Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past.
Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past. By Peter Boag. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011. Pp. xi, 257. $39.95.)
This book is a vivid account of a rarely explored subject in the American West: men and women who lived their lives as members of the opposite sex. Author Peter Boag argues that such people existed in such significant numbers that their place in the story of the nation's frontier history should be much better known. Furthermore, the absence of these cross-dressing westerners, despite much contemporary evidence that supports their presence, was largely the result of early twentieth-century Americans' growing assumptions about the nation's frontier past.
Boag offers such a carefully woven account, supported by so great a volume of contemporary evidence, that even doubters will be convinced. Both cross-dressing women and men found comfort in the frontier. However, female cross-dressers were more easily accepted at the time, and retained by history longer, than their male counterparts. Women, Boag asserts, were most often assumed by their contemporaries to dress and live as men in order to have more job opportunities, to be safer in a male-dominated society, or to enjoy a more adventurous life. Even with regard to women who assumed permanent male identities, rarely was there more than cursory examination of their possible motives. Often their unusual lifestyle was even blamed on past experiences with "brutish" males.
For men, however, it was different. Although rarely viewed as anything but unusual in the mid-1800s, by the turn of the century male cross-dressers became largely invisible. As the author explains, by the early 1900s there was a general acceptance, both by scholars and the public, that the American West had been tamed by white men. Nostalgia for their rural past, the growing influence of sexologists, and the popularity of works such as Frederick Jackson Turner's influential frontier thesis and Theodore Roosevelt's acclaimed series, The Winning of the West, confirmed this belief. For most twentieth-century Americans, those who by their dress and lifestyle did not fit into the heroic masculine model were insignificant to, or even absent from, the great territorial saga.
Boag's account of cross-dressing westerners and their place in their communities is eminently readable and well documented. Each chapter of the monograph begins with an account of a person who chose to live as a member of the opposite sex. These were rarely famous or prominent people; they were typical westerners, leading the various types of lives their contemporaries led. The author has rediscovered them primarily through local newspaper accounts and personal letters. His detailed descriptions of these individuals' lives and the examination of why they have been forgotten by history make this work both thought-provoking and poignant. His annotated footnotes fill out many stories and read like a chapter in themselves. Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past is both an enjoyable read and an illuminating addition to our knowledge of the real American frontier experience.
Texas Woman's University