Frontier Domesticity

The Real Housewives of Lewiston, Montana

In a July 10, 2017 entry on her website, The Pioneer Woman—popular television cooking personality Ree Drummond—describes a scene in which her husband and children round up their herd of cattle for shipping in the rain. Labeled under the tag “Confessions of a Pioneer Woman,” Drummond’s post details the cattle roundup and also serves as entry into the ways that the fantasy of the frontier continues to underpin gendered conceptions of individual, familial, and communal identity in the United States. Describing her daughter’s experience, Drummond writes, “Aw, poor cowgirl. She definitely earned her stripes. I wanted to run over and wrap her in a blanket, but she likes being one of the big kids and probably wouldn’t have wanted the cowboys to see her giving in. They breed ’em tough out here in the country! Ha.”

Here, Drummond is not engaged in the labor of animal husbandry, but rather in the reproductive and care labor that is a precondition of the roundup. Drummond sells the narrative that her domestic work—including her cooking, the emotional labor of “run[ning] over and wrap[ping] her in a blanket,” and the labor of literal biological reproduction, “breed[ing] ‘em”—is essential yet also subsidiary to the operation of her family’s ranch. Indeed, Drummond’s role in supporting the operations of the ranch through her reproductive labor is the premise of her television show and helps viewers identify with her particular brand of heavy, rustic recipes that double as salves for her hard-working husband and children.

Despite the novelty of media formats like her blog and television spot, Drummond’s sentiments draw on the deeper history of the emotive and affective structures of the “cult of domesticity,” which solidified in the middle of the nineteenth century during a key moment of internal political turmoil and U.S. imperial expansion. The cult of domesticity describes the emphatic embrace of the domestic space or home as the realm of feminine authority in opposition to the public spheres of business, politics, war, and street-life, which were considered the domain of men. The rise of the cult of domesticity, in part, registered the gendered contours of a rapidly shifting American landscape that was fueled by westward expansion, the proliferation of slavery, and the rise of industry. Many of the principles of the cult of domesticity correlated with the changing material conditions and emergent architectures of American expansionism between the end of the eighteenth century and the first segment of the nineteenth. In particular, nascent modes of regionally specific vernacular housing construction on the frontier made it increasingly possible, viable, and ideal for nuclear families to serve as the anchor for the social order of empire. In the Mid-Western settlers developed stick frame houses held together by inexpensive nails by the mid-nineteenth century, while in the South settlers continued to rely on crude but easily assembled clapboard houses that originated in the eighteenth century. Briefly examining this history will help us make sense of the appeal of Drummond’s lucrative brand in our own moment and highlight the connections between histories of affect and the infrastructures of empire.

Virginia frame house

In his classic 1953 essay “The Westward Moving House,” writer and historian J.B. Jackson outlined the shifting modes of housing employed by generations of settlers in New England and their descendants moving to the Mid-West.[1] While for the first generations of Europeans in New England, nature was associated with the hostility of Indigenous nations and wild animals, “later generations of American pioneers had little or none of this hostility to nature,” embracing it as part of their god-ordained domain. As the second and third generations of settlers entering through New England began to view what their grandparents had considered hostile nature as open territory for white expansion, the conservative construction practices for housing that mirrored earlier English styles gave way to forms that could be easily replicated without the arduous labor of an entire village. Homes of the Mid-West in the 1850s and 1860s adopted nailed frame construction replacing tedious mortise and tenon joints and making possible construction by a small number of people—like a family unit—in an isolated section of the plains.

Likewise, the southern landscape was shaped by a distinctive trajectory of expansion that followed a similar turn toward vernacular architectural forms that could be easily configured by individual white families, especially in the upcountry. As Jackson comments in another of his essays, “The Virginia Heritage,” the culture of colonial Tidewater Virginia spread rapidly because of the ecologically destructive mode of stewardship settlers employed. Virginians engaged in practices like turning their cattle and hogs loose into the forest to graze for themselves, likely giving rise to Drummond’s male analog, the “cowboy.” Like their New England and Mid-Western counterparts, Virginians leaving the coastal areas for what they viewed as open and available land further west, created a novel form of housing that could be rapidly reproduced. Virginians’ rapid expansion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was largely facilitated by the emergence of what is commonly regarded as the “Virginia house” or the “Virginia frame”—a small structure composed of unrefined timber with a clapboard roof and siding. As Thomas Jefferson lamented in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, “The private buildings are rarely constructed of stone or brick; much the greatest proportion being of scantling and board, plastered with lime. It is impossible to devise things more ugly, uncomfortable, and happily more perishable.” Despite what Jefferson considered their ugliness, the easily reproducible Virginia house served as a key technology of white settler’s expansion into the emergent territories of the West.

These key yet subtle technological innovations in the vernacular architectural design of the frontier were accompanied by shifts in the nature of social identity. Earlier visions of communal life centered in villages, at least in New England, gave way to smaller-scale visions of community organized almost exclusively around nuclear families in America’s wasteland turned heartland. Key to the overall coherence of the solidification of land tenure practices, housing construction, and settler expansion into indigenous lands was the glorified role of white women in domesticating the foreign—or that which was considered beyond the purview of (white) civilization. As literary scholar Amy Kaplan observes through her engagement with key popular figures in the cult of domesticity, like Catharine Beecher and Sarah Josepha Hale, “the concept of female influence so central to domestic discourse and at the heart of the sentimental ethos is underwritten by and abets the imperial expansion of the nation.” In other words, the cult of domesticity that solidified in the mid-nineteenth century played a key role in justifying and making coherent an incipient vision of U.S. expansion and “manifest destiny.”

It’s sod good

In light of this history, let us return to Drummond. Despite the visual signifiers of an old frontier ranch, including the log exterior of their home and the regular camera pans of the cattle range, Drummond and her family are not a socially isolated pioneer family. In fact, given her more than eight-million-dollar net-worth and the extravagant size of her family home, it is unlikely that Drummond alone is responsible for the domestic and care labor that keeps the family ranch in operation. White bourgeois domesticity has historically required the labor and service of others. Drummond’s staged performance of an archaic vision of white domesticity begs a question: What function does this kind of narrative play in our contemporary moment and why is it so popular?

Drummond’s version of frontier domesticity has gained traction because of the ideological work it does to reinforce normative white familial life centered in the home, especially during our particularly restive political moment. Inside the United States and in ongoing external wars, the projection of a sanctified domestic space serves to strengthen the political resolve of the majority of white Americans who view their normative home and familial structure as key to ongoing American supremacy the world over. As much as she dwells on the frontier, Drummond also signifies on The Donna Reed Show and the dominant media of the mid-twentieth century—another era in which the normative white familial ideal and the invigorated discourses of domesticity solidified and recalibrated in response to ongoing war abroad and the internal political struggles galvanized by mid-century social movements.

There are inherently violent tendencies toward normalization embedded in Drummond’s. Although unintended, these are what have helped to sustain the “Pioneer Woman” brand for a decade, as the comments to the July 2017 post attest. Echoing the sentiments of previous commenters on Drummond’s post, which lauded Drummond’s good child rearing, Teri T. responded, “Your kids are learning so many life lessons. Great Parents. No snowflakes in your family.” Although Terri T. is not explicit, this commenter glorifies the role Drummond takes as a “great parent” especially because it will prevent her children from being “snowflakes” which, according to Urban Dictionary, is used popularly to describe “extremist liberals that get offended by every statement and/or belief that doesn’t exactly match their own.” In the era of multiple internal political challenges and unending war abroad, Drummond’s brand, and others like it, that signify on classic Americana serve as a boon for white majoritarian politics anchored in a vision of feminine domestic sanctity and the projections of virile white masculine power externally.  Drummond’s brand, for all intents and purposes, is the kid glove over Donald Trump’s iron fist.

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati. He is also part of the University’s urban futures cluster. Roane’s work is broadly concerned about matters of geography, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities and he is at work on a manuscript titled Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia.

[1] I was introduced to Jackson’s work by historian Elizabeth Blackmar.