Women found freedom amid Yellowstone's wilds

Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2001

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The formally clad women who peer out from 19th century photographs of Yellowstone appear out of place in the wilderness surroundings. But even though these visitors look as if they should be in a drawing room sipping afternoon tea, they were trailblazers, nonetheless.

University of Utah researcher Nickieann Fleener, who examined 350 people in photographs taken by Yellowstone National Park photographers, says the presence of women visitors at the nation's first national park began blurring gender differences.

''The women were pushing the boundaries of what was the social norm, using travel and leisure as a way to escape the fairly limited opportunities that existed for them at home,'' says Fleener, an associate professor of the University of Utah's Department of Communication. Fleener is one of six professors at the university who presented research papers this month for the National Recreation and Parks Association. The annual meeting, which convened in Denver, attracted more than 4,000 federal, state and private parks workers.

Historians generally agree that Victorian women's lives were ruled by the four cardinal virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity, says Fleener. Within that context, the home or private sphere was the woman's appropriate domain while the world outside the home or the public sphere was the man's.

''Through the very act of traveling, women left the private sphere and entered the public,'' says Fleener in her paper ''Women's Leisure: The Shift From the Victorian Ideal to the New Woman as Depicted in Photographs of Yellowstone Tourists, 1872-1930.''

Fleener compared photographs taken in the Victorian period from 1872-1915 to the years 1916-1930 when the modern concept of the ''new womanhood'' emerged. The second division also began the same year the National Park Service was formed, which resulted in aggressively recruiting park visitors -- including women.

Victorian women tourists were photographed at Yellowstone passively viewing the vistas or engaging in only a limited range of physical pursuits, according to Fleener. But even though their activities were minimal, the women were photographed performing robust exercises, such as hiking and skiing. This ran counter to the Victorian ideal, which held that women were delicate and physically inferior.

In the later period, however, women park visitors were participating in all the activities that men did, such as fishing, camping, hiking, swimming, riding horses and the ''now politically incorrect activity of feeding bears,'' says Fleener. Men apparently did not participate in only one activity: Women alone were shown tossing handkerchiefs into Yellowstone's Handkerchief Pool.

Fleener also found that in the earlier Victorian period, both men and women dressed according to their social class -- regardless of the physical activity. For instance, upper-class men hunted or fished while dressed in suits, ties and dress hats; the women hiked in long dresses, hats, dress shoes and bustles. The middle- and lower-class visitors dressed more causally. The men wore work shirts, pants and work boots; the women donned informal dresses, without bustles.

In the later period, both men and women dressed in accord with the activity rather than their social standing, and sometimes the ''new women'' were seen in pants.

''These findings are in keeping with other research of the time,'' says Gary Ellis, chairman of the University of Utah's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism and president of the national Society of Parks and Recreation Educators. ''But much of the research involves interviews and period diaries. Nickieann Fleener's research is innovative and creative.''

Only a few photographs at Yellowstone showed men and women doing domestic chores in the outdoors, such as cooking, laundry, dish washing and child care.

''While this might be tied to the mundane and not particularly visually exciting nature of most domestic activity,'' says Fleener, ''the photographs which did depict it indicated that men and women rather equally shared these responsibilities.''

Regardless of the time period, the most frequent way people were photographed was posed, looking at the camera. These shots were usually taken in camp or hotel settings, on horseback ready to leave on an outing or standing next to a vehicle.

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