Gender, Race, and the Construction of the American West

FALL:  Mondays, 5:00 PM – 8:00 PM
September 8 - December 15, 2014
Meets at MIT, Building 56 Room 154


The North American West of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provides a fascinating case study of the shifting meanings of gender, race, citizenship, and power in border societies.  As the site of migration, settlement, and displacement, it spawned contests over land, labor disputes, inter-ethnic conflicts and peaceful relations, and many kinds of cultural productions.

This course explores the historical experiences and cultural productions of women in the North American West during the time it was being explored, settled, and imagined. Challenging the myths of western expansion as an exclusively male endeavor, and the formation of western myth and enterprise as exclusively male domains, the course pays particular attention to the roles of women in promoting, resisting, transforming, and constructing the trans-Mississippi West as reality and imaginary.

The course uses primary sources (diaries, letters, novels, photographs) and secondary source readings to examine gender identity and practice across racial-ethnic groups, geographic region, local economies, and class lines. It does so through the lenses of social and cultural theory, history, sociology, film, literature, craft, and art. The readings consistently prompt questions about the sources of evidence -- whose voice is recorded, whose image is captured, whose art is preserved -- and how the twenty-first century scholar can interpret them. The methodological limitations of certain sources and the implications of their use will be part and parcel of our quest to understand this multi-faceted history.


Karen V. Hansen, a historical sociologist, teaches at Brandeis University. She studies the intersections among kinship, community, and structures of inequality in the United States, using ethnographic research and oral history interviews as well as archival sources. Most recently, she published Encounter on the Great Plains: Scandinavian Settlers and the Dispossession of Dakota Indians, 1890-1930. 

Marilyn S. Johnson is Professor of History at Boston College where she teaches modern U.S. social history and the history of the American West.   She is the author of The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II, Violence in the American West: The Mining and Range Wars, and Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City among other publications. In 2002 she was co-curator of "Cowboys, Indians and the Big Picture," an exhibition of western art at the McMullen Museum at Boston College. 

Lois Rudnick is professor emerita of American Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston, where she chaired the American Studies Department for 26 years.  Her fields of specialization include modern US culture and literature, and multi-ethnic/immigrant literatures and cultures. She has lectured and published widely on American modern art and culture, and on the Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico writer and artist communities.

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Consortium for Graduate Studies in Gender, Culture, Women, and Sexuality
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 14N-211
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
Phone: 617-324-2085