By Tiffany Johnstone
At the turn of the 20th century the North American nature writing movement produced many famous male writers such as Jack London and Hamlin Garland. Wilderness adventure writing of the time is notable for its masculinist and imperialist themes relating to manifest destiny. One of these writers, Canadian Ernest Thompson Seton (who initially went by the name Ernest Seton Thompson), is best known for his influential roles in pioneering the animal story genre and co-founding the boy-scout movement. While writers such as Thompson Seton were social activists arguing for environmental conservation and Aboriginal rights, they also played into more mainstream interpretations of outdoors adventure as a metaphor for increased militarization, continental expansion, and off-shore imperialism (Atwood). Women and the topic of women’s rights often get left out of the discussion surrounding turn of the 20th century nature literature. This omission undermines our collective memory of North American literary history and of feminist agitation on both sides of the border.
Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson (1872-1959) was married to Ernest Seton Thompson from 1896 to 1935 and her own impressive career as an adventure writer and suffragist demonstrates telling connections between nature literature and women’s rights. Born in California, Seton-Thompson wrote for local newspapers and later attended Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Part of a wealthy and socially connected family, she helped to establish her husband in the New York literary scene and worked closely with him on several of his books. Her own travel literature was autobiographical, humourous, and bravely polemical. Seton-Thompson wrote about her travels to countries including Japan, China, and Egypt. However, she started out her literary career by adopting the persona of a frontier adventure heroine. In her first book, A Woman Tenderfoot (1900), an account of her camping trip in the Canadian and American Rockies, she encouraged female readers to strive for increased physical (and social) mobility by taking trips to western regions of North America. Much of the nature writing of her male peers and predecessors depicted the natural world as a passive feminine space that must be conquered by the male traveller. Even 19th century female travel writers often adopted a sentimentalized view of nature as a feminine domain. This essentialism inflects even the more socially engaged literature of some early 20th century ecofeminist travel writers. One of the interesting aspects of Seton-Thompson’s frontier texts is her almost complete ambivalence to the natural world. Instead, adopting the tone and style of popular east coast magazine writing, she described the frontier in comic sketches as a performative space in the North American consciousness—one where men learned how to act out the ideas of individualism of manifest destiny. Typical of stunt-girl journalists of the time (Lutes), Seton-Thompson put herself in the middle of a series of physical trials, literally acting out masculinist wilderness roles including those of a miner, cowboy, and hunter. Avoiding almost all landscape description, Seton-Thompson focussed on guiding her female readers on how to perform the familiar masculine wilderness roles of the day that were associated in mainstream media with discourses of cultural agency, individualism, and the freedom and progress of westward expansion. She even designed a costume that allowed women to ride astride while appearing to ride side saddle in order to keep up appearances of femininity while actually achieving the physical freedom of their male peers. She thus showed her readers the ropes on how to access the male dominated tropes of nature writing, while also poking fun at the way that such tropes are gendered in the first place.
While Seton-Thompson avoided identifying too closely with the natural landscape of the west, she did tap into cultural perceptions of the frontier as a site of female emancipation. Women got the vote earlier in western parts of the United States (Mead) and iconic writers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote about the frontier as a mythic site of female liberation. Seton-Thompson’s commitment to women’s rights went beyond the page. In 1910, with her husband, she developed an organization, later known as the Camp Fire Girls, as a female counterpart to the boy scouts. From 1910 to 1920, she served as vice president and as president of the Connecticut Woman’s Suffrage Association. From 1926 to 1928 and 1930 to 1932, she presided as president over the National League of Pen Women. She was also committed to supporting other women writers. Serving as chair of letters for the National Council of Women from 1933-1938, she developed a collection of women’s literature that was then donated to Northwestern University.
As a prominent adventure writer, woman of the arts, and suffragist, Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson represents a vocal and influential feminist perspective on turn of the 20th century wilderness adventure literature. Seton-Thompson’s appropriation of such literature from a feminist perspective showed that culturally prioritized masculine wilderness activities were accessible to women and open to ongoing interpretation. Her work offers an important historic backdrop when 21st observers seek to understand the leadership of many women, from Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring (1962) to Elizabeth May, Canada’s first Green Party M.P., in the modern environmental movement.
Further Reading & Resources
Margaret Atwood. “The Grey Owl Syndrome.” In Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature by Margaret Atwood. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 35-61.
Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson Papers, 1878-1989; A-47. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Grace Thompson Seton Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass.
Lutes, Jean Marie. Front Page Girls: Women Journalists in American Culture and Fiction 1880-1930. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2006.
Mead, Rebecca. How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914. New York and London: New York University Press, 2004.
Mount, Nick. When Canadian Literature Moved to New York. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.
Seton-Thompson Gallatin, Grace. A Woman Tenderfoot. New York: Doubleday, Page and Co, 1900.
Skidmore, Colleen, ed. This Wild Spirit: Women in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2006.