- Resistance to Containment and Conquest in Sarah Winnemucca's Life Among the Piutes and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's Who Would Have Thought It?
As Amy Kaplan discusses, the concept of the nation as a domestic space tied widely held views of womanhood and domesticity directly to nation building. While earlier attitudes confined women strictly to the home and to raising children, technological advances and an expanding nation changed women's roles and redefined the purpose and scope of the domestic sphere. At the same time, on a national level, continued westward expansion unsettled the boundaries between what was domestic and what was foreign. Kaplan notes, "In this context domestic has a double meaning that not only links the familial to the nation but also imagines both in opposition to everything outside the geographic and conceptual border of the home" (581). She continues, "When we contrast the domestic sphere with the market or political realm, men and women inhabit a divided social terrain, but when we oppose the domestic to the foreign, men and women become national allies against the alien, and the determining division is not gender but racial demarcations of otherness" (582). The Indian Wars and the US–Mexican War expanded the territory of the United States, but these conquests also brought new racial others into the nation. While the country was expanding, Anglo women—seen as moral authorities—took on the role of protecting the domestic space of the home from the foreign. Of American conquest Kaplan asserts, "While it strove to nationalize and domesticate foreign territories and peoples, annexation incorporated nonwhite foreign subjects in a way perceived to undermine the nation as a domestic space" (585). In a new, expanded [End Page 379] role, Women were not only policing their own homes but were tasked with managing the formation of nationalistic ideals—and the rhetoric of the time, both political rhetoric and the conventions of the cult of domesticity and the domestic space as seen in the sentimental novel, reinforced Anglo women's new role.
Sentimental novels of the nineteenth century reflected this shift and the changing role of the women Kaplan discusses. Through well-used and well-recognized tropes, sentimental fiction worked to show the importance of women to the project of nation building. Earlier examples often focused on young, unmarried women, but with the expanding nation came new roles for women and new themes in sentimental novels. Fiction for women in the mid-nineteenth century centered on pious, married, middle- and upper-class women and the influence they held over others. While not advocating for women in political spheres, sentimental novels now showed women as providing the building blocks of the expanding nation. Anglo women became agents of change through the home—or extensions of the home such as churches and hospitals—where they could impart nationalistic, Anglo values to their children and others with whom they had contact. And as Kaplan describes it, nineteenth-century sentimental novels "explore the breakdown of the boundaries between internal and external spaces, between the domestic and the foreign, as they struggle to renegotiate and stabilize these domains" (600).
American Anglo women sought roles as agents of change through the home—spreading republican values to build a solid base for a new, expanding nation. Women's work through the domestic space mirrors the work men were doing in conquering new lands—the men secured the lands while the women transformed the people. So where does domestic rhetoric and a focus on the importance of protecting the domestic space leave women of color in an expanding nation built on Anglo ideals? Through their works, Life Among the Piutes (1883) and Who Would Have Thought It? (1872), Sarah Winnemucca and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton rally against [End Page 380] and write through these "national narratives of containment" that aim to keep Native and Mexican American women of the West out of the public consciousness and safely passive against the machine of western expansion (Piatote 52). Both use the sentimental novel form to critique the domestic rhetoric of the time and to place Native and Mexican American women on equal if not superior...