Frontiers of Femininity: A New Historical Geography of the Nineteenth-Century American West
by Karen M. Morin

Syracuse University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8156-3167-5.
Reviewed by Susan M. Andrus
Posted on 03/20/2009

Nonfiction: History; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: American Women in Their Cultural/Historical Context

Historical geography looks at the interactions of the people, places, and events that led to the development of a certain place. Although this scholarly book may be too formal for casual readers, for those interested in women's history as it relates to the geography of the nineteenth-century American West, Karen M. Morin's book shows how British women's visits to the U.S. had an impact on this region and influenced the perception of women at the time.

A collection of essays, Morin's book deals with British women of means who traveled to America as tourists and researchers writing about their experiences, sketching plants and scenery, and reporting on natural resources for British companies interested in investing in mining and logging. Illustrations, maps, and quotations from women's writings add much to the content.

Besides showing how different women impacted the American West, excerpts from the writings of these women—their observations, biases and strengths—create a different view toward settling the region. One woman, Marianne North, a well-known world traveler during the nineteenth century, wrote as a botanist and painted flowers and other vegetation for Britain's Kew Gardens in an effort to record rapidly vanishing species.

In Frontiers of Femininity, Morin compared conflicting social demands with emerging feminist perceptions that challenged the prevailing nineteenth-century gender hierarchy. Women wrote, sewed, and sketched flowers and scenery, but they also climbed, explored, negotiated, and farmed.

Probably the most interesting chapter, "Postcolonialism and Native American Geographies," shows Rosalie La Flesche Farley, a Native American (Omaha) who managed her family's land and wrote letters to her brother who worked for the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington, DC. Farley negotiated contracts, managed the land, arranged leasing contracts, and defended the Omaha land with a thorough knowledge of Native and Anglo-American law. She demonstrated intelligence and strength while showing compassion toward those who failed to understand how they were being cheated of their lands.

Although the book is well-written and interesting, readers should be warned that the required reading level is high.

Karen M. Morin is professor of geography at Bucknell University. Her articles have appeared in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers and Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, among others. She is coeditor of Women, Religion, and Space: Global Perspectives on Gender and Faith. Read more about Karen on her Bucknell faculty webpage.

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