Women and Western American Literature

By Helen Winter Stauffer; Susan J. Rosowski | Go to book overview

The Western Roots of Feminism
in Agne Smedley's Daughter of Earth

Kathleen L. Nichols

Although many writers have advanced the idea that the American consciousness was shaped, in part, by the frontier experience, western literature too often focuses on only half of the story-namely, the male side of the western experience. However, Agnes Smedley's autobiographical novel, Daughter of Eartb ( 1929), can provide us with part of the other half of the story-the effect of the western experience on women's lives, as viewed by a woman who attributed her feminist attitudes to the corrosive effects of growing up female on the disappearing frontier at the turn-of-the-century.

The West that Smedley introduces is a Hamlin Garland world of struggle, poverty, and oppression. In particular, Smedley looks at the oppression experienced by poor women in the West, delineating in her fictional counterpart, Marie Rogers, the damaging effects these negative role models had upon the developing consciousness of a young frontier girl. Yet in the lives of these doubly oppressed western women struggling to survive economic hardship along with their men, as well as sexist exploitation by the western male, Smedley also locates the values of loyalty, courage, and dedication which would later form the basis of her political beliefs and, during the 1930s, take her to revolutionary China, where she became a world-famous political activist.

Smedley's novel begins with the adult Marie Rogers "at the end of one life and on the threshold of another." Having recently sacrificed her marriage to the exigencies of her husband's political career, and planning to leave America forever, Marie faces an uncertain future numbly wondering whether her new political work "that is limitless in its scope and significance" will

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