(Un)natural law: Women writers, the Indian, and the state in nineteenth-century America
AuthorRyan, Melissa Ann
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractThis project explores the intersecting discourses of the "Woman Question" and the "Indian Problem" from the market revolution of Jacksonian America through the early twentieth century. It examines how Indianness was legally and culturally constructed in the nineteenth century, from Jacksonian removal policy to the strategies of allotment and assimilation in later decades, identifying both legal and figurative parallels to the status of white women. As Native peoples were effectively erased under Anglo-American law, married women were likewise dispossessed by the laws of coverture, under which the identity of the wife was absorbed into that of her husband. Both white women and Native peoples experienced a form of "civil death"--or legal nonexistence--and both were deprived of personhood under the guise of protection. For women writers, then, Indian policy provided an opportunity to contemplate fundamental questions of citizenship, of personhood and property, of national and individual identity. Incorporating a wide range of texts, from the early nineteenth-century fiction of Lydia Maria Child and Catharine Maria Sedgwick to the later nineteenth-century writings of suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage and anthropologist Alice Fletcher, this study explores the various tensions--between individual sovereignty and maternal moral authority, between the language of rights and the language of sentiment--that defined the relationship between nineteenth-century white women and their Indian others, and considers how the Anglo-American tradition of possessive individualism often prevented these women from making sense of their experience with Native cultures. This study concludes with an examination of how Native women writers responded to and made use of white women's constructions of the Indian Problem. S. Alice Callahan, author of the first known novel by a Native woman, and writer-activist Zitkala-Sa carefully constructed their stories in the terms set out by women's rights discourse, inviting a readership of white women to engage with the Indian cause as an extension of their own agenda. Ultimately, even as white women's rights activists sought to subordinate the Indian Problem or to appropriate the Indian, these Native writers found in the Woman Question a way of speaking for themselves.
Degree ProgramGraduate College