Summer Book Club, Week 2

Cover ImageWelcome 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.[1]

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.[2] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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).

4 comments on “Summer Book Club, Week 2

  1. Thanks for your introduction to these chapters, Sara. I’m going to compound the neglect of Chapter 3 because I’d rather talk about gender frontiers. The concept certainly shakes up earlier ways of thinking about power by making gender (and sexuality) central to the story of cultural encounters. It may be titillating to talk about European men having sex with Native or African women, but these acts were never merely sexual – they were also political, not only in that moment but in the way that each culture interpreted both the interaction and the other culture.

    For me, the malleability of the concept makes the chapter (or its predecessor article) an especially effective teaching tool. I’ve used the chapter in a Native American history course (shameless plug) paired with some of the Mexican Casta paintings, through which I encouraged students to think about the differing operation of a gender frontier in Virginia and Mexico. We also drew on earlier readings about Aztec culture (an article by Caroline Pennock), the Maya (Inga Clendinnen), and Pueblo (Ramon Gutierrez).

    Two things were striking to me about these conversations in class. (Well, three, because I clearly realized that I need to re-organize the course next time so that the gender material is all together.) First, much of that other scholarship is not in conversation with Brown, even if it was written later and so could be. To me, that seemed as much a function of the way scholarship divides geographically (and a sign that Brown’s book, as much as it’s about gender, race, etc. is often seen as a Virginia book, for better or worse). Some of it certainly would make sense to be given the mutual issues, which is my second striking point. That is, the prevalence in European-Native interactions of mutual misunderstanding of the culture of sex and gender relations in so many places, and in so many ways, regardless of which Native group and which European group (Catholic vs. Protestant, English, French, Spanish, etc.). I don’t want to limit “gender frontier” to a “sex frontier,” but that seemed to be a crucial part of how the concept operated, both in Virginia and elsewhere.

    Looking forward to hearing others’ thoughts.

  2. Kent Peacock says:

    First, as a graduate student who has not had the chance to teach my own courses yet, I am glad that others have had positive experiences in the classroom with this work, or at least the concept of gender frontier. This is because of both how much I enjoy and admire Brown’s work and I was going to use it (Brown’s article or the second chapter in Good Wives) when I did have the chance to teach a history of gender/sexuality in the United States or United States survey.
    As mentioned in the comments posted so far, what is somewhat shocking is how little space Brown gives to the term “gender frontier” in Good Wives, although it is one of the things most remembered about the book. It appears in Chapter 2, but never again, if the index and my memory from first reading this a few years ago can be trusted. This leaves the question of why Brown does not continue to use the term to help describe the social and economic organization of Virginian society —as I think she should and could have. Is it because she does not want to use it as the only cause of gender “disorder” and subsequent laws about gender in Virginia? Or does she feel that the gender frontier between Native Peoples and the English slowly disappears over time, especially as fewer and fewer Indians live close to English settlements (a process greatly furthered after the failed 1622 attack on Jamestown that gave the English government little reason to stop the killing/removal of any Indians who remained near English settlements). However, as Brown discusses in Chapter 4, could one argue that there is a new gender frontier that occurs around this time between the English and Africans? Not to get ahead of the group, but Brown does not continue to use the term gender frontier in this chapter.
    Maybe I am expanding Brown’s concept too much, but I wonder how “culturally specific” the “systems of knowledge about gender and nature” need to be. (33) In other words, can one look for a gender frontier within a larger (national) culture. For example, in the third chapter, can one consider the conflicts between “good wives” and “nasty wenches,” which is primarily a class distinction, a gender frontier? While each may share some common understandings of gender/nature, do they not, when each confronts the other, help to affirm both the fluidity of gender and how natural it is? And, in the setting of the New World, these conflicts became more problematic because they confused the line between Indian and English, savage and civilized, etc. These conflicts over the proper roles of women and men then become inscribed in law, partially as a reaction to these meetings on the gender frontier (whether between groups of Englishmen/women or between the English and Native peoples or between the English and Africans). And what becomes law and daily practices then becomes understood as natural or at least without historical change. Thus, Brown could/should have continued to use the term to explain how the court cases and laws that appear in early Virginia are partially the result of the various gender frontiers at work. What is also missing from Brown’s work is how gender frontiers are not just a one-time meeting. It is something that continuously occurs between people and cultures. This is missing in regards to Indians and English after Brown’s Second Chapter as Native Peoples are not a part of the chapter.
    A modern day example might help explain my thoughts on gender frontiers more. As a teacher in a college or university setting we encounter individuals from all parts of the nation and the world. In our interactions with students, our gender (through the ways it is expressed—in clothing, speech, gestures, etc.) is highlighted as we notice it in contrast/comparison to the student’s. Normally this is not a big deal, or even goes unnoticed, as these interactions are often with people who grew up and live in a culture that defines gender in a very similar way to our own. But differences because of the region of the country one is from, growing up in an urban vs. rural area, or being a part of a different religious tradition can all become apparent in these interactions, even though we might both be a part of “American” culture. In each interactions, we become aware that we are performing gender, as is the other person, and how fluid gender can be. But in realizing that we are performing gender, we also understand how natural or unconscious it is because we do it so often without ever thinking about it. It is both fluid and stable at the same time.
    Perhaps I stretch the meaning of gender frontier too much, but still I think the concept is extremely useful. As other commenters mention, it is something that can be applied on a broad scale— it can help explain a part of first contact between Native Peoples and the Spanish or Portuguese, the Dutch and Africans, or the English and Indians (on the subcontinent). It also points directly to the significance of gender in these encounters, understandings, misunderstandings, and justification for conquest. While sexual activity is definitely a strong part these encounters, the gender frontier is much more than that. It is about economics, political representation, and social order. Thus, as Brown has argued (and will continue to argue in the following chapters) societies use gender as the reasoning for so much, often to create great inequalities between people. It is an essential part to understanding the creation of Virginia. Still, I cannot figure out why Brown does not continue to use the concept after Chapter 2 as part of her explanation for why Virginian society became (legally) structured the way it did.

  3. […] relationships of power whose histories intersect and mutually shape one another,” while in the second we focused on Brown’s concept of the “gender frontier” as a way of thinking about […]

  4. Coming in a bit late to this — the things you miss when a move robs you of a week’s internet…

    I’ll just quickly add that in addition to the “grounds” and “facing” metaphors mentioned for Native history, one that’s stuck with me that is perhaps indebted to Brown’s concept of gender frontiers is Juliana Barr’s formulation of “cultural cognates” (I don’t know if she coined the term, but it appears in her 2007 book, which I see has been footnoted above).

    Barr similarly sees gender as a central lens for early interactions between Europeans and Natives, though in an entirely different setting and with a very different cast of characters than Brown examines. The difference in their narratives is that Brown’s gender frontiers are primarily used to construct identity through difference and hierarchy, whereas Barr’s cultural cognates of masculinity and femininity allow for diplomacy by providing a means of mutually intelligible communication. Nevertheless, the idea of a “cognate” as a way of understanding a new culture has appealed to me since reading Barr’s work. It’s a model that students with language learning experience may be able to grasp quickly, while we don’t necessarily want students carrying their no doubt expansive attachments of the word “frontier” into their understanding of this historical moment.

    In fact, even aside from the unpleasant implications of the word “frontier,” the notion of a “gender frontier” isn’t necessarily one that appeals to me. It seems potentially confusing, appearing to imply a sort of dynamism or even some form of geographic movement (unidirectional or otherwise) that doesn’t seem to accompany her definition. Perhaps, as a comment above suggests, it’s Brown’s reluctance to fully unpack the phrase that leaves it a bit unsatisfying to me.


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