In her new book, the historian Tiya Miles shows how formative outdoor experiences helped diverse women — from Harriet Tubman to Indigenous athletes — transcend prescribed social and gender roles.
WILD GIRLS: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation, by Tiya Miles
Tiya Miles’s “Wild Girls” is a thoroughly absorbing exploration of the formative role that nature has played in American women’s lives. A beautiful synthesis of diverse women’s experiences, combining history with memoir and a call to action, this brisk, elegant study — the first in a new series of “short” nonfiction books from Norton — demonstrates how the natural world functioned as a girlhood training ground for adult resistance to the country’s confining gender roles.
Miles, a National Book Award-winning historian at Harvard, begins “Wild Girls” with memories of growing up in Cincinnati — of her outdoor adventures and her marvel over the mighty Ohio River, a lifeline for some in the antebellum South who were able to cross it when it froze, thus escaping from enslavement in Kentucky to freedom in Ohio. From there, Miles unfolds a historical account, with snapshots of her female subjects, considering each woman’s relationship to the environment.
As she travels more or less chronologically, from Harriet Tubman in the early 19th century to Octavia Butler in the late 20th, from enslaved Black women and Native American female athletes to Chinese American and Mexican American labor activists, Miles takes care to show how the women’s varied circumstances shaped their encounters with nature. Although her subjects’ worlds diverge, they all discovered opportunities and inspiration among trees and meadows, prairies and woods, the sky and the earth.
For Tubman, the outdoors was a place of “suffering” and harsh physical labor. But it was also “a classroom where she could learn and grow.” Tubman applied those lessons — about edible forest plants, about the north-south flow of the streams around her, about animals in the woods — to liberate herself, and then, using the North Star as her guide, returned to the South to lead dozens of others to freedom.
Compared with Tubman, Louisa May Alcott, her near contemporary, lived a life of privilege, but she too, Miles suggests, was molded by nature’s emancipating forces. Childhood romps in New England’s wilderness provided her with the template for Jo March, the central character of her best-selling 1868 novel “Little Women.” Miles argues that Jo, the hardheaded “wild girl” who refused to be domesticated, was a cathartic projection of the rebellion against restrictions on female behavior that Alcott and other 19th-century women could never fully express in their own lives.
Nearly three decades after “Little Women” was published, the sport of basketball began to spread quickly through American educational institutions, including the Fort Shaw Indian School, a federal boarding school in Montana, where it was taught to female students. Miles offers a rollicking account of the unsung heroines of Fort Shaw’s girls’ team. Under the direction of Josephine Langley, a young Indigenous woman and accomplished player, the team flourished. Talented and exciting to watch, it beat teams in towns across Montana and thrilled crowds during exhibition games at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Basketball allowed the Fort Shaw girls to break free, for a time, from the strict regimentation of the boarding school system. As sportswomen, they defied presumptions about female weakness and Indigenous “physical and mental fitness.”
“Wild Girls” ends with a discussion of modern women, including an analysis of the science-fiction writer Octavia Butler’s percipient warnings about climate change. In an epilogue, Miles reflects on how Covid-19 highlighted inequities in access to outdoor space, underscoring our failure to ensure that all children are given a chance to thrive in the natural world.
Her book arrives at a time when large swaths of the country have been overrun by deadly fires, racked by relentless heat and parched by drought. The battering of the environment has coincided with an attack on women’s rights. “Wild Girls” reframes hard-fought battles for women’s equality through the lens of empowerment provided by the natural world. It begs us to acknowledge the primacy of the earth not only in historical lives but in our own as well. “The trail is calling,” Miles writes. “Are you ready?”
Jill Watts, an emeritus professor of history at California State University, San Marcos, is the author of “The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt.”
WILD GIRLS: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation | By Tiya Miles | Illustrated | 172 pp. | W.W. Norton & Company | $22