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Willa Cather and the upside-down politics of feminist Darwinism.

Of all the revolutionary ideas contained in The Origin of Species, none was more so than its account of women's natural suffrage. Such was the power of the female vote, Darwin observed, that it drove men to "display with the most elaborate care, and show off in the best manner, their gorgeous plumage; they likewise perform strange antics before the females, which, standing by as spectators, at last choose the most attractive partner." (1) Men, that is, looked and behaved the way they did to suit female taste, so that it was women who defined masculinity. Indeed, on the logic of natural selection, this definition was literal: by choosing which men could breed, women determined the physical character of subsequent generations of males. (2) As the nineteenth-century Darwinist Ernest Haeckel put it: "the outcome of sexual selection [is] the beard of man, the antlers of the stag, the beautiful plumage of the birds of paradise." (3) This discovery that men owed their beards to female votes was a jarring one for Victorian males. In an age in which women were denied the franchise, it threatened to turn the existing order upside-down, and Darwin and his male followers hurriedly moved to quell this possibility by claiming that in the case of humans female nature was entirely domestic. (4) Yet even as men were trying to conceal the consequences of their own theory, a number of suffragettes seized on Darwinism as a potent justification for their cause. (5) If nature had enfranchised women, they argued, then it was perverse for human society to do the opposite. In fact it might actually be dangerous: since better-choosing women produced hardier offspring, natural selection must have worked over time to improve female judgment. To deny women the vote was thus to risk the future of the species, and in America this argument helped swing a crucial voting bloc of men to support the suffrage. (6) In the squalor of frontier towns and the violence of World War I, these men saw confirmation of the suffragettes' claim that masculinity had lost its way, and so it was that when Woodrow Wilson appealed the Senate to pass the Nineteenth Amendment, he deployed the language of Darwinian psychology. Claiming that women possessed a "moral instinct" that was "vital to the right solution of the great problems which we must settle: he emphasized women's natural prudence. (7) Convinced, the senators responded in favor, fifty-six votes to twenty-five. (8)

In spite of this practical achievement, however, feminist Darwinism quickly fell into disfavor. (9) Over the 1930s natural selection was invoked to justify a ghastly series of social experiments that began with the sterilization of the poor and culminated in the Holocaust, so in the postwar period feminists did their best to disentangle themselves from Darwin. Returning to pre-Darwinian defenses of women's worth, they resuscitated Romantic claims of neolithic matriarchies, Christian ideals of feminine sentimentalism, and Enlightenment accounts of inalienable rights. (10) More recently, many feminists have followed Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, and Toril Moi in appropriating phenomenology, Lacanian analysis, and other non-Darwinian psychologies, and to the extent that second- and third-wave feminists accept the notion of sex difference, it is usually a "strategic essentialism" that rejects biology for culture. (11) Meanwhile, feminist historians have gone back to the suffrage movement and pointed out that Darwinism was hardly a straightforward instrument of equality; it was used not only to confine women to the kitchen but also to elevate white voters over black. (12) Taken together, these theoretical shifts thus seem to suggest a permanent parting of the ways between Darwinism and feminism. Where feminism is open-ended and emancipatory, Darwinism appears constrictive, even deterministic. Where feminism is egalitarian and pluralist, Darwinism's logic of fitness seems inevitably hierarchical. Where feminism is queer and transgendered, Darwinism's reproductive emphasis cannot but be heteronormative. Whatever connection the two may have shared in the past, feminism has long since put it behind.

As I hope to show over the following pages, however, there remains something valuable in the suffragette's Darwinian model of masculinity. For while this model was used in some cases to impose racial and sexual categories, it was also used to do precisely the opposite: encourage a tolerant pluralism. This alternative approach is elaborated in Willa Gather's prairie novels, especially My Antonia (1918) and One of Ours (1922), which fashion Darwinism's account of sexual selection into the basis of a feminist politics that rejects traditional sex roles, biological determinism, natural hierarchies, and heterosexism. These novels, in short, use Darwinism to uphold the political commitments of modern feminism, suggesting that suffrage-era feminist Darwinism may have something to contribute to the struggles of the present. In exploring this possibility, the following pages will align themselves with a growing body of feminist scholarship that has portrayed Darwinism as a useful tool for rejecting teleology, encouraging pluralism, and promoting change. (13) So far this feminist return to Darwin has gathered most of its momentum in the natural and social sciences, where there are now ample models of how it can operate in practice. In the humanities, though, no such models have managed to take hold, and my broader purpose in returning to Cather is to join in the effort to establish one. (14) Cather's novels suggest that it is possible for feminism and Darwinism to renew their historical partnership, and as I will demonstrate in a closing review of the state of modern biology, the results can once again be revolutionary.

When Cather submitted The Song of the Lark to her publisher in 1915, she noted that it was written in the "full-blooded" style of neo-Darwinist authors like Frank Norris. (15) Norris had rebelled against the "tea-cup" realism of Henry James, turning instead to popular conceptions of Darwinism that emphasized sexual selection, particularly the role that female choice played in shaping male behavior. (16) As Norris writes in his novel McTeague: "Gradually the dentist improved under the influence of his little wife. ... He commenced to have opinions, convictions--it was not fair to deprive tax-paying women of the privilege to vote," (17) Like many male Darwinists, however, Norris was anxious about the effects of this kind of sexual selection within human society, and rather than celebrating the female vote, McTeague illustrates the way that it drives the dentist into an alcoholic rampage. (18) Far from improving the state of man, that is, feminine preference triggers an atavistic descent. With this Norris voiced a concern held by many male authors, who were uncomfortable with their financial dependence upon female choices. William Dean Howells had somberly observed that "in the United States the fate of a book is in the hands of the women," and Henry James had put the point even more bluntly: "the woman is the public." (19) Like these novelists, moreover, Norris worried that women's power over the fortunes of male writers was not a good thing. (20) In his critical writings he warns against allowing the novel to become an "affair of women," and in McTeague he unflatteringly portrays the aesthetic tastes of the dentist's "little" wife: "Trina professed to be fond of art, having perhaps acquired a taste for painting and sculpture from her experience with the Noah's ark animals" (126). (21) Such, in Norris's view, was the aesthetic "instinct" of women, and given the power of sexual selection, it heralded an alarming future, one in which men degenerated first into "tea-cup" females and then into beasts.

Cather admired McTeague--she called it "a true story of the people, courageous, dramatic, full of matter and warm with life"--and her early critical writings are rich with Norris's fear about women's literary instincts. (22) She derides "driveling effeminacy" and "contemptible feminine weakness," celebrates authors for being "manly and abundantly virile," and insists that the few successful female writers are in fact "anything but women." (23) These assertions have disturbed feminist critics, and they began to disturb Cather too--no trace of them remains in her later writings. (24) But while Cather distanced herself from Norris's views on female instinct, she did not abandon his Darwinian notion of sexual selection. Rather, she redirected it, suggesting that far from being the end of masculinity, female choice could help it survive. Enabling this shift was Cather's rejection of Norris's belief in an "essential masculinity." (25) Instead, as scholars such as Eve Sedgewick, Gail Bederman, and Christopher Nealon have shown, she saw masculinity as dynamic and context dependent, a view that aligned her with early twentieth-century feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and with contemporary queer culture more broadly. (26) In taking this view, she thus left behind Norris's gender bias for a version of sexual selection that acknowledged what Darwin himself observed in the Origin: masculinity had no absolute biological foundation but was constantly open to redefinition. From this perspective the enfranchisement of a feminine authority did not--as Norris feared--spell the destruction of masculinity. In fact quite the reverse: if female choice had generated masculinity, then it could help regenerate it.

Cather first hints at this Darwinian view of masculinity in an 1899 book review in which she comments on "Norris' tribute to western women in Blix, and Mr. Lynde's apotheosis of them in The Helper." (27) Struck by this pair of novels about "western women," Cather muses on the way that frontier life encourages a unique collaboration between the sexes:
  Since Mr. Lynde wished to write a novel on the helpfulness of men
  and women to each other, it was very proper that he should stage
  it in the west, where the newness of the civilization and excess
  of transient life brings about an almost colonial condition of
  society. Everyone is practically away from home; everyone has left
  his friends behind him, and the common exile draws men and women
  very close to each other and makes quick friendships. (28)

As is typical of Cather's early writings, this passage thus associates her view of male-female relations with Norris's naturalism. Yet in praising Norris and Lynde for identifying the "helpfulness" of women to western males, Cather was giving these two novelists rather too much credit. Neither, in fact, saw the frontier as a particularly special place for the sexes to work together. (29) Instead this claim was one that had been made by a group from which Cather, at this point in her life, preferred to keep her distance, namely the western suffragettes. For years these women had been campaigning for the suffrage on the grounds that they were useful helpers to men. (30 In Colorado, for example, the Queen Bee promised that the suffrage would produce "better conditions for every man," while Elizabeth Piper Ensley noted that black women had "heroically helped their brothers." (31) Underwriting this appeal was the widely held belief that the ruggedness of the western frontier made life more difficult for males. Men might manage on their own in Boston and New York, but out in the wilderness of nature they needed help. The same feature of western life that made things difficult for men thus created an opportunity for women, a point that is continually made in Cather's prairie novels: "Before Alexandra was twelve years old she had begun to be a help to him, and as she grew older he had come to depend more and more upon her resourcefulness and good judgment. (32) Or as Jim remembers of Antonia: "Grandfather was pleased with Antonia. When we complained of her, he only smiled and said, 'She will help some fellow get ahead in the world.'" (33)

Even as Cather followed the western suffragettes in presenting female "judgment" as a potential source of "help" for men, however, she heavily revised the suffragette's definition of help. Because of her nonessentialist view of sex she did not accept that women were limited to doing domestic chores and encouraging moral behavior. Instead her prairie novels embraced the possibility that women could perform traditionally masculine tasks. Antonia offers one conspicuous example: "beads of perspiration used to gather on her upper lip like a little mustache. 'Oh, better I like to work out-of-doors than in a house!' she used to sing joyfully. 'I not care that your grandmother say it makes me like a man. I like to be like a man" (MA, 133). Francis, meanwhile, perfectly fulfills the duties of a businessman: "She was her father's chief clerk, and virtually managed his Black Hawk office during his frequent absences" (145) Men, in turn, are shown to be capable of "domestic" responsibilities such as pushing "the baby-carriage after office hours" (153). Moreover, it is difficult to imagine a more sentimentally moral figure than Jim's grandfather: "'The prayers of all good people are good,' he said quietly" (85). To the extent that there is a division of labor on the prairie, it is thus not determined by sex. Women can help men by baking or cleaning, but they can also help them by banking or hunting or working in the fields.

By the time that Cather came to write her own novels, she had thus drawn on a rich array of influences--from Norris's naturalism, to the western suffragettes' analysis of male need, to contemporary notions of the constructedness of gender--to arrive at the view that some fluid and indeterminate aspect of feminine judgment could help sustain masculine endeavor. As this diverse genealogy suggests, Gather's position was thus a highly individual one. Yet for all its distinctness, it was also thoroughly Darwinian, for while Gather's turn toward a nonessentialist understanding of gender distanced her from Darwinism as it was practiced by Norris, it brought her closer to Darwin's actual theory. As Valerie Rohy has shown, although "vulgar Darwinism" has often been invoked to justify a conservative heteronormativity, Darwinism itself supports no fixed account of sex or sexual ends, for it is concerned with "change over time ... the root of [which] is arbitrary." (34) Darwinism, that is, insists that not just gender but biological sex is in a constant state of context-dependent flux. In the ever-changing conditions of nature masculinity is not an eternal ideal, but a quality that must adapt continually to keep pace. Far from needing protection from outside corruption, maleness can therefore benefit from a reforming influence. When Cather broke with Norris to claim that women could help preserve masculinity, she was thus not twisting Darwinism to suit her own idiosyncratic version of feminism. Rather, she was identifying a natural convergence between Darwin's theory of sexual selection and her own views on gender. In a world in which nothing--including biology--was permanent, female choice could help men evolve.

In Cather's novels this evolutionary process is given its specific shape by the particular challenge that masculinity faces on the frontier. The suffragettes had observed that the West exposed human life to the full force of nature, and as My Antonia makes clear, this exposure was not just physically difficult on men; it also prompted an existential despair. There are three suicides in the novel, all male. Mr. Shimerda kills himself out of humiliation, the old tramp out of regret, and Mr. Cutter out of his inability to control his wife. Meanwhile, the town of Black Hawk overflows with impotence, both literal and metaphorical: the "old men" who hang about the drugstore, the "old German" who talks of nothing but "taxidermy," the "disconsolate telegrapher" who wants "to be transferred to Omaha or Denver" and who seeks relief in "his pictures of actresses and dancers" (MA, 211). No matter where Jim looks, he sees emasculation: "For a change, one could talk to the station agent; but he was another malcontent; spent all his spare time writing letters to officials requesting a transfer" (211-12). At the root of this crisis of masculinity is men's sense of their smallness before the "great fact" of nature (OP, 21). As Jim explains:
  Winter comes down savagely over a little town on the prairie ...
  the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said:
  "This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities
  of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that
  trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was
  underneath. This is the truth." (MA, 167-68)

Lacking the artificial protections of civilization, the men of the prairie are exposed to the full "reality" of nature; it is vast, and they are "little Jim's melancholic tone reveals that this is a depressing revelation, and a similar sentiment can be felt in Gather's reflections in her own literary criticism: "Why not leave us our illusions, since this is a short journey and cold, and mostly in the dark, and we believe, at least, that they comfort us?" (35) In spite of Cather's celebration of the bracing power of nature to sweep away artifice, she thus also realized that there could be too much of a good thing. In its undiluted form nature could be lethal, for to see the truth of humankind's insignificance was to endanger not just the body, but the very will to live.

In drawing attention to this danger, Cather expressed a concern that had long bothered her male contemporaries. As far back as Howells male writers had worried that too much emphasis on the "facts" could have negative psychological effects, breeding cynicism, even despair. (36) The counter to this problem, Howells suggested, was the natural "decency" of a female sensibility, and though Cather did not strictly agree on this point, she too looked to a feminine power to help males out of their crisis of disillusionment. (37) Males needed something to restore their sense of their own bigness, and in Cather's view this something was "Romance." As Katie Owens-Murphy has shown, Cather's notion of Romance was rich and evolving, but at its core was "the promise of adventure, a well-defined goal and purpose, a harmonious ending." (38) This romantic sense of "purpose" Cather believed, could "refresh" the "illusions" of life, instilling the swaggering faith necessary for worldly "success." (39) As Gather's prairie novels make clear, moreover, romance is--for men--intimately connected to women. In One of Ours the lead character, Claude Wheeler, effuses:
  Women ought to be religious; faith was the natural fragrance of their
  minds. The more incredible the things they believed, the more lovely
  was the act of belief. To him the story of "Paradise Lost" was as
  mythical as the "Odyssey"; yet when his mother read it aloud to him,
  it was not only beautiful but true. A woman who didn't have holy
  thoughts about mysterious things far away would be prosaic and
  commonplace, like a man. (40)

As Claude sees it, the difference between men and women is that women can breathe "faith" into anything, no matter how "incredible." This undoubtedly goes beyond Cather's own views of the matter; in The Song of the Lark a character is mocked for "his sentimental conception of women that they should be deeply religious" (137). Nevertheless, Cather's prairie novels recognize that Claude is right in one sense: although women may not be essentially religious (or indeed essentially anything), the feminine quality that Claude associates with women can sustain a masculine faith. My Antonia gestures to this power of women in its introduction, which observes that it is Antonia who summons up the "adventure" of Jim's childhood (xii). For Cather "adventure" is a masculine term; she earlier observed that men's sense of romance is best found in "a story of adventure, a stout sea tale, a manly battle yarn." (41) The suggestion is thus that Antonia has helped Jim conceive of his life as a "manly" endeavor, and indeed, no sooner has Jim finished writing the story of his adventure than he eagerly turns to a woman for validation: "'Read it as soon as you can,' he said" (xiii).

From here My Antonia continues to stress the way in which female attention can feed a masculine sense of romance. Antonia is, of course, a major source of Jim's belief in himself: "I have had no other success that pulled at my heartstrings like that one" (223). But it is not only Antonia who fills Jim with masculine pride: "Lena was ... a woman, and I was a man" (266). Nor is it only Jim who feels this way; the same holds true for the most unromantic figure in Black Hawk, Cutter: "Cutter liked to have his wife think him a devil. In some way he depended upon the excitement. ... His zest in debauchery might wane, but never Mrs. Cutter's belief in it" (245). Cutter thus needs his wife's "belief" in his rapacious sexuality. Indeed, he would rather have that belief than the sexual conquest itself, for it is his wife's faith, more than his sexual prowess, that he "depend[s]" on for his sense of "excitement." She lets him see his life as an adventure; through her he feels a man.

Having identified the power of a female presence to sustain masculinity, My Antonia then closes by demonstrating how this power can help males survive their disenchanting encounter with nature. At the end of the novel Jim is middle-aged, and he confesses that his "cowardice" has kept him from returning to the scenes of his childhood: "In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones" (MA, 317-18). Jim, that is, admits his fear of reality. He does not want to part with all of his romantic "illusions," for these are what allow him to go on. And indeed, when Jim finally does go back, the scene is even bleaker than he imagined. On seeing Antonia, he confesses: "It was a shock, of course. It always is, to meet people after long years, especially if they have lived as much and as hard as this woman had" (321). In place of the "beautiful girl" he knew is a "flat-chested woman" who has lost most of her teeth (335, 321). His town too has changed in jarring ways: "Strange children, who meant nothing to me, were playing in the Harlings' big yard when I passed. ... I hurried on" (157). Finally, he discovers that that there is only a "half-mile" of that "old road which used to run like a wild thing across the open prairie," and his mind returns to a feeling of "obliterating strangeness" (359). Yet rather than despairing at the way that nature has ploughed under everything he knows, Jim remembers Antonia and, with her, his sense of romance: "For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny" (360). Through Antonia, Jim is suddenly able to see himself as a fellow who is big enough to merit "Destiny," with a capital D. He can acknowledge nature's massive disregard for everything he cherished, while nevertheless retaining a sense of his own importance.

With this closing portrait of Jim, Cather reverses Norris's account of sexual selection. Instead of treating female choice as a source of effeminacy, she styles it as a source of masculine purpose, so that, like The Origin of Species, she suggests that women help maleness to exist. By revising Norris in this way, moreover, Cather arrives at a version of Darwinism that is free from the qualities that have made subsequent feminists wary. Gather's version does not restrict women to domestic or moral functions, nor does it impose any particular hierarchies of value, for like Darwin, Cather sees in nature the end of idealism. On the frontier the Odyssey is as acceptable as Paradise Lost, and even Jim's rigidly Protestant grandfather can "tolerantly" respect a Catholic: "It was impossible not to admire his frank, manly faith" (MA, 103). In effect, just as sexual selection has birthed many masculinities--from feathered peacocks, to antlered stags, to bearded men--so too can it yield multiple kinds of "manly" faith. Instead of carrying overtones of eugenics, Gather's Darwinism is therefore tolerant, nonteleological, and plural, and indeed, it is even free from the bias that seems to be inevitably implied by Darwin's theory: hetero-sexism. Rather than suggesting that female choice only counts so long as it is a physical commitment to breed, Cather treats romance as fundamentally platonic, allowing women to shape masculinity in an open-ended way. As Jim says to Antonia: "I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister--anything that a woman can be to a man" (312). Instead of valuing women solely for their reproductivity, Gather's novels thus take a firmly neutral stance: they can be read as heterosexual (just as Jim imagines Antonia briefly as his sweetheart), but they can also be read as nonsexual or, as many scholars have noted, gay. (42)

To say that Gather's approach to Darwinism does not conflict with feminism is not to say it is feminist, of course. Even today, when there is more diversity within feminism than ever--joining the rich variety of second-wave feminism, there are now postfeminism, and power feminism, and do-me feminism, and all the other "new feminisms" grouped under the unruly banner of the third wave--self-described feminists are broadly linked by a few core commitments: pluralism, inclusiveness, and active change. (43) Gather's Darwinism may fulfill the first two of these commitments, but what about the third? Can this view of nature allow for active interventions, whether personal, cultural, or political? Given the deterministic overtones of Darwin's theory, this would seem unlikely. As many of Gather's contemporaries acknowledged, Darwinism appears to reduce all behavior to involuntary instinct, so that to accept natural selection seems tantamount to forsaking political action for a kind of fatalism. Nevertheless, Cather saw it differently; for her scientific naturalism could be a tool for intentional social change. (44) At her high school graduation she declared that "scientific investigation is the hope of our age, as it must precede all progress," and her "hope" that Darwin's theory could form the basis for such "progress" can be traced in My Antonia and One of Ours. (45) Each of these novels was written at a critical juncture in the women's suffrage movement, and as I will show over the next few pages, they work together to translate Gather's Darwinism into a program of active political reform.

My Antonia was published in 1918, a moment at which women's suffrage had become a very real possibility, but many male voters still remained on the fence (and in the end the Nineteenth Amendment came down to a single switched vote in the Tennessee state legislature). As Cather recognized, many of these men were reluctant to empower women because they feared that to do so was to disempower themselves. In My Antonia she therefore attempted to calm this fear by downplaying the seriousness of romance. Jim first becomes aware of the power of romance when he and Antonia encounter a giant snake. Boldly, Jim kills the reptile, but as he realizes later, his victory was not a sign of his own greatness: "My big rattler was old, and had led too easy a life; there was not much fight in him. He had probably lived there for years, with a fat prairie-dog for breakfast whenever he felt like it, a sheltered home, even an owl-feather bed, perhaps, and he had forgot that the world doesn't owe rattlers a living" (MA, 47-48). In this moment Jim feels the smallness of his triumph, and indeed, he rubs up against something that could make him feel smaller still: the Darwinian realization that the "world doesn't owe" anyone a living and that we all must "fight" to survive. Rather than surrendering to the pessimistic implications of this discovery, however, My Antonia maintains a sense of comedy: "So in reality it was a mock adventure; the game was fixed for me by chance, as it probably was for many a dragon-slayer. I had been adequately armed by Russian Peter; the snake was old and lazy; and I had Antonia beside me, to appreciate and admire" (48). This wry tone softens the awfulness of Jim's discovery, and with tragedy gone, the narrative assumes a playfully heroic tone: "Antonia ... liked me better from that time on, and she never took a supercilious air with me again. I had killed a big snake--I was now a big fellow" (48). Here is the core experience of romance: it is female approval that makes Jim feel "big." Yet in keeping with the mood of the whole passage, this moment is not gravely solemn. Instead it is merrily wistful: a boy catches a shine in a young woman's eye and for a moment believes he really is a "dragon-slayer."

By using this comic touch to introduce Jim's romantic debt to Antonia, Cather adopts a strategy from the suffragettes. From the Montana staging of "On the Roof Garden," to Catherine Waugh McCulloch's Bridget's Sisters, to the "Better Babies" poster of Puck illustrator Rose O'Neill, women incorporated comedy into their efforts to win the franchise for themselves. (46) In doing so, they aligned themselves with a time-tested method for easing men's anxieties about the extension of female power: from ancient Athens to the Restoration stage, comedy had provided a space for women to call for an expansion of voting rights and to propose more egalitarian versions of marriage. (47) In all these cases comedy was effective because it did not challenge men in a tone of high seriousness. Instead it was playful, calming male passions rather than raising them, and Cather herself directly acknowledged this mitigating property: "The sense of comedy is the saving sense in art. Without it tragedians become ranters, emotional actors blubberers." (48) Comedy, that is, could temper the strongest emotions, and it is for precisely this end that Cather employs it in My Antonia. At the heart of Jim's encounter with the snake is the potentially emasculating claim of Darwinian sexual selection: in order to endure the struggle for life, men rely heavily on romance to make them feel (to use Jim's word) "big." In its naked form this reliance on female approval was painful for men to acknowledge; it is why male novelists panicked about the "female public," why Cutter kills his wife, and why Mr. Shimerda kills himself. Yet in Jim's encounter with the snake there is no hint of such hysteria. Because Jim's reliance is revealed through a child's "mock adventure," passion is muted by comedy.

The rest of My Antonia maintains a similarly comic approach to men's romantic needs. Even Lena, who threatens the very foundation of traditional masculinity when she declares, "I don't want a husband" (MA, 282), is gentled this way. Pursued by her middle-aged neighbor, she humors his bumbling advances, explaining to Jim that "old men are like that, you know. It makes them feel important to think they're in love with somebody" (281). Here, in its most pathetic form, is the importance of female attention to males. And yet, because this episode is a comic one--Jim himself cannot help but "laughing" at the poor man--it encourages males to smile ruefully at their state (279). And indeed, this is exactly what Gather's male readers did. H. L. Mencken was smitten by My Antonia, declaring: "No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Antonia." (49) Meanwhile, Carl Van Doren gushed: "Antonia exhibits the ordinary instincts of self-preservation hardly at all. She is gentle and confiding; service to others is the very breath of her being." (50) Far from being threatened by the power that Antonia exerts over Jim (and that Gather's "romantic novel" was exerting over them), these men thus felt comfortable entrusting themselves to women's "gentle" care. Like Lena's middle-aged suitor they submitted to romance.

Four years later One of Ours would make a very different political use of Darwin's theory of sexual selection. Published twenty-five months after the Nineteenth Amendment had passed, this novel appeared at a time when women no longer needed to worry about attenuating male fears. Instead their focus could be on using their newly attained political power, and Gather toured a variety of women's clubs during this period, explaining the opportunity that lay before them: "Life is a struggle or a torpor. All art must be serious, and comedy is the most serious of all. Art and religion express the same thing in us,--that hunger for beauty that we, of all animals, have." (51) In these compact sentences are the two core tenets of Gather's prairie novels. First, there is the bleakness of Darwinism; religion is no longer a sign of the divine, but a manifestation of the "hunger" of "animals." And second, there is the hope of romance, of a "beauty" that inspires us to keep up the "struggle." But there is also something new: a different approach to "comedy." Instead of being a curb to seriousness, comedy is now presented as "the most serious of all," so that Cather tacitly leaves the gentle touch of My Antonia for a more urgent mood. And indeed, Gather's focus at this time was not on conciliation, but on change. (52) In her writing she openly promoted experimentalism: "The new American novel is better than the old-fashioned conventional one, with its ... unvarying, carefully dosed ingredient." (53) And she brought the same message to the League of Women Voters, exhorting them not "to follow" preexisting models but to be "more original": "I wish that I could see across the continent a string of cities having their own particular kind of life." (54)

This ambition shapes One of Ours, which pulls down the "old-fashioned conventional" forms of romance in order to encourage women to shape a new kind of masculinity. After Claude has his illusions of romantic love shattered by Edna, he turns his thoughts to another kind of adventure: war. Despite the masculine associations of this activity, One of Ours is careful to show that--as was the case with Jim--it is female values that inspire Claude's sense of manly adventure. (55) After he expresses disgust at the duplicity of Germans, his mother admonishes him, "Yet we have had so many German neighbors, and never one that wasn't kind and helpful" (00, 229). Claude immediately responds, "I know it," and shortly afterward he lives up to his mother's ideal by rescuing a German neighbor from village thugs: "he was so angry about the indignities Mrs. Voigt had suffered. He ... would make war without rage, with uncompromising generosity and chivalry" (332). This sense of the "chivalry" of war is then nurtured by other female perspectives, from Gladys--who tells Claude admiringly, "You didn't get stuck here. You've found your place. You're sailing away. You've just begun"--to the "girl students" of Paris: "for these women the war was France, the war was life, and everything that went into it" (346, 548). In the end, though, Claude's romantic view of chivalry leads to an end that is as empty as his vision of love. He dies believing a lie, sacrificing himself for a friend who is already gone, and his mother spends the novel's closing moments reflecting that she is glad he never found the truth:
  Never a doubt stained his bright faith ... She would have dreaded
  the awakening,--she sometimes even doubts whether he could have borne
  at all that last, desolating disappointment. One by one the heroes of
  that war, the men of dazzling soldiership, leave prematurely the
  world they have come back to--one by one they quietly die by their
  own hand. ... But one she knew, who could ill bear disillusion ...
  safe, safe. (604-5)

Unlike the romance that Jim finds in Antonia, the romances of love and war portrayed in One of Ours thus do not make life easier to manage; instead they render it impossible. Now that the great adventure is over, the "heroes" of war are doomed to "quietly die by their own hand." The only one who is "safe" is Claude, and that is only because he has beaten them to the grave.

With this disenchanting conclusion One of Ours offers its readers the same message that Cather delivered to the Women's League: the old conventions no longer work. If women do not want to go the way of Claude's mother, clinging to outmoded notions of masculinity that offer nothing but doom, they must rouse a different kind of manly "faith." Where My Antonia worked to shift political power to women, One of Ours thus urges women to use this power to institute original forms of romance, and once again the reaction of Gather's male readers indicates that this strategy was effective. The same men who had fallen for My Antonia had the opposite response to One of Ours: disillusionment. Some, like Ernest Hemmingway, complained that the novel had falsely idealized war, while others, such as the critic Lloyd Morris, felt that Cather had gutted manhood. (56) But either way their basic concern was the same: One of Ours failed to convey a believable sense of romance. Where Mencken had celebrated My Antonia as the "most romantic novel ever written," he now groused that One of Ours overflowed with "oceans of romance and blather." (57) So too Sinclair Lewis singled out its failure of romance, sneering that it portrayed "a romance of violinists gallantly turned soldier." (58) What these men took as a fault, however, was the novel's political achievement. Blowing through its readers with the disillusioning force of a prairie winter, One of Ours exposed the fragility of men's current situation. The traditional forms of faith had failed, and new forms of romance were needed if masculinity were to survive.

Taken together, My Antonia and One of Ours thus reveal a commitment to translating Darwin's theory of sexual selection into a project of social change. Helping males to admit the role of female choice in defining masculinity, and then urging female voters to embrace this role to shape a new tomorrow, Cather's novels make good on her belief that "scientific investigation" could be a source of social "progress." Moreover, unlike the eugenics-influenced agenda of many early twentieth-century suffragettes, this model of feminist Darwinism remains as timely as ever. As I noted at the beginning of this article, the increasing cultural prevalence of modern science has encouraged a small but growing group of feminists to try acknowledging Darwinism in a way that does not privilege biological determinism, fixed gender roles, or heterosexism. (59) So far these efforts have not inspired much enthusiasm in the humanities, largely because they have focused on using Darwinism as a new foundation for feminism, an approach that tacitly subordinates the perspectives of modern feminism to the discoveries of science. (60) Cather shows, however, that it is possible to flip this relationship upside-down, for her account of sexual selection suggests a way that science can benefit from the support of feminism. Modern biologists, after all, have reached their own version of Gather's frontier. As Richard Dawkins notes, they have committed themselves fully to embracing the natural world, leaving behind eugenics, "transhumanism," "religious naturalism," and all other similar "delusions." (61) Yet the farther that biologists have walked away from "wishful thinking," the harder their journey has become, for (as Dawkins acknowledges) science has always depended in part on wishes. (62) The theory of evolution took hold in the Victorian era because it was popularized as a basis for utopia, and when these dreams perished in World War II, science recovered by shifting to rocket flight and the romance of space. (63) Indeed, Dawkins has himself admitted this dependence, recently calling upon scientists to refresh their sense of "poetic magic." (64) Just like the men of the West biologists need something to sustain their sense of importance, and so now that their old dreams have been swept away by nature, they are not free from romance. Rather, they need it more than ever.

But from where is this romance to come? Dawkins suggests that it can be found in "reality" itself: "I hope to show you in this book that reality--the facts of the real world as understood through the methods of science--is magical." (65) Yet as My Antonia flatly demonstrates, this view of science is a contradiction in terms; far from sustaining romance, reality ends it. The dreams of Darwinists must come from elsewhere, and just as on the original frontier, feminism can help. From its inception feminism has provided a way to imagine the possibilities foreclosed by material circumstance. That is to say, as de Beauvoir observes, it has always been a source of romance. (66) Unlike the religious "delusions" that Dawkins condemns, moreover, feminism shares with modern biology a commitment to rejecting ideology, authority, and blind traditionalism. Its forms of dreaming are thus thoroughly Darwinian, and indeed, on the logic of sexual selection itself, there is no more natural source of an evolutionary future. Perhaps in this future college biology syllabi will include The Female Eunuch. Perhaps the National Science Foundation will fund reproductive technologies that redistribute the labor of childbearing. Or perhaps something entirely different will transpire, as unimaginable to us now as the writings of bell hooks would have been to Cather. Whatever such a tomorrow looks like, however, feminism's dreams can help guide science without reviving the anti-Darwinian teleologies that usurped evolutionary biology in the years following One of Ours. (67) Instead they can preserve Darwin's most revolutionary insight: there are no absolutes in nature, for life is as open as Cather's West.


(1.) Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 6th ed. (London: John Murray, 1872), 70.

(2.) Erika Milam, Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

(3.) Ernest Haeckel, The Riddle of the Universe, trans. Joseph McCabe (New York: Harpers, 1900), 114.

(4.) In The Descent of Man Darwin declared: "The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain." See Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1871), 1: 327.

(5.) Angelique Richardson, Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth Century: Rational Reproduction and the New Woman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

(6.) Holly J. McCammon and Karen E. Campbell, "Winning the Vote in the West: The Political Successes of the Women's Suffrage Movements, 1866-1919," Gender and Society 15 (2001): 55-82.

(7.) "Extension of Suffrage to Women Is Vital to Winning the War, President Tells Senate Official U.S. Bulletin 2 (Sept. 30, 1918): 5, 3.

(8.) See Christine A. Lunardini and Thomas J. Knock, "Woodrow Wilson and Woman Suffrage: A New Look," Political Science Quarterly 95 (1980-81): 655-71, 665.

(9.) Penelope Deutscher, "The Descent of Man and the Evolution of Woman," Hypatia 19 (2004): 35-55; Ruth Hubbard, "Have Only Women Evolved?" in Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, ed. Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka (Dordrecht, Holland, and Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1983).

(10.) Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 31.

(11.) For a summary (and critique) of strategic essentialism see Alison Stone, An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy (New York: Polity, 2007), 150. See also Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. C. Borde and S. Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 267; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), 39; Toril Moi, "From Femininity to Finitude: Freud, Lacan, and Feminism, Again." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29 (2004): 841-78.

(12.) Maria I. Diedrich, Cornelia James Cannon and the Future American Race (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).

(13.) For example, see Elizabeth A. Grosz, Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); Griet Vandermassen, Who's Afraid of Charles Darwin? Debating Feminism and Evolutionary Theory (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); P. Gowaty, ed., Feminism and Evolutionary Biology: Boundaries, Intersections, and Frontiers (New York: Chapman & Hall, 1997).

(14.) Nancy Easterlin, A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). As Easterlin observes, the place of Darwinism among feminists in the humanities remains "controversial" and "politically sensitive."

(15.) Amy Ahearn, "Full-Blooded Writing and Journalistic Fictions: Naturalism, the Female Artist and Willa Cather's "The Song of the Lark," American Literary Realism 33 (2001): 143-56; David A. Carpenter, "Why Willa Cather Revised 'Paul's Case," The Work in Art and Those Sunday Afternoons." American Literature 59 (1987): 590-608; Mary Ruth Ryder, "'All Wheat and No Chaff," Frank Norris' Blix and Willa Cather's Literary Vision." American Literary Realism 22 (1989): 17-30.

(16.) Bert Bender, "Frank Norris on the Evolution and Repression of the Sexual Instinct." Nineteenth-Century Literature 54 (1999): 73-103; Rebecca Nisetich, "The Nature of the Beast: Scientific Theories of Race and Sexuality in McTeague," Studies in American Naturalism 4 (2009): 1-21.

(17.) Frank Norris, McTeague (New York: P. F. Collier, 1899), 122.

(18.) Norris, McTeague, 86, 129, 130, 134, 183 (hereafter cited in the text).

(19.) William Dean Howells, Literature and Life: Studies (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1902), 21; Henry James, Essays in London and Elsewhere (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1893), 269.

(20.) Elise Miller, "The Feminization of American Realist Theory." American Literary Realism 23 (1990): 20-41, 21.

(21.) For his critical writings see Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1903), 208.

(22.) See Willa Cather, The World and the Parish: Willa Cattier's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902, ed. William M. Curtin, 2 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), 2: 608; Jennifer Bailey, "The Dangers of Femininity in Willa Cather's Fiction," Journal of American Studies 16 (1982): 391-406.

(23.) Cather, World and the Parish, 1: 153, 1: 275, 1: 291, 1: 277.

(24.) This shift is traced in Sharon O'Brien, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 124.

(25.) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Across Gender, Across Sexuality: Willa Cather and Others," South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 53-72.

(26.) Gilman writes: "To the man, the world was his world ... [and] having it, [he] insisted on calling it male." See Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, or Our Androcentric Culture (New York: Charlton, 1911). For contemporary queer culture see George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994). See also Sedgwick, "Across Gender, Across Sexuality"; Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Christopher Nealon, Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion before Stonewall (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).

(27.) Cather, World and the Parish, 2: 746.

(28.) Cather, World and the Parish, 2: 745.

(29.) Lynde's particular brand of sentimentalism was not regionally specific. See, for example, Francis Lynde, "The Graves in the Old Breastworks: A Memorial Day Story of Old Alabama," Ladies Home Journal 15 (June 1898): 8. Meanwhile, as Norris saw it: "the Frontier is gone" (Responsibilities of the Novelist, 72).

(30.) McCammon and Campbell, "Winning the Vote in the West."

(31.) See Caroline Nichols Churchill, "Woman's Suffrage," Queen Bee 14 (Apr. 26, 1893): 1; Elizabeth Piper Ensley, "Election Day," Woman's Era i (June 9, 1894): 17-18.

(32.) Willa Cather, 0 Pioneers!, ed. Charles Mignon (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 28 (hereafter cited in the text as OP).

(33.) Willa Gather, My Antonia, ed. Charles Mignon (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press) 2003), 121 (hereafter cited in the text as MA).

(34.) See Valerie Rohy, "On Homosexual Reproduction," differences 23 (2012): 101-30, 103.

(35.) Cather, World and the Parish, 2:596.

(36.) W D. Howells, The Heroines of Fiction, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1901), 1:11.

(37.) Howells, Heroines of Fiction, 1: 12.

(38.) For a summary of Cather's views on romance see Katie Owens-Murphy, "Modernism and the Persistence of Romance," Journal of Modern Literature 34 (2011): 48-62, 49.

(39.) In the final moments of The Song of the Lark the "fairy tales" of the "romancer" Mrs. Tillie "bring real refreshment; bring to the old, memories, and to the young, dreams." See Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1915), 489-90 (hereafter cited in the text as SL). In the opening pages of My Antonia an unseen woman (perhaps Cather herself) credits Jim with a "romantic" outlook and observes that it has been "one of the strongest elements in his success" (xi). For the "illusion" of life see Cather, World and the Parish, 2:596.

(40.) Willa Gather, One of Ours, ed. Frederick M. Link (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 175-76 (hereafter cited in the text as 00).

(41.) Cather, World and the Parish, 1: 277.

(42.) For more on the queer elements in Gather's work see, T. a Adams, "My Gay Antonia: The Politics of Willa Cather's Lesbianism." Journal of Homosexuality 12 (1986): 89-98. For a helpful summary of the different ways of taking the sexuality of these novels see Scott Herring, "Catherian Friendship; or, How Not to Do the History of Homosexuality." Modern Fiction Studies 52 (2006): 66-91, 67. Also useful is Marilee Lindemann, Willa Cather: Queering America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

(43.) See Carisa R. Showden, "What's Political about the New Feminisms?" Frontiers 30 (2009): 166-98. In addition to Showden see R. Claire Snyder, "What Is Third-Wave Feminism? A New Directions Essay," Signs 34 (2008): 175-96. Snyder observes that third-Wave feminism shares a general commitment to "multivocality over synthesis and action over theoretical justification" and that "in response to the divisiveness of the sex wars, third-wave feminism emphasizes an inclusive and nonjudgmental approach that refuses to police the boundaries of the feminist political." For an overview of the new feminisms see Stacy Gillis, Gillian Howie, and Rebecca Munford, Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, Expanded Second Edition (New York: Palgrave, 2007).

(44.) On Cather's rejection of flat biological determinism Walter Benn Michaels has observed that for Cather "the very idea of cultural identity requires both the extension and the critique of descent-based, biological identity." See Walter Benn Michaels, "The Vanishing American." American Literary History 2 (1990): 220-41, 237

(45.) L. Brent Bohlke, ed., Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 142.

(46.) See Ronald Schaffer, "The Montana Woman Suffrage Campaign, 1911-14," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 55 (1964): 9-15,14; Bettina Friedl, ed., On to Victory: Propaganda Plays of the Woman Suffrage Movement (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987); Alice Sheppard, Cartooning for Suffrage (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994). See Gail H. Landsman, "The 'Other' as Political Symbol: Images of Indians in the Woman Suffrage Movement," Ethnohistory 39 (1992): 247-84, 256, for a reproduction of the "Better Babies" poster.

(47.) For voting rights see Aristophanes, Lysistrata, ed. and trans. Alan H. Sommerstein (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1990), 11.580-86. For marriage see Susan McCloskey, "Knowing One's Relations in Congreve's The Way of the World," Theatre Journal 33 (1981): 69-79, 75.

(48.) Willa Cather, "The Love Chase" (review), Nebraska State Journal, Mar. 1, 1894, rpt., Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter 20, no. 2 (Summer 1976): 2.

(49.) H. L. Mencken, "Reflections on Prose Fiction," Smart Set 68 (1922): 138-44, 141.

(50.) Carl Van Doren, Contemporary American Novelists, 1900-1920 (New York: Macmillan, 1922), 120. Bohlke

(51.) Bohlke, Willa Cather in Person, 149.

(52.) "'The outsider: [Cather] often argued in criticizing efforts to Americanize immigrants, had much to offer the young culture of her or his adopted homeland, such as richness, variety, and resistance to the insular and homogenizing tendencies of modern mass culture in the United States." See Marilee Lindemann, "Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, and: Willa Cather and Others, and: Willa Gather: The Writer and Her World" (review), Legacy 20 (2003): 191-94, 191-92.

(53.) Bohlke, Willa Gather in Person, 58.

(54.) Bohlke, Willa Cather in Person, 150.

(55.) For masculine associations with war see Jonathan Goldberg, Willa Cather and Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 91.

(56.) For Hemingway's reaction see Joan Ross Acocella, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, 19. Morris griped: "But Miss Cather, writing of the close of an epoch in our national history and the beginning of a new one, discerns no fresh direction given to American life and therefore asserts no convinced vision of its future' See Lloyd Morris, "Willa Cather." North American Review 219 (1924): 641-52, 642.

(57.) H. L. Mencken, "Portrait of an American Citizen," Smart Set 69 (1922): 138-44, 141.

(58.) Harry E. Maule and Melville Cane, eds., The Man from Main Street: A Sinclair Lewis Reader: Selected Essays and Other Writings, 1904-1950 (New York: Random House, 1963), 173.

(59.) Martha McCaughey, The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science (New York: Routledge, 2007). For an example of the sort of Darwinism that McCaughey is rebelling against, see Jonathan Gottschall, "Quantitative Literary Study: A Modest Manifesto and Testing the Hypotheses of Feminist Fairy Tale Studies," in The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, ed. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005), 199-224. See also Donald McBurney, "The Caveman Meets Postmodern Feminism," Sex Roles 62 (2009): 138-40; and Shira Tarrant, Men and Feminism (Berkeley: Seal, 2009.)

(60.) Almost the entire conversation has taken place in the social and natural sciences. See, for example, the growing body of work in Sex Roles: David Michael Buss and David P. Schmitt, "Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism: Sex Roles A (2011): 768-87; Rebecca J. Hannagan, "Gendered Political Behavior: A Darwinian Feminist Approach: Sex Roles 59 (2008): 465-75; Griet Vandermassen, "Can Darwinian Feminism Save Female Autonomy and Leadership in Egalitarian Society?" Sex Roles 59 (2008): 482-91. Also see Laurette T. L Liesen, "Women, Behavior, and Evolution: Understanding the Debate between Feminist Evolutionists and Evolutionary Psychologists: Politics and the Life Sciences 26 (2007): 51-70; Anne Campbell, A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(61.) Dawkins is quoted in Dan Cray, "God vs. Science: Time, Nov. 5, 2006). For "transhumanism" see Marc Swetlitz, "Julian Huxley and the End of Evolution: Journal of the History of Biology 28 (1995): 181-217. For "religious naturalism" see Stephen Jay Gould, Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine, 1999), 6.

(62.) Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2006), 404.

(63.) Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades around 1900 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1992); Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (New York: Random House, 1979).

(64.) Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality (New York: Free Press, 2011), 22.

(65.) Dawkins, Magic of Reality, 22.

(66.) de Beauvoir, Second Sex, 257, 621.

(67.) Bowler, Eclipse of Darwinism. This "eclipse" reached its zenith in the 1930s, but as Valerie Rohy shows, it continues to be omnipresent in popular understandings of Darwinism.
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Author:Fletcher, Angus
Publication:Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies
Article Type:Essay
Date:May 1, 2013
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