American Women in the Wilderness – A New Exhibition in Texas

A new display in Dallas, Texas, celebrates women’s achievements and encounters in the American wild. Over 140 books, manuscripts, photographs and other items from the 17th to the 21st century are being shown at the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.

This exhibition showcasing women’s achievements, features fascinating memorabilia and artifacts of over a hundred women. The varied items on display include items owned by gunslinger Annie Oakley, the study of flora and fauna by Maria Sibylla Merian, items belonging to Martha Jane Cannary, better known as Calamity Jane, and letters from Myra Eells, a missionary who spent a year in Oregon Territory, attempting to earn the trust of local tribes, and to build a home in the wilderness.

The infamous Annie Oakley

Many of these items come from the collection of Caroline Schimmel. After studying American history in the 1960s, she realized that women were vastly underrepresented in history books and literature. This prompted her to put together a remarkable collection of over 24,000 representations of women in the American wilderness. These include numerous books and publications by and about women.

Her years of collecting have taught Schimmel that women “can be tough and resilient, but also smart enough to know when to stop, or reach out for help.” She believes that this aspect of women’s history deserves to be celebrated, not just for a few days or weeks a of the year, but every day of every year, to make up for the centuries of being pushed aside. This is not just because “women were witnesses [to history], but because they are enabled and accomplished.”

A covered wagon in the American wilderness

Women Trailblazers

The items in the new exhibition are just a small part of this, a tiny sample of all the jobs and trails of women in the Americas over the past few centuries. They attempt to give voice to these often devalued women.

Such exhibitions are more than just a celebration of women and their achievements throughout history. They are also an opportunity for everyone to learn about the past, about the food, the clothing, the raising of children, and other seemingly mundane day-to-day activities that make these lives seem real to us today.

A cowboy on horseback at the edge of a cliff at the iconic Monument Valley Tribal Park in Arizona, USA

While the more recent piece displayed in the exhibition include things from American explorer and adventurer Ann Bancroft and here team, it is clear that the future of women’s achievements is still to be written. From finding new medicines, to scaling higher peaks, the possibilities for women all over the world are endless.

The Women in the American Wilderness Exhibition remains open at Dallas until 28 March, and is free to visit. It will open again between 23 August and 4 November, at the Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania.

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