Tuesday, January 24, 2017

REVIEW: A Woman Tenderfoot

A Woman Tenderfoot
Author: Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson

Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson was truly a woman before her time. Famous for founding the Camp Fire Girls, she was also a world-traveler, author and outspoken suffragist. She was the first western woman to travel alone into India and China. She wrote several best-selling books about her travels through the Rocky Mountains, China, Egypt, Hawaii, Indochina, Japan and South America. Her husband was a famous naturalist and writer, Ernest Seton-Thompson.

A Woman Tenderfoot was first published in 1900. My copy (found at the bottom of an old box of grungy paperbacks in a thriftshop....treasure!!) was a reprint published in 1987.

This book gave me no end of joy. I expected a travelogue sort of book about her travels with her husband. I wasn't familiar with either her or her husband before I read this book. I have to be honest and say I expected the book to be filled with the trials and tribulations of a spoiled Victorian woman unwillingly dragged along on multiple trips to the wilds. I was pleasantly surprised......this was not a book of complaints and sob stories from the spoiled, wealthy wife of a famous outdoorsman. It was exactly the opposite. This is the tale of a strong, capable and athletic woman who wanted other women to accompany their husbands on trips to the west, as long as they could learn to behave properly, pack the right gear and not act like spoiled simpletons. Her personality, strength, wit and intelligence came shining through on every page!

Grace writes simple instructions for Victorian women who wish to accompany their husbands on lengthy mountain or hunting trips. She even includes a basic pattern for a riding outfit that would allow them to maintain modesty while riding astride a horse. She cautions women not to join a mountain trek if they can't handle riding astride a horse. Riding side-saddle, Grace writes, causes undue delays for the entire party and is also too cumbersome, painful and frightening for the horse. In the case of an accident where a horse slips on a mountain trail, riding side-saddle might also cause both the horse and woman to die if she is unable to dismount quickly. She also states that women should bring only what they really need, providing a basic list and packing tips. She gives a diagram showing the proper way to lash bedrolls and small trunks to pack animals. And, she states that a woman must bring an exact duplicate of her camping pack (containing a rubber air mattress, silverware, aluminum plate, cup, etc) along for her husband, brother, father, etc or the men will be "constantly borrowing yours.''  Above all, she pretty much lays it out plain: Victorian women should be willing to accompany their men on hunting trips or other expeditions because the exercise is good for them, it will improve their relationship with their menfolk and the wilds are beautiful. But she also cautions that women must be prepared for the trip, not delay the group, and not complain.

I had to smile when she talked about the one demand that a woman must make before such a trip. She wrote that a woman needs to be sure that one of the guides is also being paid to cook. She did not recommend that a woman try to cook over an open fire, or try her hand at cooking trail foods. Then she cautioned that a woman along on a trip must be willing to eat the food prepared for the men without complaint. If there is dirt or any contaminants in the food, a woman should quietly and without comment flick the offending item off her plate or push it to the side, without making any comment. And, at no time, should she express disgust at the abilities of the cook and demand to cook the food for the group herself.

Her stories were wonderful. She talked about hunting elk, getting lost on the trail, capturing a skunk and other small animals for her husband to draw, her impression of their cook who was actually a convicted felon and multiple-murderer, and her tales of all the people they met on their travels through the Rocky Mountains. They were in the area that is now the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, near Jackson Hole. It's beautiful country! I can only imagine what it looked like before paved roads and modern conveniences.

She offers many tips and suggestions for early 1900's women who want to make a trek to the Rocky Mountains. She reiterates many times that the mountains are "not New York,'' cautioning that the people, supplies and accommodations will be very different from a city woman's normal experience. She gives suggestions for fashion on such trips, tips for how to behave or handle problems, and tells stories about times when she could have handled danger, stressful events or her own mistakes with more calm strength, rather than panic or fear.

All in all, this book was awesome. I loved her more than 100-year old advice for women. In an era where women couldn't even vote, she was definitely before her time. She married a naturalist, so she learned to ride a horse like a man, fire a gun and trek for hundreds of miles without any undue discomfort. She also challenged women to get out and really experience the outdoors and to live their lives outside of the city, hotels and the constraints of society.

The 1987 reprint from Nick Lyons Books that I found contains both the original text and illustrations.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in history, the Rocky Mountains, the Victorian era, feminism or the suffragist movement. Such a great read! I wish I could have a time machine just for an hour or two so I could go back in time and have one conversation with Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson. I imagine she was quite a pistol and would be so much fun to join in conversation!

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