The State of Research on Pacific Northwest Women

By Blair, Karen J. | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The State of Research on Pacific Northwest Women

Blair, Karen J., Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

I began my investigation of the scholarly literature on Pacific Northwest women's history when I moved to Seattle to teach local women's history in 1979 and immediately engaged in a search to locate secondary sources to bolster my students' and my own research. I was discouraged to learn that, compared to the American South, New England, or the Southwest, the studies in this region have been skimpy on all but a handful of topics. I decided to initiate a thorough search to review scholarly books and articles published throughout history that explored women's history in the Pacific Northwest for the years 1787-1970. I chose 1970 as an ending point because that is the year Washington State passed the Equal Rights Amendment. In the space of fifteen years, I perused over two thousand scholarly works, including textbooks, reference works, journals, edited memoirs, and university press monographs on Washington and Oregon history to scavenge material on Northwest women. Finally, I isolated seven hundred sources, incl uding books and articles but oftentimes mere chapters or sections of chapters in larger studies of the Northwest's past. The result was published in 1997 as Northwest Women: An Annotated Bibliography of Sources on the History of Oregon and Washington Women, 1787-1970 (Pullman: Washington State University Press), which won the American Library Association prize for best bibliography in history that year.

I expected my efforts to yield a treasure trove of neglected sources that documented a huge spectrum of women's lives and activities. Surely, the women alongside the well-documented male loggers, sailors, miners, homesteaders, ranchers, laborers, union activists, entrepreneurs, Indian chiefs, generals, and government officials had been studied by scholars. Surely, the accomplishments of busy wives, nurses, teachers, social workers, homemakers, club members, missionaries, cooks, prostitutes, seamstresses, piano teachers, farmers, actresses, entertainers, and cannery workers had already been documented. To my surprise and distress, my findings showed that historians of the Pacific Northwest left us much to do. The bulk of attention had gone only to a few topics while enormous arenas had been left unexamined by historians.

Which Pacific Northwest women in history have enjoyed the most attention from researchers? I discovered that four topics have absorbed the lion's share of attention--the Protestant missionaries, especially Narcissa Prentiss Whitman; pioneer homesteaders, with special affection for their overland trail experiences; Native Americans, but particularly Sacajawea, who accompanied Lewis and Clark on the exploratory expedition of the region of 1803-1806; and women's club activities. In all four categories, the bulk of the publications were descriptive more than analytical. If any perspective was offered, it was generally laudatory. Most often, the focus was on individual women and the strong character they demonstrated in the face of hardship.

No one has enjoyed more and better press from researchers than Narcissa Whitman, the wife of Dr. Marcus Whitman. Together, they established a Protestant mission in the 1830s in the area now known as Walla Walla, Washington. Almost universally she is presented by researchers as selfless and well-meaning, devoted to the conversion of Northwest Indians to Christianity and a martyr in the Cayuse massacre of 1838. Similarly, the missionary efforts of Anna Pittman Lee, Mary Walker, Myra Eells, and French Canadian Roman Catholic nun Mother Joseph (Esther Pariseau) have also been widely noted and praised for fortitude in civilizing the heathen. Only one modern historian, Julie Roy Jeffrey, has rigorously dissected Narcissa Whitman's story in the context of imperialism, women's rights, and social control, which leads to a less than laudatory assessment of the missionary's role. (1)

The anonymous pioneer homesteading family, rooted by the ambitious, hardworking farmer and his tenacious wife, has been a tenet of Northwest mythology. …

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