Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Nancy C. Unger's "Beyond Nature's Housekeepers"

Nancy C. Unger is Associate Professor of History at Santa Clara University. She is the author of the prize-winning biography Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer, and book review editor of The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History, and reported the following:
Most of page 99 is taken up by the cartoon “Sweeping Back the Flood” [below left, click to enlarge] that appeared in the San Francisco Call on December 13, 1909. I’m delighted it falls on page 99, because it illustrates perfectly that my book is less a presentation of “great women in environmental history,” and more of a study on how perceptions of gender have shaped environmental attitudes and actions from the pre-Columbian period through present day environmental justice movements.

On page 98 we learn that pioneering educator and psychologist G. Stanley Hall charged that “caring for nature was female sentiment, not sound science.” The cartoon ridicules preservationist John Muir’s efforts to prevent the flooding of California’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, sister valley to Yosemite. What better way to make Muir appear both impotent and feminine (that is, silly and sentimental) than to clothe him in a dress, apron, and flowered bonnet, fussily and fruitlessly trying to hold back the flood of progress?

Below the cartoon is the beginning of a paragraph describing several San Francisco officials who testified before the U.S. House Committee on Public Lands that use should take precedence over beauty. Marsden Manson, San Francisco’s city engineer, described those who wanted to preserve Hetch Hetchy Valley in thinly veiled homophobic terms as “short haired women and long haired men.”

Page 99 is also a good representation of the book’s many cartoons, drawings, and photographs. They help illustrate the explorations of the narrative, revealing the synergy between environment, sex, sexuality, and gender. Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History features Native Americans, colonists, enslaved field workers, pioneers, homemakers, municipal housekeepers, immigrants, hunters, nature writers, soil conservationists, scientists, migrant laborers, nuclear protesters, and environmental justice activists. Through their stories, the book reveals how women have played a unique role, for better and sometimes for worse, in the shaping of the American environment.
Learn more about Beyond Nature's Housekeepers at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue