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  • Tizia von Bibra

‘Chaos in All the Old Systems’: The Role of Gender in the Founding of the US

Updated: May 3, 2022

The Role of Gender in Consolidating European and American Power Prior to and After the Founding of the American Republic

Gender formed a constitutive part of European settlers’ and Americans’ power, enabling the brutal conquest of Indigenous lives and lands through a process of othering, and constructing a gendered republican political ideal that served to unify the white male constituency of early America. ‘Power’ will be defined not only as military and political might, but also as the degree of social unification achieved by actors in this period. The theme of gender continues to shape America’s national identity today, demonstrated most acutely by the disproportionately high rates of sexual violence experienced by Indigenous women or the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in masculinized spaces such as the military, especially against people of marginalized genders. This continued relevance presents a historiographical challenge in that we risk anachronism by applying contemporary gender debates to early American histories, oversimplifying these complex realities into presentist frameworks. To overcome this limitation, LaFleur suggests that we should “shift our attention from determining what gender is or was to examining how gender worked” in structuring power relations within the early American republic.

Another issue that complicates our understanding of gender and its role in this period is the historiographical hegemony of the white masculine narrative and the corresponding scarcity of sources on non-white, non-male subjects. This results in a history of marginalized groups like Indigenous women that, as noted by Kathleen Brown, is reliant on the perspective of “the builders and administrators of the institutions that subordinated them.” A positive consequence of this phenomenon is that the male colonial gaze that is present in the majority of written sources from this period reveals a great deal about European settlers’ and Americans’ own gendered biases and anxieties. The role of gender in their consolidation of power will be examined in two parts: firstly, demonstrating how the forced imposition of the European gender binary facilitated the settlement and conquest of territory by undermining existing Indigenous socio-political structures, indigenizing European ideologies, and legitimizing the brutal erasure of Indigenous sovereignty. Secondly, it is argued that American politicians deployed gendered rhetoric to unify the population under both a feminized ideal of nationhood and a masculinized ideal of republican virtue and military might.

There were continuities as well as stark differences in the ways in which gender ideology was deployed in the founding of America. One of these continuities was its role in subduing specific groups, such as Indigenous communities, to facilitate settler colonialism and American territorial expansion. Settlers’ inability to translate ‘New World’ encounters into familiar frameworks necessitated the imposition of ‘Old World’ orders, including the European gender binary, which “depicted the invaders as masculine, rational, and powerful, and Indigenous populations as feminine, irrational, and sinful.” Identified as an effective method of colonial control, this imported gender ideology was militarized and its binary solidified throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, producing an increasingly harsh patriarchal order in American colonial society, and simultaneously upending central tenets of Indigenous culture.

Accounts of early encounters between European settlers and Indigenous peoples were predominantly written from a male colonizer’s perspective, and thus tend to overemphasize the universality of male dominance in pre-contact societies, while disregarding or failing to understand the widespread incidence of matriarchal authority. Gunn Allen argues that many Indigenous nations, including the “Susquehanna, Hurons, Iroquois, Cherokee, Pueblo, Navajo, Narragansett, Coastal Algonkians, [and] Montagnais,” could be characterized as gynocratic, structuring all spiritual and social activity around their belief that “the primary potency in the universe was female.” The arrival of European male colonizers “created chaos in all the old systems,” displacing the primacy of pluralist female creators such as the Hopi goddess Spider Woman or the Navajo goddess Changing Woman, and replacing them with masculine spiritual leaders, including the Christian God.

The forced imposition of patriarchal gender norms transformed Indigenous clan structures from egalitarian gynocentricity into hierarchical patriarchy, subduing the authority of Indigenous women and co-opting colonized men into a role of gender-based domination that directly aided colonial expansion. The colonial process of constructing domesticated women and dominant men in Indigenous societies can be seen as a reproduction of the European gendered demarcation of private and public spheres, disturbing existing traditions of Indigenous governance with devastating effects. For instance, while Cherokee women were stripped of their right to wage war, to decide public policy, and to choose whom and whether to marry, Cherokee men who benefitted from the new patriarchal clan structures were educated by the British and would later participate in the execution of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, demonstrating the long-term power wielded by this forcibly imposed gender hierarchy. The observation that Indigenous acceptance of European colonization was stratified along gendered lines is supported by the pervasiveness of female resistance to Christian conversion and accompanying subordination. An account of a Jesuit priest in New France in 1640 depicts Indigenous men accusing female members of their group of being “the cause of all our misfortunes…it is you who keep the demons among us.” This apparent breakdown of internal solidarity aided European settlers, and later American statesmen, who exploited these divisions to conquer further Indigenous lands.

Gender also acted as a means of justifying this territorial expansion. Firstly, as McClintock argues, Indigenous land was persistently feminized in the accounts of male colonizers, producing a gendered power dynamic between the male imperial intruder and his “penetration and exposure of a veiled, female interior.” McClintock goes on to describe how this naturalized portrayal of the gender binary is visible in a 1575 drawing by Jan van der Straet, which depicts Amerigo Vespucci being greeted by a “naked and erotically inviting woman,” insinuating a submissive invitation to conquest and rendering America open to being “discovered, entered, named…above all, owned.” Secondly, Indigenous elimination was justified by framing indigenous gender non-conformity as sodomy, since this, according to Manuela Picq, “legitimized the land grab under the doctrine of discovery” by defining Indigenous populations as ‘uncivilized’ occupants of the land “in need of a benevolent guardian.”

Subsequently, in the volatile first stages of nationhood, gendered rhetoric was used to unite the American population. Early American state-building was driven by the necessary unification required to sustain newly gained independence. Similar to the gendering of ‘virgin’ land by early settlers, American statesmen deployed a new type of feminizing rhetoric to embody their vision of the new Republic, one marked by patriarchal governance, patriotism, and morality. Whereas before, colonizers feminized the ‘New World’ to imply its violability and acquiescence to the male imperial mission, this post-revolutionary rhetoric constructed an image of a strong, independent, liberated woman, quite inconsistent with the subordination of real-life women at that time. In an address delivered in 1821, John Quincy Adams begins nearly every sentence with the female pronoun ‘she’ when listing the many virtues of the American Republic: “She goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all…Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace.” This idealized portrayal of a feminized ‘America’ as benevolent, insightful, and purposeful differs sharply from the dominant patriarchal view of women as submissive, feeble-minded, and impetuous, even more so in the treatment of Indigenous and African enslaved women, suggesting a disjunction between the political uses of feminine rhetoric and the practical realities of early American womanhood. Above all, the personification of a female ‘America’ governed and dominated by male statesmen helped not only to unify the populous under a common ideal of feminine virtue, but also to solidify the patriarchal norms that validated male governance.

Masculinity was equally intrinsic to the nature of early American political authority. Despite a cultural shift away from paternalistic rhetoric following the end of British colonial rule, the notion of manliness and paternal authority was revived, albeit in a new form, during the constitutional debate. The notion of masculinity was adapted to serve the political needs of different parties throughout the early stages of state foundation. Whereas Anti-Federalist pamphlets and speeches seemed to emphasize a manliness that was coupled to “the republican insistence upon liberty,” Federalists adopted a rhetoric that suggested “that a subordinated body politic is preferable to disorderly passions, that the country’s constituents, like married women, need to be held in their place by the authority of men.” By framing the threat of insecurity posed by the hesitancy of some states to ratify the constitution as an act of “not only political and financial, but also psychical castration,” Federalists cunningly exploited male anxiety and the fear of emasculation as powerful drivers of political action. The constitutional debate recrafted masculinity into an influential rhetorical tool, “a new regime of signifiers constellated alternatively around patriotic virtue, the threat of insecurity, and the salvation of unity.” Despite these differences in ideology, both sides of the debate recognized “that manly strength served as a powerful and popular metaphor for government,” perhaps aware of the lingering legacy of ‘rugged individualism’ and its unifying influence on the popular psyche during the colonial period. Especially in the aftermath of a war, a phenomenon that is intrinsically linked to masculinity, the virtue of military prowess acted as a “unifying manly image” that aided the legitimacy of future political leaders such as George Washington.

The role of gender in the consolidation of European settlers’ and Americans’ power can thus be seen as twofold, acting firstly as a tool of colonial control over Indigenous communities by undermining their internal cohesion and justifying their dispossession, and secondly as a tool of unity in the form of powerful political rhetoric that marshalled the intrinsic insecurities and patriarchal virtues of the male American constituency.


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