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?) Continue Reading »