for nervous female patients, but she took seriously the "West cure" he prescribed for Owen Wister and claimed for herself the "healthful way of life in the West" that Mitchell considered appropriate only for men ("Rewriting the West Cure" 107). Dana Seitler demonstrates that Gilman was especially interested in applying the notion of the West as a regenerative space to the eugenic-feminist argument that strengthening women meant strengthening the white race ("Unnatural Selection" 65-66). Western and eugenic themes in Gilman's work have been interpreted as idiosyncratic rather than part of a more widely circulating feminist discourse, yet Gilman's use of livestock analogies performs rhetorical functions remarkably similar to those used in women's popular westerns. In Women and Economics (1898), Gilman uses live-stock analogies to establish distinctions between nature and culture and to expose the crude economic underpinnings of patriarchal protectionism:
The horse, in his present condition of slavery, is economically dependent. He gets his living at the hands of his master; and his exertions, though strenuous, bear no direct relation to his living. In fact, the horses who are the best fed and cared for and the horses who are the hardest worked are quite different animals. The horse works, it is true; but what he gets to eat depends on the power and will of his master. His living comes through another. He is economically dependent. So with the hard-worked savage or peasant women. Their labor is the property of another: they work under another will; and what they receive depends not on their labor, but on the power and will of another. They are economically dependent. This is true of the human female both individually and collectively. (7)
Elsewhere, Gilman equates the "over-sexing" of women--the excessive emphasis on their sexual difference, which she sees as a cultural weakness--with the over-sexing of milk cows. Just as the latter has become "a walking milk-machine, bred and tended to that express end," women's sex difference--her "comparative smallness and feebleness"--has been "carried to such an excess that women are commonly known as 'the weaker sex'" (Women and Economics 44-45).
Frontier mythology played a crucial role in Gilman's thinking about feminism and race. Using a social-Darwinian vocabulary that conflates the social category "race" with the biological category "species," Gilman argues in Women and Economics that the "sex-attributes" that differentiate men from women are unnaturally exaggerated in humans at the expense of their "race-attributes"--the qualities men and women have in common. Whereas the function of sex-attributes is reproduction, race-attributes are those that differentiate one species from another; hence the male-female difference is found in most species, while truly "human" traits are not: "All the varied activities of economic production and distribution, all our arts and industries, crafts and trades, all our growth in science, discovery, government, religion--these are along the line of self-preservation: these are, or should be common to both sexes ... they are race-functions" (Women and Economics 52). The distinction between sex-functions and race-functions equates racial whiteness with personhood. To overcome the oversexed state that oppresses them, women must cultivate their personhood--in other words, their racial identity. In her fiction, Gilman depicts the West as the ideal environment for doing so--in Seitler's terms, it is a "regenerative space" to which women travel so that they may forge a more progressive community" (Introduction 9). In The Crux, Gilman depicts a community of single white women who emigrate to Wyoming, where they operate a successful boarding house. Eugenic marriage is a focal point of Gilman's vision for progressive gender relations. One of the women, Vivian, is romantically involved with a man, Morton, but when she discovers that he has syphilis, she rejects him, fearing that their marriage will produce unhealthy children. Vivian's racial characteristics are heightened at the moment she rejects Morton, who protests that Vivian is over-estimating the importance of his illness: "It seems so terrible to you just because you're so pure and white"; Morton despairs at her "white grace, her stately little ways, her delicate beauty, [which] had never seemed so desirable" (The Crux 143).
The "marriage roundup" analogy has left its traces on more recent feminist thought by way of Gayle Rubin's groundbreaking work of feminist anthropology, "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex" (1975). Branding tropes in early twentieth-century popular literature foreground the relations that Rubin would define as the "sex/gender system," the set of arrangements "by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity" (534). Elaborating on Claude Levi-Strauss's theory that women are living representations of the kinship relation between different families or groups (Rubin 201), Rubin argues that the social function of gender is to control reproductive sexuality in service of the kinship system (180). Anticipating Rubin's thought, the trope of cattle-branding highlights the ways in which female pleasure, sexuality, and maternity are co-opted into the service of a system that conflates patriarchal kinship with capitalist ownership. This trope draws the obvious analogy between the brand that marks a cow or horse as the property of a certain ranch and the status markers--single, married, divorced, widowed--that categorize women as belonging to a particular patriarch (her father, husband, and so on). Yet it also places the control of female reproduction at the heart of patriarchal kinship relations. The act of branding is itself the moment in which a patriarchal linguistic system akin to Lacan's Symbolic Order--complete with a phallus-wielding Father figure--intervenes in the calf's natural, pre-social bond with its mother. (13)
Popular westerns by women deserve a place in the history of feminist literature and thought because of these links to important nineteenth- and twentieth-century feminist discourses. They are also literary examples of eugenic feminism--the importance of which in early twentieth-century feminist thought has only recently been recognized. (14) Awareness of these texts changes our understanding of women's contribution to writing about the American West, which has been dominated by the assumption that women were not interested in and did not influence the production of popular western narratives. Read in a more critical light, these texts are also part of a discourse deployed to rewrite the history of American feminism by making the American West, and not the abolition movement, the origin of an American feminist consciousness. No longer regarding their cause as part of the broader human struggle for liberation, Anglo-American feminists and suffragists rewrote its history in terms of social-Darwinian narratives of racial progress. In so doing, they ignored or dismissed African American suffragists such as Mary Church Terrell, Coralie Franklin Cook, and Sylvanie Williams, all of whom urged their "sisters of the dominant race" not to exclude African American women from the movement (Ter-borg-Penn 66). As a poor substitute for earlier nineteenth-century slogans of sisterhood, but a rich metaphor through which to unpack the complex workings of gender and patriarchy, the figure of the branded calf resonates with both the accomplishments and the blunders that are the legacy of Anglo-American feminist thought.
1. One "behind-the-scenes" publicity photo, taken in 1893, depicts Oakley in her tent, seated in a rocking chair, reading. Her modest Victorian dress and well-appointed living quarters portray her as a model Victorian American lady (Savage 46).
2. Beginning in 1929, women were banned from competing in the most dangerous events and redirected to safer sports, such as barrel racing. For a history of the rodeo cowgirl, see Candace Savage.
3. Scholarship about women's western fiction has emphasized authors who write against popular conventions. An early and classic example is Annette Kolodny's The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860. Jane Tompkins has written that "when women wrote about the West, the stories they told did not look anything like what we know as the Western" (41-42). More recently, Susan Rosowski has demonstrated the influence of women writers, particularly their use of birth metaphors, in writing about the West.
4. Wyoming Territory granted women the vote in 1869. By 1911, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Washington, and California were suffrage states.
5. This caption accompanies an illustration of Liberty striding eastward across a map of the United States. Her torch lights up the suffrage states, while the remaining states are depicted in darkness; however, Liberty's purposeful stride implies that it is only a matter of time before enlightenment reaches the East as well.
6. For an in-depth analysis of The Rustler that contextualizes it in relation to the Johnson County War, domestic feminism, and canonical Western American literature, see Lamont.
7. According to my 1912 edition, published by Little Brown, the novel had been reprinted at least three times.
8. Bower would be in danger of disappearing from historical memory were it not for the efforts of a handful of Bower enthusiasts. Among these is Orrin A. Engen, who published a complete bibliography of her work, listing sixty-seven novels, over one hundred short stories, and a steady stream of positive reviews.
9. Bower's first novel, Chip of the Flying U (1906), has often been compared to The Virginian, although it is by no means a straight imitation of it. The immediate success of this novel led to a steady succession of novels by Bower about the fictional Flying U Ranch. While these novels often parodied the conventions of the popular Western, they nonetheless featured male-centered stories and themes.
10. While I have not been able to find precise sales figures for this novel, there is evidence that Houghton Mifflin invested substantially in its promotion and that it sold exceptionally well. Their records show several mail-outs to "special buyers," bookstores, and "the trade," and promotional material for Burt's subsequent books refers to the success of The Branding Iron. (Houghton Mifflin Papers. Fms AM 2030  #3, 5-7, 109. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge.)
11. For Turner, the transformational effects of the American frontier were limited to Europeans: "Our early history is the study of European germs developing in an American environment.... Little by little [the colonist] transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs ... the fact is, that here is a new product that is American" (2).
In the first volume of Winning of the West, Roosevelt claimed that Americans were the descendants of ancient "Germanic peoples," who were able to resist absorption into the Roman Empire and subsequently "went forth from their marshy forests conquering and to conquer.... [With] the discovery of America, a new period of even vaster race expansion began" (18-21).
For a discussion of Owen Wister's construction of an indigenous white identity in The Virginian (1902), see Tuttle, "Indigenous Whiteness and Wister's Invisible Indians."
12. This passage from Thomas Jefferson's Writings invokes both of these ubiquitous stereotypes: "[American Indian] women are submitted to unjust drudgery. This I believe is the case with every barbarous people. With such, force is law. The stronger sex imposes the weaker. It is civilization alone which replaces women in the enjoyment of their natural equality. That first teaches us to subdue selfish passions and to respect those rights in others which we value in ourselves" (qtd. in Pearce 93).
13. On the semiotics of branding, see Allmendinger 15-47. Allmendinger does not focus on how female sexuality figures in the semiotics of branding but does lay the groundwork for thinking about branding as a significant trope in western American literature.
14. For a discussion of Gilman's eugenic feminism, see Seitler, "Unnatural Selection." For a discussion of white-supremacist ideology, including eugenic theory, in American women's rights discourse more generally, see Newman.
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Publication information: Article title: Cattle Branding and the Traffic in Women in Early Twentieth-Century Westerns by Women. Contributors: Lamont, Victoria - Author. Journal title: Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers. Volume: 22. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2005. Page number: 30+. © 2008 University of Nebraska Press. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.