Laurel Clark Shire teaches history at Western University in London, Ontario. This interview is based on her new book, The Threshold of Manifest Destiny: Gender and National Expansion in Florida ( University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)
JF: What led you to write The Threshold of Manifest Destiny?
LS: I knew that I wanted to write about women and US imperialism in the 19th century. I was deeply influenced by scholars such as Amy Kaplan, Kristin Hoganson, and Laura Wexler, and I wanted to test some of the ideas about gender and U.S. expansion coming out of literary and visual studies using the tools of social and political history. I began to look at different contexts in which I might do that. I discovered Florida, an early 19th century frontier, had been remarkably underexplored by historians of Manifest Destiny and of women and gender. I also had friends and family I could stay with in Florida, and their generosity made the research possible on a grad student budget.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Threshold of Manifest Destiny?
LS: American political leaders leveraged gender norms – not only masculinity but also femininity – in order to Americanize Florida, setting a precedent for U.S. policy in many subsequent frontier zones further West. They used white women’s presence in Florida to justify violence against Seminole peoples and to rationalize generous social policies for white settler families, many of them slaveholders. At the same time, they relied on white women’s material, domestic and reproductive labor to create homes and families there; the building blocks of permanent colonial settlement. In short, white women were indispensable to the process of settling Florida for the U.S., a process that displaced both Indigenous people and enslaved people of African descent.
JF: Why do we need to read The Threshold of Manifest Destiny?
LS: Gender history continues to be treated as a separate and ancillary subfield in a lot of American history, especially in political, military, and diplomatic history, even though very good historians have been making what was once a “hidden” history available to us for more than 40 years. My hope is that readers outside of women’s and gender history will read this book and will understand it as a model for how we might begin to integrate intersectional social history (history that accounts for how social categories of gender, race, class, and sexuality work together in significant, historically contingent ways) into general historical accounts of the American past. This book tries to marry cultural history to policy history, and I hope it’s successful and occasionally even entertaining.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
LS: I never decided to become an American historian! I decided to get a Ph.D. in American Studies because I wanted the freedom to do interdisciplinary work in American cultural studies. Frankly, I was concerned that a History department would be too conservative for the kind of history I wanted to write. As a pragmatist and a materialist, though, I’ve never had much patience for theory that doesn’t prove itself useful “on the ground,” so my work ends up being deeply historically grounded. I fell in love with the 1830s and 1840s in a 19th-century American Studies seminar with Terry Murphy at GWU and wanted to write about that period. I assumed that when I hit the job market I would be a candidate for a job in American Studies or Women’s Studies, but then the market sorted me into history – in my first year on the job market, I only got interview invitations from History departments, and I ended up accepting a position in one. No one was more surprised than me. And then I learned that I really loved teaching U.S. history using American Studies tools.
JF: What is your next project?
LS: The next book is about women and migration in the 19th century. The work in Florida brought me into contact with many different kinds of migrants in the 19th century, but did not allow me to follow those who exited Florida, about whom I remain curious. I am broadly interested in how imperial and national borders shaped the lives of women in North America and the Caribbean, and also in how women’s experiences of race (privilege, enslavement, and displacement) or gender (subordination, widowhood, motherhood) may have transcended territorial limits, or served to expand or penetrate borders. In many ways, their diversity challenges and even explodes the very category of “woman” and reveals how the intersections of gender, race, nation, and borders continually remade social categories and opportunities. This project is shaping up to be a combination of microhistorical biography and macrohistorical context using digital methods in mapping and text analysis.
JF: Thanks, Laurel!