An antipathy toward the modernization of America cannot adequately explain why so many white women became involved in promoting Indian arts and crafts. For both female "uplifters" and preservationist women, shifting conceptions of women's roles in white America also contributed to their participation in the arts and crafts movement. Each wing of the arts and crafts movement seemed to include large numbers of "feminists," that is, broadly defined, women who were very concerned with and actively working to improve the position of women in American society. Yet, when we look more specifically at their goals and methods, each group of women in the arts and crafts movement held to a very different view of feminism. Women in the movement who sought the uplift of Native Americans through arts and crafts largely emerged from a tradition of female moral reform. According to many women's historians, in the late 19th century, notions of white middle-class women's roles in the home paradoxically opened up opportunities for women to play a public role. Supposedly pious and sexually pure, and in the name of protecting the Home, many white middle-class Protestant women became active in crusading for temperance, attacking prostitution, promoting health and hygiene, campaigning for women's suffrage, and engaging in Indian reform. In each of these reform activities, although virtually none of them would have actually called themselves feminists, female moral reformers conceived of women as a class of victims, oppressed by male immoralities.(18) Interestingly, however, as Peggy Pascoe has observed, they more often identified men of other races, religions, and classes as the most immoral degraders of women. BIA schoolteacher and moral reformer Mary Dissette, for example, claimed that in Pueblo culture, "the male is supreme and all that contributes to his comfort or pleasure is his by right of his male supremacy."(19)

Therefore, many female moral reformers turned their attention away from challenging male dominance in the white middle class to rescuing other women who supposedly did not enjoy the status and respect accorded to white middle-class women.

By the first decades of the 20th century, other visions of womanhood emerged to challenge those of female moral reformers. New Freudian conceptions of sexuality, working-class women's articulation of a competing vision of female sexuality, advertising, and commercialized leisure all contributed to a breakdown of late-Victorian ideals of female sexual purity. Indeed, many of the women who participated in the preservationist wing of the arts and crafts movement rejected female moral reformers' vision of womanhood and instead championed a new feminism that emphasized women's self-fulfillment, individualism, and sexual expression.
(20) These antimodern feminists, as I call them, (who include Mabel Dodge Lujan and Mary Austin, among others), disavowed female moral reformers' views of white middle-class women's sexual purity and their self-proclaimed mission to rescue women of other races, religions, and classes from their supposedly degraded condition. Unlike female moral reformers, they did not deem men to be dominant in Pueblo society, but believed women held the ultimate authority. Mary Austin, for example, referred to Pueblo women's power as "Mother-rule."(21)

Fig. 4: Mabel Dodge Lujan, Frieda Lawrence,
and Dorothy Brett,
Courtesy Harwood Museum of the University of New Mexico

Changes in notions of white women's roles and sexual natures deeply affected white women who participated in the arts and crafts movement. In fact, they seem to have used the movement as a forum for articulating and debating their competing visions of gender and sexuality in modern America. Throughout white women's private correspondence and promotional material regarding Indian arts and crafts, Indian women became powerful symbols of white women's differing ideals. Women in both wings of the movement endowed Indian women artists with their rival visions. Uplifters characterized the Pueblo artist as a morally upright pioneer among her people, who, through her industry, would "uplift" herself and eventually the rest of her people. Uplifters saw Indian women (and men) as unfairly segregated from modern America. Arts and crafts could help Indian women, indeed all Indians, to become full members of American society. Not coincidentally, female moral reformers also saw themselves as segregated from the mainstream of modern American life. It was small wonder that female moral reformers identified assimilation into modern American life as their goal for Native Americans; it was also their own ambition for white women.

In contrast to uplifters, white women in the preservationist wing represented Indian women artists as the most traditional members of their villages. Preservationist women portrayed the outstanding Indian woman artist as a woman who found satisfaction in the home and in the daily round of domestic duties. Indeed, Pueblo women supposedly gracefully combined their domestic responsibilities with their art work. An early 1930s article featured painter Tonita Peña working at home: "She is surrounded by children. The youngest one was strapped to Tonita's back most of last summer while she was painting . . . . She works at a tiny table by a window. Her paints and paper are there, and she goes to it when she is not busy with other things, just as our mothers pick up the socks that have to be darned."

Fig. 5: Tonita Peña, Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico, ca 1935
Photo by T. Harmon Parkhurst,
Courtesy Museum of New Mexico, Neg. No. 47480

This idealized image of Pueblo women might be surprising given that many preservationist women championed careers and more public roles for white women. At least in white society, Austin, for instance, rebelled against the notion "that the work a human being may do in the world is determined by sex."
(23) Preservationists' veneration of Pueblo women's domesticity reveals the tension that developed for these women between their anti-modernism and their vision of womanhood. In their portrayals of Pueblo culture, they sought to reconcile their competing values. While they envisioned powerful roles for women, they also seemed to want to recover a period when the center of power and influence supposedly rested with women in the home and not with men in the office or the assembly hall. As with uplifters, preservationist women's images of Indian women artists reflected their own visions of white womanhood. White women also seem to have used the movement as a vehicle for obtaining further public recognition for themselves. Both female moral reformers and antimodern feminists may have also found a way to turn emerging women's concerns -- consumption and aestheticism -- into public authority rather than private practice.


All text Margaret D. Jacobs