Welcome to the second installment of the Junto Summer Book Club! We discussed the introduction and first chapter of Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs during Week 1. This week we’ll consider Chapters 2 and 3. With these chapters, Brown transports us across the Atlantic Ocean, shifting her focus from early modern Britain to the early years of English settlement in Virginia.
In Chapter 2, Brown applies the concept of the “gender frontier” to examine interactions between the English and the Algonquian-speaking Indians. As defined in Chapter 1, a gender frontier is “the meeting of two or more culturally specific systems of knowledge about gender and nature.” (33)
Brown characterizes the Anglo-Algonquian gender frontier as the meeting of two differently patriarchal societies. In Chapter 1, we learned about English preoccupations with patriarchy and gender difference. Chapter 2 juxtaposes these with Algonquian notions of gender: even as Algonquian women held important roles in corn production and the reproduction of culture, Algonquian men exercised significant control in political and religious life. According to Brown, the English and the Algonquians each used gender as a lens through which to interpret the other, a process that ultimately affirmed the importance of patriarchy in both societies.
To get today’s discussion going, I’ll pose several questions concerning the gender frontier. How useful is this concept, both for studying early Virginia and for studying other interactions between Europeans and Indians?
For Brown, a focus on the Anglo-Indian gender frontier has several virtues. First, it allows her to continue her insistence on the absolute centrality of gender. Second, it enables her to combat characterizations of Indian societies as having static pre-histories prior to contact with Europeans, and to instead emphasize that the English and Algonquians were similarly in the midst of internal transitions during the seventeenth century.
As Juntoist Roy Rogers commented last week, the concept is also “very teachable,” allowing students to “latch on to how the collision of gender norms can both sharpen and blur identities.”
Yet even a cursory perusal of key works in Native American history suggests many alternative metaphors and frameworks. We might instead emphasize, for instance, Dan Richter’s anti-teleological notion of “facing east,” or we might search for middle grounds, divided grounds, native grounds, or borderlands. At least in their original usages, some of these other concepts were quite specific—most obviously, Richard White used the “middle ground” to refer the Great Lakes region during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Subsequently, however, scholars have stretched the boundaries of these concepts and applied them to other times and places. In your own teaching, research, and thinking, do you find the “gender frontier” to be the most helpful concept for understanding early Virginia, or are there others that you find more applicable?
On a related note, it is striking that, unlike concepts such as the “middle ground,” the “gender frontier” is defined so broadly as to be applicable to virtually any time or place. Brown does not specify any particular kinds of power dynamics or interactions that are necessary in order for a gender frontier to exist. Pushing this point to its conclusion, in other words, it seems we might find gender frontiers everywhere, if only we look for them. Is this a strength of focusing on gender frontiers, or should the concept’s breadth be cause for concern?
One limit of a focus on gender frontiers is clear: for this author, it has nearly crowded out discussion of Chapter 3. In Chapter 3, Brown examines Virginia officials’ concerns with maintaining a “proper” gendered order even as men vastly outnumbered women. Early promoters attempted to encourage women to come to the colony and marry, but the mere presence of women did not ensure an orderly society. While some women adhered to the ideal of the “good wife” and assisted in household production, other women defied officials’ visions as they “turned to alternative traditions of female power: stinging verbal attacks, physical fights, and illicit sexual activity” (95).
Rather than extending this post even further, I’ll trust our able readers to continue the discussion of Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 below.
 Brown has further discussed the gender frontier in two shorter works. See Kathleen M. Brown, “Brave New Worlds: Woman’s and Gender History,” William and Mary Quarterly 50, no. 2 (April 1993): 311-328 and Kathleen M. Brown, “The Anglo-Indian Gender Frontier,” in Nancy Shoemaker, ed., Negotiators of Change: Historical Perspectives on Native American Women (New York: 1994), 26-48.
 For a few of the many works which other frameworks, see Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge: 2001); Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge, 1991); Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (New York, 2006); Kathleen Duval, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia, 2006); Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill: 2007).