Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History

Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History

Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History

Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History


From pre-Columbian times to the environmental justice movements of the present, women and men frequently responded to the environment and environmental issues in profoundly different ways. Although both environmental history and women's history are flourishing fields, explorations of the synergy produced by the interplay between environment and sex, sexuality, and gender are just beginning. Offering more than biographies of great women in environmental history,Beyond Nature's Housekeepersexamines the intersections that shaped women's unique environmental concerns and activism and that framed the way the larger culture responded. Women featured include Native Americans, colonists, enslaved field workers, pioneers, homemakers, municipal housekeepers, immigrants, hunters, nature writers, soil conservationists, scientists, migrant laborers, nuclear protestors, and environmental justice activists. As women, they fared, thought, and acted in ways complicated by social, political, and economic norms, as well as issues of sexuality and childbearing. Nancy C. Unger reveals how women have played a unique role, for better and sometimes for worse, in the shaping of the American environment.


“A lack of cross-field knowledge”

sex, sexuality, and gender as useful categories
in environmental history

“Nothing in Sight but Nature”

When John Jones became “carried away with the idea” of crossing the continent to live in California, his wife’s first reaction was, “Oh, let us not go.” But Mary A. Jones’s objection “made no difference … & on the 4th day of May 1846 we joined the camp for California.” Used to the privileges and relative ease of white middle-class life, Mary Jones was exhausted by the rigors of the overland journey. She was also pregnant. Upon their arrival she was occupied with the new baby and preferred not to travel any more than was necessary. She relented, however, when her husband, who had been scouting the countryside for a homesite, insisted that she make a preliminary trip to see his selection. “We camped that night,” she recalled. “My husband stopped the team and said ‘Mary, have you ever seen anything more beautiful?’” the young wife and mother was repulsed rather than impressed, noting with horror, “There was nothing in sight but nature. Nothing … except a little mud and stick hut.” Mary Jones, notes historian Lillian Schlissel, “found nothing grand, nothing wonderful, nothing to suggest what her husband so clearly saw. She and other women did not find the new country a land of resplendent opportunities. They heard their children crying and longed for home.”

Why did so many men and women of the same race and class have such different and visceral reactions to the same landscape? Why did the majority of the white middle-class men on the overland trails in the mid-nineteenth century embark . . .

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