Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"What Shall Be Done with Her?" Frances Fuller Victor Analyzes "The Woman Question" in Oregon

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"What Shall Be Done with Her?" Frances Fuller Victor Analyzes "The Woman Question" in Oregon

Article excerpt

ON DECEMBER 5, 1873, Far West author Frances Fuller Victor launched her serialized novella "Judith Miles; or, What Shall be Done with Her?" in The New Northwest, an equal-rights newspaper. The story features an extremely beautiful sixteen-year-old protagonist, Judith, the daughter of an irascible, poor cattle rancher who is fighting for his land against powerful San Joaquin Valley farmers. Faced with multiplying financial misfortunes, Jack Miles decides to take his family back to ranchland in Texas, where they once lived. As they drive their rickety, overloaded wagon through the Arizona desert, Apache Indians brutally attack the band of travelers, leaving Judith as the sole survivor.

Before the story reaches this climax, Victor illustrates the tragic reality of women's dependence on and subjugation to men in the late-nineteenth-century West through descriptions of the fictional family's life and impoverished circumstances. Jack Miles, a man "deaf to argument and persuasion alike," mercilessly drives his family on the exhausting trek from Texas to California, resulting in his wife's death during childbirth. Judith then assumes her mother's role, raising her precocious little sister in a cheerless household. Judith yearns for education, but her father's insular worldview provokes rage against "book larnin'" and modernity. To Jack, his daughter's rudimentary ability to read is enough "for a gal." Judith therefore hides a precious cache of poetry and literature and fantasizes about the world beyond their ranch. At the time of her father's death in the Arizona desert, she is utterly dependent, with no skills or resources. Her tangled emotions and material circumstances no doubt contribute to the "brain fever" she suffers on the traumatic loss of her family after the Apache assault. (1)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Found lying in the Arizona desert several days later, Judith is taken to Fort Kellogg, where her vulnerability is a source of fascination to the officers' wives, but it also leaves Judith susceptible to exploitation. Once she recovers from illness, the fort's drunken, lecherous colonel preys on her fragile emotional state and naivete, sexually harassing her. Rather than coming to her defense, the colonel's wife blames Judith for her husband's unwanted advances. Judith's position as an unattached woman becomes untenable. Within days she is told to leave, cast from the protection of the fort. Put on a stagecoach for San Francisco, an apprehensive but hopeful Judith looks forward to making her own way in the world as an independent woman, determined to rise above the barriers of class and sex oppression that threaten to overwhelm her. (2)

Judith's plight is expressed in Victor's subtitle, "What shall be done with her?" Victor cleverly uses the question throughout the narrative to explore the complexities of nineteenth-century gender and class relations. Never directed toward Judith but instead asked of others, the query reiterates the vulnerabilities of a young woman without family or resources. In a conversation before Judith boards the stagecoach to San Francisco, for example, an agitated military officer asks the doctor's wife: "What is to be done with her at the end of this journey? Do not I know that a young girl cannot be left to herself in a strange city? Has she money? Has she friends?" Exasperated with the barrage of questions, the woman retorts: "What shall be done with her?" (3) She suggests providing Judith with letters of introduction to wealthy women in San Francisco. What Judith wishes to do with herself is a question never posed. Thus, each time a character in the novella wonders what to do with "poor" Judith, Victor's women readers can see a mirror of their own dependency and vulnerability and ask: "What shall we do with ourselves?"

Seeking answers to that question, Victor, born in 1826, joined the first American revolutionaries who called for women's equal rights, adding her voice to a generational and ideological cohort of social-justice advocates that was national as well as regional. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.