History

For Me, but Not for Thee

How white feminism failed Native Americans in the late-19th century.

Alice Fletcher sits in the box of an unhitched but fully loaded wagon.
Alice Fletcher sits in the box of an unhitched but fully loaded wagon. E. Jane Gay/Idaho State Historical Society

In the fall of 1879, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, a 41-year-old white woman in Brooklyn, found an unexpected new outlet for her feminism. She attended a lecture at Boston’s Faneuil Hall given by Chief Standing Bear, a leader of the Ponca Tribe. He was touring the East Coast with the Omaha translator Susette “Bright Eyes” La Flesche and her brother Francis, aiming to gain support for the Poncas’ plight. Fletcher was struck by Susette La Flesche’s eloquence, grasping that “the door of language could be unlocked and intelligent relations made possible between the two races.”

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Alice Fletcher had been a leader of the burgeoning clubwomen scene in New York for a decade. These clubs shattered decorum, bringing “talented, cultivated and beneficent women” together in public at halls and restaurants without the customary accompaniment of men. The clubwomen movement was distinct from other 19th-century movements organized by white women, such as the strident, political activism of Susan B. Anthony and especially Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the high-handed, emotion-driven patronage of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Clubwomen, by contrast, drew upon white women’s alleged moral authority to carve out a place for themselves in the country’s social and professional institutions. Their societies sought access, not civil rights or social transformation. They had a collective goal, though a highly limited one: to promote the personal and career success of bourgeois white women.

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Attending Standing Bear’s lecture expanded Fletcher’s life direction. She became the most prominent white woman activist for Native rights of her era. She did so by positioning Native people as her charges and herself as the benevolent and powerful white mother. “The Indians cling to me like children,” she wrote to her mentor from the Nez Perce Reservation in northern Idaho, “and I must and will protect them.”

What clubwomen like Fletcher found is that U.S. engagement with Native peoples offered white American woman a profound opportunity. In fact, Indian removal forms a significant episode in the history and counterhistory of white feminism. The machinery of civilization threatened to pulverize Native people into mere remnants of the past—and white women would reap many of the profits.

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Fletcher shared the civilizing impulse universal to white feminism of her era, though we might call the specific philosophy she and the other clubwomen in Indian reform developed “settler feminism.” Their method was severance: severing Indigenous children from their parents and tribes and severing communally held lands into individual property allotments, subjugating Native people to the patriarchal and monogamous norms of settler life. Meanwhile, the more Fletcher dispossessed Native women and tribes of their traditional social roles, the more she broke through norms herself and gained increased political and social power. She became the first woman to be appointed to a research position at Harvard, a full 85 years before the institution even admitted female undergraduates. Her prolific output made her the most respected and influential woman scientist of the last quarter of the 19th century.

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In October 1881, two years after she had attended Standing Bear’s Boston lecture, Alice Fletcher had made her way to South Dakota, where she gained an audience with Sitting Bull, who just a few years before had executed the most successful resistance ever mounted by Indigenous groups in U.S. history. Now, Sitting Bull and his band were in U.S. custody. Alice Fletcher sat somewhat awkwardly in a tight-waisted, full-skirted dress around a fire in Sitting Bull’s tent. Sitting Bull explained to Fletcher that desperate hunger had compelled him to surrender three months prior.

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A young woman and two children stand in front of a skin tepee.
A young woman and two children stand in front of a skin tepee. E. Jane Gay/Idaho State Historical Society
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As Sitting Bull spoke, his younger wife entered the tepee and threw sticks on the fire before reclining in its glow. Adroitly leaning upon one elbow, she turned her eyes upon Fletcher, no doubt assessing this unusual newcomer. The budding anthropologist looked back, cataloging the woman’s bright eyes, good looks, and brass bracelets. Sitting Bull, too, gazed upon his wife, before once more addressing Fletcher.

“You are a woman,” he began slowly while Buffalo Chip (Omaha) interpreted. “Take pity on my women, for they have no future. The young men can be like the white men, till the soil, supply the food and clothing. They will take the work out of the hands of the women, and the women, to whom we have owed everything in the past, will be stripped of all which gave them power and position among the people. Give a future to my women!”

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Fletcher found herself a guest of Sitting Bull’s because she had traveled west to study “the life of Indian women.” Earlier that year, Fletcher had approached Susette La Flesche, who arranged for Fletcher to camp with the Omaha in Nebraska for three weeks before traveling northward to the Sioux. To gain permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs agents to enter the reservations, she secured research sponsorship from the Peabody Museum and the federal Bureau of Ethnology.

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“I wish to get at Indian women’s life from the inside,” she had written to bureau director John Wesley Powell, “and as the segregation of the sexes is marked among barbarous people, I trust that being a woman I may be able to observe and record facts and conditions” inaccessible to male anthropologists. Now she was collecting prime data straight from one of the country’s most notorious Native rebels.

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Anthropology, as it was understood in the 19th century, was the science that investigated the evolution of human society. Anthropologists approached the entire history of human culture as one linear process of development from savagery to barbarism, to civilization. In this rigid model, only Europeans had arrived at civilized maturity. Racialized people were figured as specimens of arrested development, frozen in earlier life stages of humanity.

Alice Fletcher made several early innovations in anthropology’s methods and application. Her first contribution was to argue that Native societies, because they were the imagined origins of her own, thus held the clue to understanding the oppression of women in civilization. Fletcher would not only promote the further development of professional white women—she intended to also pinpoint the origins of their troubles by investigating the Indigenous cultures of the West. This work “preserving the record” of the past, as she put it, would help white women seize a greater role in civilization’s boundless future.

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White feminism, in other words, had come to the sciences.

When she met Sitting Bull, Fletcher was beginning to undertake her first fieldwork. But she was encountering a surprising set of data. The scientific and reform opinion of Fletcher’s day was that barbarous groups were sex segregated, meaning that men and women lived largely separate existences characterized by drastic inequality in which men exploited women’s labor.

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But Fletcher was realizing that Lakota and Omaha women had freedoms and responsibilities of which white women could only dream. “The Indian woman,” Fletcher concluded, “considers herself quite independent. She controls her labor, her possessions and follows her own inclinations if she has sufficient determination.” Contrary to accepted wisdom, the Native woman “is not necessarily the slave of the man.” Rather, her work stoking the fires; making the food, tents, and clothing; and raising corn, beans, and pumpkins meant that “she is the conserver of life,” a position that came with many privileges and was awarded due respect. Now, Sitting Bull was telling Fletcher directly, Lakota women had more freedom and power than the white women of the West. He was also, in her rendering, asking Fletcher for help.

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For Fletcher and other white feminists, assistance meant taking guardianship over people of color. Fletcher felt that Indigenous people were not doomed to be forever suspended in the barbarian stage of development. They could be saved, trained into the habits of civilized sex specialization. “It is good to think of the so-called dependent races as children,” rather than through the lens of “savagery” or “barbarism,” she corrected in 1900. Natives were not frozen in prehistory, as her colleagues believed. They were in need of a mother—a white mother, who could raise the race into maturity.

Amelia Quinton, president of the Women’s National Indian Association, put it best. “The Indian Question must become more and more a woman question,” she instructed. “When all legal rights are assured, and all fair educational facilities provided, the women and children of the tribes will still be a sacred responsibility laid upon the white women of the land.”

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Fletcher's Sibley tent, just to the right center of this image, is pitched in a forest clearing dim with ambient smoke.
Fletcher’s Sibley tent is pitched in a forest clearing dim with ambient smoke. E. Jane Gay/Idaho State Historical Society
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Despite Fletcher’s limited experience—visiting two tribes for six weeks total, while reliant on translators—she was now ready to call herself an expert in Native life writ large. And indeed, she had now acquired more firsthand experience with Indigenous tribes than had most other social scientists in the United States. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Fletcher pushed for assimilation with full knowledge of the loss of liberties Native women would experience. Men needed to labor in the fields while women took care of the home and children. In historian Louise Newman’s words, Fletcher and other white women reformers believed that “Indian women were to be given the gift of patriarchy.” Her white feminist position explicitly and knowingly helped undermine Indigenous women’s traditional authority—while simultaneously taking inspiration from them to realize her own budding professional and political power.

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Middle-class white women in the mid to late 19th century were still largely confined to the private sphere. But civilizing the West was deemed an appropriate extension of women’s domestic duties. This “manifest domesticity,” in scholar Amy Kaplan’s memorable phrase, thrust white women’s work into the center of the settler colonial enterprise. White women could respectably extend their own realm of power and influence through adopting a maternal attitude that saw Natives as children in need of their guidance. According to historian Margaret Jacobs, “the majority of boarding school employees nationwide” were white women.

Reformers, especially white women, appointed themselves the task of upwardly evolving the Indigenous. Evolutionary theory in the late 19th century was overwhelmingly Lamarckian, meaning that everyone from the Carlisle Indian School’s founder Richard Henry Pratt and Alice Fletcher to Charles Darwin believed that heredity was the result of repeated sensations and movements, not of a fixed, unchanging particle. They deemed childhood the most plastic stage of development, the period in which it was easiest to impress new traits into the flesh that would transmit down the generations. For reformers, environment during childhood, not inherent biology, determined heredity. Some schools thus removed Native youth from their parents at the astonishingly young age of 3 or 4 and only released them at the age of 21 in order to transform them, body and mind.

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The belief that physical traits resulted from childhood impressions granted white women a new and forceful kind of power over the population and its future. White women gained authority as civilizers by contrast with Native women, who were portrayed as backward creatures trapped in prehistory who dragged their children down with them. Breaking the tie between Native mothers and their youngsters thus seemed imperative to white reformers. Few reformers realized the truth Fletcher had discovered: that many Indigenous cultures were free from patriarchy, and women enjoyed considerable agency, responsibility, and freedom in their tribes.

Alice Fletcher holding the bottom of a document that allots a portion of land to Nez Perces as others stand by.
Alice Fletcher holding the bottom of a document that allots a portion of land to Nez Perces. E. Jane Gay/Idaho State Historical Society
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The greatest political work of Fletcher’s life—the work that elevated her to the position of highest cultural standing, while also being the activity that cost Native women the most—was to sever Natives from the lands with which they lived in reciprocal relation. To relieve Indians of their vast lands, just as to remove children from their tribes, was for Fletcher an act of benevolence that would propel Natives into the forward movements of civilization and pacify the bloody relationship between Indians and settlers.

Fletcher, other reformers, and politicians seized upon a new strategy in the mid-1880s: privatizing the reservations. They sought to divide up existing lands into farming plots assigned to heads of individual families and then sell off the vast “surplus” lands to settlers. Severing communally held land into private parcels assigned to male heads of family or to couples provided a perfect settler feminist opportunity. Fletcher would save the Omaha by imposing settler gender and sexual norms upon them. Omaha society was nonmonogamous; men were permitted to take more than one wife, though Fletcher and La Flesche noted that polygamy wasn’t a common practice. Two years prior, Sitting Bull had asked her, according to her own telling, to give Hunkpapa Lakota women a future. Now among the Omaha, she relished enforcing monogamous, patriarchal ways of life.

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Allotment gutted collective tribal authority, reducing Native-held land to monogamous marriages and making women, for the first time, economically dependent upon their husbands. Fletcher knew that this would be a serious downgrade in status for many Native women. That same year, she acknowledged that a Native woman told her, “I’m glad I’m not a white woman!” when informed of married women’s lack of rights to own property or custody of their children in Anglo America. But Indigenous women’s rights were of secondary importance to settler feminism. Of primary importance was rescuing them from barbarism, a rescue that simultaneously bolstered white women’s authority. A decline in Native women’s rights and agency was merely the price of progress.

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Alice Fletcher heading toward Washington with reports under her arm.
Alice Fletcher heading toward Washington with reports under her arm. E. Jane Gay/Idaho State Historical Society
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White women did not yet have electoral power, but women like Fletcher were beginning to wield significant political influence. In the summer of 1885, Fletcher diligently researched what would become a 693-page report on the history and progress of “Indian education and civilization,” which included updates on treaty obligations that remained unfulfilled by the U.S. government. This research positioned her as an unparalleled authority, and she leveraged her power to convince Sen. Henry Dawes to rewrite the Dawes Act so that allotments would be granted to individual heads of families and not patented to tribes at large. Later that fall, Fletcher lobbied Congress directly in support of her vision.

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The Dawes Act was the first major Indian policy in a century, and no single individual had more effect on its final shape, Fletcher’s biographer Joan Mark argues, than Alice Fletcher. Fletcher’s agenda won out: No tribal consent, and land was divided up among individual families and assigned to heads of households rather than allotted to communities or even couples.

Fletcher carried out a significant portion of land allotments herself. Typically, Fletcher surveyed the lands and chose the plots to be assigned, though she was a newcomer to the territory. Yet she did her work carefully, all too aware that much reservation land was arid and not suitable for dwelling or farming. Some of her most extensive work was among the Nez Perce in northern Idaho, a tribe largely resistant to privatizing land.

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For several springs beginning in 1889, Fletcher traveled to Idaho with her new domestic partner, the photographer E. Jane Gay. Gay took photographs, wrote, and kept house while Fletcher surveyed and privatized the land to male heads of households, against the majority of the tribe’s wishes. All remaining lands were sold off to white settlers. As a result of Fletcher’s allotment work, the Nez Perce lost 75 percent of their lands, a full half-million acres.

It was the beginning of a long, most likely romantic, partnership between Fletcher and Gay. It may be tempting to call Fletcher’s situation in Idaho ironic: Here she was, imposing compulsory heterosexuality upon a tribe who maintained radically different romantic and kinship relations, all while freeing herself from those very same norms personally and professionally. Yet her situation wasn’t ironic, for it wasn’t the result of unintended consequence: It was by design. To Fletcher and other white feminists, white women were civilized, without question, and same-sex attachments among each other didn’t jeopardize this status. Their moral authority was the backbone of moral progress, whether they lived with husbands or in the so-called Boston marriages that united upper-class white women in enduring companionship. Feminist scholar Jasbir K. Puar has named this problematic phenomenon “homonationalism”: the fantasy that white gay life is inherently civilized and good for the nation, whereas Black, brown, and Asian nonheterosexual life is primitive, backward, and a threat to progress. Puar was writing about the 21st century, but the dynamic reaches back to the late 19th and the women like Fletcher and Gay who used their location in the “frontier” to liberate themselves from patriarchal sexual norms while simultaneously imposing them upon others. It is clear that Fletcher used her increased social standing to conduct her own domestic relationships however she chose—the very agency she denied to those she deemed less evolved.

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Fletcher’s continued anthropological  work, much of it done with La Flesche, launched her into new professional heights. She published extensively on Indigenous cultural traditions, especially music and dance. In the fall of 1890, she was awarded a paid research position at Harvard’s Peabody Museum that a wealthy benefactress created specifically for her. The new position was for Fletcher alone—La Flesche continued as her unpaid research assistant. At Harvard, the fellowship had limited reach, for she didn’t have students of her own to train. But she was now a full-time professional scholar and the first woman to have an appointment at Harvard. To the community of middle-class white feminists in D.C., her university position was a major victory, and she was now fêted by the same kinds of societies she had helped to found 20 years earlier. Eight hundred people attended a lavish reception held by the women’s clubs of D.C. to celebrate Fletcher; she spent five hours greeting guests in the customary receiving line.

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That winter, Fletcher was an invited speaker at the now annual National Council of Women conference held at Washington, D.C.’s Albaugh’s Opera House. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who had founded the organization, were also on the agenda. Fletcher’s speech assumed her leadership among feminists, and it assumed all those feminists united behind the civilizing agenda. She began “Our Duty Toward Dependent Races” with a statement of equality: that all the world’s races have a right “to exist,” free of attempted “destruction by war, pestilence, or absorption.” But true to the evolutionary hierarchy to which she was so committed, she argued that races were not equal in development. “It is plainly seen that the white race has led the march of human progress,” she asserted, as evidenced by its monopoly of “the higher arts and sciences” and its superior land holdings.

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But Fletcher’s audience at the National Council of Women was not only composed of white feminists eager to bolster their own position through civilizing people of color. Others had distinct ideas of feminism’s meaning, objectives, and vision for change. After all, like all social movements, feminism is less a fixed platform than a rotating scene of ongoing tensions, debates, and outright conflicts.

The next scheduled speaker was none other than Frances E.W. Harper, the prominent Black writer and activist. Harper launched right into pointed critique: “While Miss Fletcher has advocated the cause of the Indian and negro under the caption of Dependent Races,” Harper began, “I deem it a privilege to present the negro, not as a mere dependent asking for Northern sympathy or Southern compassion, but as a member of the body politic who has a claim upon the nation for justice.”

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Justice, Harper emphasized, was a right pertaining equally to all, regardless of whites’ self-serving fantasies that their “rights of property or the claims of superior intelligence” placed other races under their magnanimous care. While white feminists like Stanton, Stowe, and Fletcher consolidated around the civilizing project, despite their competing approaches to the cause, intersectional feminists like Harper, Harriet Jacobs, and Zitkala-Ša threw off white women’s aggressive benevolence and stressed their right to self-determination.

Excerpted from The Trouble With White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism by Kyla Schuller. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group Inc.