Dispatches from Graduate School–Part 20

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University and a 2007 Messiah College history graduate. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

I would call few of the books assigned for class “page-turners.” Alfred Chandler, you are a good man, but The Visible Hand didn’t quite take hold of me. And one of the words I would not use to describe The Fall of the House of Labor is riveting. However, each monograph has a rightful place in the graduate seminar.
Understanding the transformation of the American economy in the mid-nineteenth century or the demise of a united labor front at the turn of the twentieth century are essential to piecing together a larger narrative of American history.

Every once and a while I am assigned a book that makes my usual approach to reading difficult. I typically use the following steps as a guide: 1. Read reviews. 2. Carefully examine the Table of Contents. 3. Read the prologue and the epilogue. 4. Skim chapters. I don’t like this process, but I’ve found it to be a necessary evil. I would love to sit down and read every single book (well, I take that back…most books) from front to cover, but that just isn’t realistic. For example, the second week of courses I was assigned three books, each more than 500 pages in length. I also had to write two essays and prepare two lectures. Now, some might be capable of such a feat. Me, not so much. I suppose if I had forgone sleeping and showering, church, and my requisite yoga classes (believe me, no yoga makes for an incorrigible Cali), then I might have been able to give a thorough reading to all 1500 pages.

This was yet another week full of an intimidating amount of reading. I still haven’t touched The Promise of a New South by Edward Ayers or the book assigned for Global Enivronmental History. But I just cannot put down White Mother to a Dark Race by Margaret Jacobs. Jacobs writes a comparative analysis of settler colonialism and indigenous child removal in the American West and in Australia. She reveals striking similarities between the two nations, particularly in a time when both the U.S. and Australia were bent on securing a more powerful place on the world stage. In her exploration of the American West, Jacbos shows how Indian removal allowed white women to leverage power, yet despite their heavy hands in the removal, rearing, and education of indigenous children, white women were ultimately subject to the male-dominated authority of the state—a state with an acute goal: to acquire land for the sake of nation-building.

White women in both the U.S. and Australia used a variety of means to justify transferring children from the care of their tribes to boarding schools, dormitories, and white homes, but most of their rationale fell under the umbrella of Christian charity. I found one excuse especially troubling. Women missionaries involved in removal zealously advocated for a sexual division of labor based on middle-class, Christian, white gender norms. According to Jacobs, these women believed that “‘true women’ oversaw domestic duties and guided affective relationships in the home while their husbands worked outside the home for pay.”[1] Indigenous sexual division of labor did not conform to this standard and thus white women actively upended the long-established traditions of both Indian and Aboriginal families.

When white women saw indigenous women engaged in what they perceived to be roles coded masculine—planting, harvesting, setting camp—they assumed that the indigenous women were enslaved to their idle husbands. And they set out enthusiastically to right such a wrong. What was so striking to me was that these white women no doubt used their interpretation of Scripture to defend removal. I immediately thought of Proverbs 31—an oft-cited passage describing a good Christian wife and mother. The following excerpt really complicates the white critique of indigenous labor:

She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.[2]

Although some of the above tasks were considered domestic and appropriate for women by nineteenth century standards, others were condemned or considered men’s work. How could missionary women, committed fully to spreading the gospel and Christianizing indigenous women (and men), have interpreted the physical labor of indigenous women as backward or oppressive when clearly, the godly woman from Proverbs engaged in similar tasks? This made me think about how our interpretation of Scripture is at times subject to the larger cultural and social patterns of the world in which we live (similar perhaps to how the women, despite their own maternal instincts and efforts, were subject to the demands of the state).

This both humbles and frightens me. In what activities do I engage in the spirit of Christian compassion or concern that in one hundred years will be understood as oppressive, judgmental, or misdirected? I can only hope that I am not completely blinded by my situatedness. I can also strive to be self-reflective enough to recognize my own prejudice and bias, and that I might leave a legacy not of unrestrained criticism, but of patience and perceptivity.

[1] Jacobs, 114.
[2]Proverbs 31: 13-19, ESV.

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