February 11, 2013

Book of the Month

Anne Butler, Across God's Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012). 

Reviewed by Jennifer Meredith

Anne Butler restores Catholic Nuns to the narrative of and highlights their contributions in shaping the American West. In Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920, Butler uses an array of archived materials from religious convents in the West to trace interactions of Catholic nuns and the variety of people in the West. From creating needed institutions, such as hospitals and schools, to relief for the poor, nuns influenced surrounding communities in the West. In this process, however, Butler argues the environment and interactions with minorities in the West also changed the sisters and shifted their ideas of gender, race, and class. Butler’s analysis portrays the sisters as real, complicated, and flawed women who influenced the West.

Butler asserts the environment and process of civilizing the west forced nuns to become independent and more self-sufficient. Most had come from established convents of order, routine, and authority. The new, harsh conditions and problems of communicating forced the nuns to make their own decisions. Butler writes, “After a few blunder’s, religious women on their own in the West learned to select the sensible solution and defend their actions at a later date” (47). Butler’s argument is compelling partly because she does not discount the community aspect of the sister’s experience. Rather, her argument suggests the nuns as a group became more independent and not just individually.

Through their interactions with different racial and economic groups the sisters began to view the west not simply as a savage place but a place of inequality. Drawing from the diaries of the nuns, Butler demonstrates their activism on behalf of American Indians, African Americans, and Mexicans and their disgust for minority mistreatment. Butler complicates her narrative, however, by acknowledging most sisters continued to hold racist views common in American society at the time. Butler admits, “The women endorsed a dominating Christianity and the layering of one culture over another until the latter became invisible” (245). Rather than these interactions changing the sister’s views of minority culture that they saw as inferior, they continued to try to teach and civilize the minorities into the white dominant culture at the expense of ethnic identities. Butler portrays the sisters as real people limited in their altruistic vision by their subscription to a dominant racial perspective.

Butler also analyzes gender roles and slight power shifts brought on by independence and self-reliance forged in the west. Butler asserts the sisters obeyed the patriarchic system of authority, yet at the same time, they also pushed for autonomy and freedom that many had become accustomed to in the West. Most sisters did not outright challenge the authority of males in the church, nor did they call for women’s liberation. Rather, they worked within the system to subvert individual male authority where it interfered with their goals. They understood their own capabilities and shifted their roles to increase their authority without undermining the patriarchic structure. Gender roles and identity shifted slightly with the introduction of an independent mindset, but governing gender roles continued to prevail. Butler highlights the sisters’ complex interactions with forces and people in the west that shifted their views and identities.

In Butler’s analysis, the West becomes malleable in form as a process with changing boundaries. Her sources draw their own borders, sometimes reaching more east than many western historians would allow. As a process, the boundaries shift with the progression to the Pacific and as savagery gave way to civility. Butler’s West allows us to view the process with its complex intersections of race, gender, class and environment. This analysis offers an appraisal of nuns’ contributions and restores them to their rightful place as important actors in the building of the American West. It also demonstrates the environments affect on the sisters. Merging process with ethnic convergence and conquest, Butler also provides a symbiosis of New and Turner West that demonstrates the value of both approaches.

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