More than 140 books, photographs, manuscripts and items dating from the 17th to the 21st century, showcasing women’s achievements and encounters in the wild have gone on display at the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.
The exhibition features fascinating memorabilia and artifacts by 101 women, documenting everything from the study of flora and fauna by Maria Sibylla Merian, to items owned by gunslinger Annie Oakley, plus the correspondence letter from a woman named Myra Eells – a missionary who spent a year in Oregon Territory, building a home in the wilderness and attempting to earn the trust of local tribes.
Over the years collector, Caroline Schimmel has managed to put together a remarkable collection of 24,000 representations of women in the American wilderness. After studying American history at college in the 1960s, she realised that women were vastly underrepresented in the books and literature she read. “It wasn’t until I was introduced to the world of book collecting and used bookstores in New York that it dawned on me that there were some publications by and about women,” she explained. “I figured that to gather them together would be not only a good goal but fiscally do-able as they were quite inexpensive. A library school professor in the 1970s tasked me with creating a proper bibliography, which would become my goal and my Want List – it contained less than 700 works. In hindsight, not only historians but librarians were sexist,” said Schimmel.
In her years of collecting, Schimmel has learned that women “can be tough and resilient, but also smart enough to know when to stop, or reach out for help.” She believes that similarly to Black history, women’s history deserves attention not one, but every, month of the year to make up for the millennia of being ignored or devalued – “not just because women were witnesses, but because they are enabled and accomplished,” she said. “The items in this particular exhibition are just a teeny tiny sampling of places and jobs women have done over the centuries in the Americas. I hope that visitors will have at least a few wow moments, and be awestruck by these women’s voices.”
Exhibitions like this are not only a celebration of women’s achievements, and survival skills, but an opportunity for men and women to learn about how their ancestors influenced the way we live today. “I delight in meeting men and asking about their grandmothers and great-grandmothers,” said Schimmel, “to imagine how they coped day to day providing their children with water, food, clothing, sanitation, often in a place not of their choosing and without family or friends. On the other hand, that move away from the beady eyes of family and village could be incredibly liberating.”
The most recent piece in the collection is dated 2015, but the future of women’s achievements in the wilderness is yet to be written, “the possibilities for making a difference in the world are endless,” said Schimmel, “for example, finding new medicines by interviewing indigenous doctors, as did several in my Nature section.”
The Women in the American Wilderness Exhibition is free to visit and runs until 28 March at SMU in Dallas, before moving to the Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania between 23 August and 4 November.