Mountains, Gender, and American Environmentalism
Susan R. Schrepfer
From the ancient Appalachians to the high Sierra, mountains have always symbolized wilderness for Americans. Susan Schrepfer unfolds the history of our fascination with high peaks and rugged terrain to tell how mountains have played a dramatic role in shaping American ideas about wilderness and its regulation.
Delving into memoirs and histories, letters and diaries, early photos and old maps, Schrepfer especially compares male and female mountaineering narratives to show the ways in which gender affected what men and women found to value in rocky heights, and how their different perceptions together defined the wilderness preservation movement for the nation. The Sierra Club in particular popularized the mystique of America's mountains, and Schrepfer uses its history to develop a sweeping interpretation of twentieth-century wilderness perceptions and national conservation politics.
“Nature’s Altars reaches the heights to which it aspires. Schrepfer listens and interprets conversations about wilderness, crafting a book that informs our understanding of how gender shaped the environment. I will never again read the mountains—either in my experiences or through the writings of others—in the same way.”
—Journal of Social History
“A fresh interpretation of the intertwined histories of mountaineering and wilderness preservation. . . . Nature’s Altars should be required reading for environmental historians and will appeal to those interested in the history of outdoor recreation, environmental policy, women, and gender.”
—Western Historical QuarterlySee all reviews...
“An important book that expands our understanding of twentieth century conservation history. It is a splendid cultural excursion very much worth taking.”
—American Historical Review
“Schrepfer’s informative, accessible study provides readers with a solid history connecting American environmentalism, gender ideologies, and wilderness encounters, mostly in the form of mountain climbing, from the 1860s to the 1960s. Using memoirs, climbing narratives, maps, and photographs Schrepfer skilfuly weaves historical information about Americans' experience with mountains (both male and female) and cultural notions of gender using American environmental history as a bedrock for this examination. This book expands our knowledge of U.S. environmental history, and contributes to discussions on gender and environmentalism. This book is well-researched and revelatory in its revisioning of early American environmentalism and culture, disclosing how mountain narratives are gendered in their connection to experiences with the natural world. . . . Ultimately, [the book] centralizes women’s involvement, and notions of gender in American environmental history, revealing the ways in which they have shaped and sustained ideas of, and practices with the natural world.”
“Scholars and students of both American women's history and environmental history will find much in this ambitious and important study to ponder, debate, and celebrate.”
—American Historical Review
“A fresh and incisive book that may be the best monograph in U.S. environmental history yet to appear to use gender as its central category of analysis. Together with Virginia Scharff’s edited collection Seeing Nature through Gender, Schrepfer’s book will help propel a new wave of work integrating gender analysis with environmental history. . . . However sophisticated the underlying arguments are, the book is a grounded, lively, and embodied narrative. It recounts lived experiences, often harrowing and dramatic, of men and women in the mountains. It is an engaging read, and one that would make a superb introduction to undergraduates of environmental history, the importance of the wilderness idea, and the significance of gender as a social reality and a way to investigate the past. . . . Schrepfer does much to put on the table the ways class, racial and gendered identities shaped experiences of and perspectives on wilderness in the twentieth century.”
—Reviews in American History
“Schrepfer has given us an outstanding example of how to use the techniques of gender history to illuminate traditional environmental history topics—in this case, mountain climbing and wilderness preservation. Schrepfer’s approach is at once social and cultural. . . . Schrepfer’s singular contribution here is her rescue of feminine perspectives on mountains from the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. . . . Good books are those that offer new insights into the past and provide grist for ongoing debates. Nature’s Altars gives us both, and no environmental or social historian should miss it.”
“In this innovative study of men and women recreationists who confronted mountains and wilderness directly, Schrepfer defines experience in nature through the lens of gender. . . . An important contribution.”
—Polly Welts Kaufman, author of National Parks and the Woman’s Voice: A History
“Just when it seemed that all that could be said about wilderness preservation had been said, along comes Schrepfer’s fresh and nuanced history. . . . An excellent argument for why gender analysis is indispensable.”
—Jennifer Price, author of Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern AmericaSee fewer reviews...
Schrepfer follows men like John Muir, Wilderness Society cofounder Robert Marshall, and the Sierra Club's own David Brower into the mountains—and finds them frequently in the company of women. She tells how mountaineering women shaped their lives through high adventure well before the twentieth century, participating in Appalachian mountain clubs and joining men as "Mazamas"—mountain goats—scaling Oregon's Mount Hood.
From these expeditions, Schrepfer examines how women's ideas, language, and activism helped shape American environmentalism just as much as men's, parsing the "Romantic sublime" into its respective masculine and feminine components. Tracing this history to the 1964 Wilderness Act, she also shows how the feminine sublimes continue to flourish in the form of ecofeminism and in exploits like the all-woman climb of Annapurna in 1978.
By explaining why both women and men risked their lives in these landscapes, how they perceived them, and why they wanted to save them, Schrepfer also reveals the ways in which religion, social class, ethnicity, and nationality shaped the experience of the natural world. Full of engaging stories that shed new light on a history many believe they already know, her book adds subtlety and nuance to the oft-told annals of the wild and gives readers a new perspective on the wilderness movement and mountaineering.