The notion that “women are vital to national security” is an insight I had last week in discussing Theda Perdue’s Cherokee Women and Susan Sleeper-Smith’s Indian Women and French Men with my early American women’s history course. Both books illustrate the importance of women (and women’s work) to the long-term stability and continuity of Indian survival and identity. In reflecting on the history of early European settlement in the Americas, the settlements that are more stable are the ones that include a higher percentage of women. All-male settlements tend to be extremely volatile and prone to violence, both intramural and extramural, and as Perdue and Sleeper-Smith illustrate, everyone was dependent on the 70-75% of calories that women’s agricultural work provide to their communities.
We don’t ordinarily think about women as critical to national security, because they rarely or never served as soldiers. But all-male installations look threatening to other peoples, whereas communities that include women and children are likelier to be trusted as peaceful dwellers or travelers rather than regarded with suspicion as military installations or as invaders. Juliana Barr’s recent book on the Texas frontier, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman, argues explicitly that Spanish missions and presidios were resented and mistrusted by Indian peoples because they were wary of these all- or overwhelmingly-male institutions.
Whether in my field and time period we’re talking about Jamestown ca. 1609, Spanish presidios in eighteenth-century Texas, or late eighteenth-century British trading posts on Lake Michigan, they’re all strikingly vulnerable and miserable compared to early American communities (European or Indian) that include a mixture of people of all ages and sexes. (Think about it: would you rather make your way in seventeenth-century Cherokee country, or a seventeenth-century English town in Virginia?) But unlike historians of Native American women, historians of Euro-American women haven’t emphasized the importance of their labor to the creation of peaceful and stable communities. I wonder if this is because women in Euro-American communities were so thoroughly excluded from any form of political participation or influence–but I have to think that this is also due perhaps to a blindness to the importance of women’s work within Euro-American communities.
Are historians of Euro-American women effectively collaborating in coverture by overlooking or denying the importance of the labor performed and items produced by colonial Euro-American women? It seems like a lot of the scholarship on women and work has focused more on second-wave feminist preoccupations like work-as-identity, or work as an arena for displaying talent or competence, rather than the bottom-line value of women’s labor.
I wonder what role those preoccupations may have had in inhibiting our ability to evaluate and write about the labor of enslaved women? That is, if our modern, middle-class prejudice is that work should be an affirming experience that underscores a woman’s value to her community, if it’s supposed to be something fulfilling–well, how can we possibly evaluate the labor performed by people whose labor was coerced and stolen from them? (This may intersect with the emphasis on “agency” in women’s history, Native American history, and African American history over the past twenty-five years. I don’t think historians have been entirely comfortable with the notion that for most of human history, work really sucked, and that there was little glamorous or empowering about it.)
One important caveat here is that the presence of women in Euro-American settler societies–especially Anglo-American settlements–was hardly a permanent fix for borderlands stability. Women (and men, too) contributed to a longer-term destabilization of national security, because of the relative health and fecundity of the Euro-American population in the English colonies, which were critical to the maintenance of the comparatively large and segregationist agrarian English colonies. A few generations down the road, and most English colonies were in need of annexing new lands for their daughters and sons–and this accelerated conflicts with the Native peoples, who were using those lands for their own agricultural communities.
Can any of you historians or cultural-studies types come up with other examples that either support or challenge the proposition that “women are vital to national security?”