- Nature's Altars: Mountains, Gender, and American Environmentalism
In Nature's Altars: Mountains, Gender, and American Environmentalism, Susan Schrepfer explores how men and women understood mountains in the century following the Civil War. Nature's Altars both recasts how we view mountains and also takes fuller account of how gender has mattered in the history of the environment.
Schrepfer begins her story in the years following the Civil War, when modern understandings of the mountains first emerged as Americans "discovered" the west and its treasures. One of the most immediate ways that gender found expression was in the process of naming the environment. Men did the naming and [End Page 457] with few exceptions identified most topographies with references to male conquerors of the environment. Those landscapes given feminine names were frequently sexualized. Over time, into the early twentieth century, this trend grew more pronounced and female-named places received newer masculine names. And, the higher the mountain, the more likely that it was to have received a manly name. Women's names, meanwhile were more likely to be given to bodies of water, because they provided beauty and adornment to the craggy manhood of the mountains. Naming the vertical spaces of the environment in this fashion mirrored broader understandings of nature, including conceptions of class and ethnicity as well. It is not surprising that middle-class professional men—those who did most of the naming—believed that they understood nature better than most of the folks who actually lived there, whether Native American or working-class.
The system of naming reflected the mixed emotions with which men approached mountains, with fear and trepidation but also seeking to dominate and protect. In these reactions, Schrepfer convincingly argues men's language was built on Victorian understandings of manhood, as well as broader Western conceptions of the body. Embedded in all this was a sense that nature was feminine, and to control it, like controlling one's body, was an act of manliness. As mountaineers struggled to come to terms with women, nature, and society, they developed a ritualistic approach to the sport of alpinism, as well as a convention for describing the sublime heights of the mountains.
For women, the language of domesticity emerged full of ambivalence during the Victorian era, becoming no less contradictory in the twentieth century. As "new women" became more assertive, taking on more difficulty climbs and shedding skirts, the frame of mountains as a "home and garden" became the dominant trope. And, then, in the 1930s, women abruptly disappeared from the mountains, clubs, and public face of alpinism; ironically, the language of "feminine sublime" may have become more ingrained in the culture. Ultimately the masculine approach to nature would come to define the wilderness experience at the middle of the twentieth century. Building on the Victorian ideals—and in the context of the industrial economy with its middle-class offices—men emphasized defeating nature by disciplining themselves and through individual achievements made with a team of other men.
A master of sources with a clear narrative voice, Schrepfer's analysis is both compelling and occasionally surprising. Throughout Shrepfer mines wide- ranging and diverse sources, although the vast majority is taken from the writing of middle-class professionals—an approach justified in no small part by the importance of those elites in writing about the mountains and defining the direction of the environmental movement. Schrepfer's analysis is both compelling and refreshing. At a time when too much gender scholarship asserts that gender matters—with authors regurgitating theory or imposing it on their narratives—Schrepfer builds her argument from the source material itself. Not only does she carefully makes the case that gender matters, but also reveals how it mattered. Reveling in contradictions, subtle historical changes, and evolving social norms, Schrepfer allows her sources to guide her discussion. We hear, as we read, the ways that men and women approached gender in different ways, and the subtleties in their approaches. This complexity emerges in, for example, John Muir's [End Page 458...