Image credit: 1870 & Flathead National Forest, Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, 1953/ Wikimedia Commons.
In her latest book, Wild Girls (Norton, 2023), Harvard historian Tiya Miles is particularly concerned with how the relationship with nature established by several nineteenth-century women—some prominent, some not—helped them flourish outside of conventional gender roles.
A MacArthur Fellow and the author most recently of All That She Carried, a New York Times bestseller, Miles has long had an interest in studying how humans interact with their environment—a primary focus of Wild Girls.
The book is split into four sections. The first part documents how Harriet Tubman chose to do hard labor out of doors, in order to survive the ravages of slavery. The second discusses the way Louisa May Alcott’s tomboyish love for jumping fences in the countryside influenced her approach to writing “domestic spaces” in Little Women. The final chapters of Wild Girls examine how the environment has been historically used to stereotypically define figures like Sacagawea and Pocahontas while also studying how the act of being outside and playing basketball helped displaced Indigenous girls forced to attend federal schools reckon with their lost cultural identities.
Harriet Tubman refused to learn to weave so that she could escape staying inside, where sexual assault was a constant threat. Outside, while Tubman had to toil in the fields, she was able to use the environment as “a classroom where she could learn and grow.”
From a young age, Alcott disliked the role of caretaker that women were traditionally assigned. While conservative expectations restricted women to working inside the home, men were consistently outside of it. And so was young Alcott, who was known to spend her time climbing trees and challenging her peers to races. Meanwhile, Alcott’s family kept insisting that she stay inside. At one point in her life, Alcott’s mother even tied the future author to a sofa to stop her from her habit of running away without warning to play outdoors.
After Indigenous girls across the United States were driven from their homes and forced inside of federal boarding schools—where they were made to participate in and perform traditional western gender roles—Josephine Langley was assigned the position of physical cultural instructor at Fort Shaw. As Miles writes, there, outside of the federal boarding school buildings, playing basketball under the tutelage of Langley, these children were able “to recapture the freedom of movement that they had loved as girls at home.”
Miles is a marvelous prose stylist. Her descriptions of Tubman navigating the woods to guide enslaved people to freedom makes readers feel like they are in the thick of the swamps, following her lead. Her chapter on Sacagawea makes this reader ache for the woman whose childhood was stolen from her.
Wild Girls is a book that will make you long to go out of doors to see what you can learn about yourself when others aren’t watching—which may be just what you need to liberate yourself.
Brianna Corley is an MFA Candidate in Fiction at The New School School of Public Engagement.