Gendered Space and Judith Hutter in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer

Rebecca Flynn (University of Houston)

Presented at the 13ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2001.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2001 Cooper Seminar (No. 13), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 50-53).

Copyright © 2001, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

{50} James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Deerslayer, was first published in 1841 — a period in American history when, according to some scholars, the concept of womanhood was undergoing accelerated modification. Since the novel, set in upstate New York around the year 1740, is situated in a rural, frontier setting, where systems are undefined, the text is deeply concerned with how private life and domestic space should be constructed and engendered. It is therefore important to consider how the author represents Judith Hutter, the female heroine in the novel, through architectural structures and spaces. Examinations of social boundaries in the text reveal that domestic spaces and the objects they contain are identified by gender or function. These symbols produce an image of women that reflects the condition of cultural roles within the larger society. Although scholars have studied how gender is constructed in the novel, there has yet to be analysis of how gendered space operates within the text and how this connects to social change taking place before and during Cooper’s lifetime.

According to the book, Gendered Spaces, written by Daphne Spain, “domestic architecture mediates social relations, specifically those between women and men. Houses are “spatial contexts within which the social order is reproduced” (140). Architectural space plays a role in maintaining status distinctions by gender and therefore “dwellings reflect ideals and realities about relationships between women and men within the family and in society” (7). 1 In the nineteenth-century, “housing for wealthy Americans mirrored the British gentry model of sexually segregated interiors. Like British women, American women of the era could not vote, keep their own wages, or own property” (140). A long-standing misogynistic tradition cultivated the belief that women were considered to be mysterious, dangerous, volatile, as well as vulnerable. Because the female body is particularly vulnerable at its margins, society deemed it necessary to assign women to the private sphere in order to control, protect, and contain them. Regardless of one’s social class, a woman’s place was in the most interior and private spaces of the home. However, during the eighteenth and nineteenth-century, American housing design “reflects an increasing tendency toward gender integration and greater emphasis on egalitarianism rather than hierarchy” (117-118). Public and private spaces in the home were not as strictly understood in gender specific terms. Masculine spaces, the most public places in the home, were no longer understood as a primarily male space and private interiors of the home — female spaces — were becoming more public. Spain’s assertion that in the nineteenth-century America “order within the household was expected to create order in society” (123), raises questions concerning the reasons for the changes in the structuring of homes.

A number of scholars have explored how the concept of womanhood in eighteenth and nineteenth-century America was undergoing change. Mary Beth Norton’s work, “The Evolution of White Women’s Experience in Early American Fiction,” asserts that the Revolutionary War years, 1775-1783, “brought accelerated change to the lives of American women and their children” (614). 2 Norton supports her claim with referral to Susan Lebsock’s study that focuses on the women of Petersburg, Virginia, from 1784 to 1860. Lebsock concludes that the clear trend of the period was the development of increasing autonomy for women as they “gained greater freedom from immediate and total dependence on particular men” (615). According to Norton, this change was facilitated by the fact that patriotic women supported the Revolutionary War effort alongside the men: “Americans were thus forced to discard the traditional notion that women had no connection to the public sphere and accordingly needed no civic education” (616). An emerging importance was placed on the education of women, partly due to the fact that these future mothers would be the primary educators of their sons. 3 The education of women facilitated their acquisition of knowledge from which they were previously excluded and allowed them to participate in various activities in the public realm. Because men and women’s duties began to overlap, “the economic and public elements of men’s role could not be distinguished in daily practice from the private and familial elements of women’s role, the sexes appeared to be encroaching regularly on each other’s domain” (617). Once women experienced the male domain, the suspicions women held concerning the causes of their lower status were confirmed; ultimately this awareness threatened the social order that dictated private spheres for women and public spheres for men.

Considering Spain’s theory that spatial arrangements produce and are produced by status distinctions and space is “organized in ways that reproduce gender differences in power and privilege” (233), then one assumes that once these spheres mingle, the patriarchal system built on these differences is threatened. Applying this hypothesis to Judith {51} Hutter’s relationship to space renders interesting results. Judith’s primary residence, ‘muskrat castle,’ isolated in a rural setting, does not adhere to the same rules that apply to architectural spaces situated within a larger, more urban, community. Placed between a familiar western culture and the uncharted wilderness occupied by Native Americans, the liminality of the Hutter homestead allows Judith to participate in traditionally male measures of status. Contrary to numerous critics who believe that The Deerslayer is an anti-feminist novel, Leland Person’s essay, “Cooper’s Queen of the Woods: Judith Hutter in The Deerslayer,” asserts that by “focusing on Judith’s character, we can discover Cooper’s effort to explore the possible forms that women’s frontier identities and stories could assume” (255). Out of necessity and practicality, Judith is depicted as a participant in a variety of traditionally masculine pursuits and operations. If a woman’s place is in the home, Judith defies the stereotype for she is constantly in motion outside of the home. Person notes, “Judith in short begins to prove herself as a frontier woman” and having discharged rifles and killed deer, “she is a deerslayer in her own right” (259). 4 In addition to hunting and firing a gun, Judith at one time even engages physically in a battle against the Mingos who attempt to overtake the ark, the Hutter’s second home located on the water. Since gendered spaces shape and are shaped by daily activities, Judith is constantly redefining her environment.

Although it appears that Judith enjoys expanding notions of feminine behavior in the novel, the men around her are not always comfortable with Judith’s actions. The moment after Judith has pushed a menacing Mingo overboard the ark, Deerslayer, concerned for her welfare, swiftly drags Judith back within the safety and “protection of the cabin” (70). When Judith asks Deerslayer why he left the cabin in a time of danger, he replies, “Men ar’n’t apt to see females in danger and not come to their assistance” (85). As Nina Baym states in her article, “The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales,” “Woman’s need for protection does not simply result from her actual physical weakness.The plain fact is that she is not permitted to protect herself” (701). Baym explains, “Feminine dependency is acted outby the rescue of the female from external dangers” (700). Women who are encased within architectural structures are safe from these external dangers, but once Judith leaves the confines of the ark’s cabin Deerslayer moves to retrieve Judith. Deerslayer, himself leaving the protection of the cabin, slips one arm around Judith’s waist and swiftly drags her back to safety — an action that secures his masculine identity as well as reinstates Judith’s feminine one. Leaving her protected interior not only puts a woman’s physical self in danger, but also her moral state. When Deerslayer asks about Judith’s moral condition, Hurry Harry says that some of her time has been passed “in the neighborhood of the settlers, or under the guns of the forts” (28). Hurry concludes that Judith has her ‘vagaries’ and has “caught more than is for her good ... especially from the gallantifying officers” (28). The word vagary, coming from the Latin word to ‘wander,’ implies that Judith has a tendency to roam out of her designated protected feminine space. A ‘wandering’ woman places her chastity in danger and in this venue, the female body becomes analogous to architectural space: if Judith had stayed in her safe, static, enclosed space, her virginity would be likewise protected. Once out in the open, it is implied by Hurry Harry that Judith is sexually available.

In a variety of ways, the frontier setting where Judith and her family reside allows the traditional measures of gender to be subverted. Despite the fact that muskrat castle is small, rustic, and therefore not as strictly codified in regard to spatial distinctions as a house may be within an urban setting of the time, the cabin does have gendered spaces. The further one travels into the home, the more secret or interior the spaces become. Cooper’s description of the castle makes this apparent; when first entering the home, one passes through a public space, a space most appropriate for males. The hallway exiting the parlor leads to the two doors of the Hutter’s bedrooms. One bedroom belongs to Tom Hutter while the other is for his two daughters, Judith and Hetty. The other residence, the ark, also is constructed with gendered space for it “resembl[es] the castle in construction” (Cooper, 55). The ark, however, is only divided into two apartments, one serving as a bedroom for the daughters, the other as both the parlor and the bedroom of the father. The fact that the father’s bedroom on the ark also serves as the parlor, the place for receiving guests, reveals the separation between male (public) space and female (private) space. Despite this distinction between public and private space on the frontier, Deerslayer allows himself to inspect the muskrat castle while its occupants are awayan action that would be unthinkable within a larger community. Not only does Deerslayer permit himself to enter the most interior rooms of the home because “Frontier usages [are] in no way scrupulous” but also because “his curiosity [was] strongly excited” (34), indicating that this action is partially voyeuristic in nature. Deerslayer’s entry is described in detail: “he raised a wooden latch and entered a narrow passage that divided the inner end of the house into two equal partsthe young man now opened a door and found himself in a bedroom” (34). One glance tells him that the room belongs to a female and Deerslayer apparently lingers, taking in all the details of the abode: the bed is overstuffed with feathers for comfort, dresses of superior quality, pretty shoes, a cap decorated with ribbon, a pair of long gloves, and several colorful fans displayed. The items are described as “ornamented,” “coquettish,” and “ostentatious“(35); the articles overtly mark the room as feminine and therefore more private than the other rooms in the house.

{52} This will not be the only time that Deerslayer peers into a private space of Judith; further along in the novel, he also rummages through the chest that contains all the secrets of her past. The chest, much like Judith’s room, is a boundary outlining the private feminine space. The locked chest represents Judith’s very identityher inner self. Deerslayer’s offer to leave the room when Judith opens the chest with the key reveals that he is aware of the chest’s significance. Judith declines his offer for it has been made clear to her that she has no more right than Deerslayer to the knowledge and ownership of her past that has been concealed from her by her father. Sadly, Judith feels like a trespasser to her own past: “Judith fairly trembled as she cast her first glance at the interior, and she felt temporary relief in discovering that a piece of canvas that was carefully tucked in around the edges effectually concealed all beneath it” (200). Person states, “Judith explores her mother’s history in her researches into the contents of the trunk, hoping to discover who she is by discovering who her mother was” (261). The most volatile secret that the chest contains — the memoirs of Judith’s mother — act as a receptacle of Judith’s past. Tom Hutter considers these thoughts so volatile and dangerous that he has kept their existence a secret from Judith. That fact that these secrets are kept hidden expresses anxiety on the part of the male characters about what can go on inside the mind of women. 5 Spatial barriers are not only significant in terms of what they keep out, but also in what they keep inside.

Such attention to space reveals that The Deerslayer is concerned with images of secret recesses and interiors whether they are architectural, metaphorical, or physiological enclosures. This preoccupation may reflect eighteenth and nineteenth-century society’s concern with the modification of spatial enclosures and what implications it held in terms of female sexuality. This anxiety, projected onto physical space, can be interpreted on metaphorical physiological levels. Worried about Judith’s sexuality, the novel transposes that worry onto a preoccupation with spatial enclosures, such as Judith’s home, ark, and the chest. The masculine anxiety over the dark mysteries of female sexuality in The Deerslayer may serve as a reflection of the association between women’s personal liberties and liberated sex. Furthermore, the novel’s projection of the female body onto architectural interiors forecasts the feminist concerns with the formation of independent spaces for women’s subjectivity and personal agency.

The American frontier in Cooper’s novel is a liminal space placed between western society and the unexplored wilderness containing an exotic Native American culture. 6 At times the gender ambiguity in regard to the spaces that Judith inhabits overwhelms her and she longs for a more familiar gender construction. She says, “I should be a thousand times happier to live nearer to civilized beings where there are farms and churches, and houses built as it might be by Christian hands” (265). However, Judith’s choice of Deerslayer as a husband hardly ensures a life within cultured society. Judith asks Deerslayer if he can ever find “happiness in a quiet domestic home, with an attached and loving wife” (525) and he momentarily fantasizes about a domestic life with Judith. At that moment, explains the narrator, Deerslayer’s “faculties seemed suspended in a natural and excusable pride” (408). But soon he recovers his ‘reason’ and smiles at his own ‘weakness,’ disregarding the fantasy for the reality before him. Marriage to Judith is not a serious option for Deerslayer, and she is once again transformed into a metaphorical boundary. Kerstin W. Shands posits in her book, Embracing Space, that the “journey as metaphor can be compared to conceptualizations of the female body as both interiority and ground” (82). Judith represents “a place of resistance for the hero to penetrate or a borderline to transgressa barrier or hindrance that has to be surpassed on the route to a final destination of signification” (83). 7 Deerslayer, the moving male, can only be tied down to a life of domesticity at the expense of his masculine identity. As a female, she is unable to remain alone in the liminal space of the Hutter homestead, and Judith “relaps[es] into her early failing” (534). Judith retreats to England to become the undignified mistress of Sir Robert Warley. Despite the fact that Judith does not bear Sir Robert’s name, she is placed within Warley’s ‘paternal estates,’ a residence which no doubt contains more walls, doors, and thresholds to properly define and control the spaces she inhabits.

Examination of physical and social boundaries in Cooper’s novel reveals that depicted spaces are contradictory and ambiguous. When the distinction between feminine and masculine space is breached, gender assignments become permeable and threatening to a patriarchal society. On the frontier, gendered spaces are undefined and therefore mingle, revealing that gender identities are not completely fixed. Although Judith’s fate proves undesirable, the fact that on the frontier she can enter what may be determinably male spheres indicates that both categories gender and space were subject to challenge and negotiation in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries.

Works Cited

  • Baym, Nina, “The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.” American Quarterly. 23 (1971): 696-709.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Deerslayer [1841]. The New American Library: New York, 1963.
  • De Lauretis, Teresa, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
  • Norton, Mary Beth, “The Evolution of White Women’s Experience in Early American Fiction.” The American Historical Review (1984): 593-619.
  • Person, Leland S., Jr., “Cooper’s Queen of the Woods: Judith Hutter in The Deerslayer.” Studies in the Novel (1989): 253-267.
  • Romero, Lora, Home Fronts: Domesticity and Its Critics in the Antebellum United States. Durham: Duke Univeristy Press, 1997.
  • Spain, Daphne, Gendered Spaces. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1992.
  • Shands, Kerstin W., Embracing Space: Spatial Metaphors in Feminist Discourse. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999.


1 Spain initially introduces layouts of domestic structures in pre-industrial societies that reflect and reinforce women’s subordinate status; she also touches upon the “housing for the urban elite in nineteenth-century America, which was modeled after that of the British gentry“(117).

2 In her article, Norton places herself in opposition to such scholars as Gerda Lerner and Joan Hoff-Wilson, who contradict Spain’s implicit finding that society was moving towards gender integration and equality. Instead, Lerner and Hoff-Wilson assert that this time brought “increased loss of function and authentic status for all women” (594).

3 As Lora Romero states in her book, Home Fronts, it was necessary to “pay more attention to women’s education than had previously been given, lest mothers communicate undemocratic dispositions to their male offspring“(14). Romero refers to two late-eighteenth-century educators in the United States, Judith Sargent Murray and Benjamin Rush, who argue that “in their capacity as mothers women exercised a determining power over the fate of the Republic in the values they taught boys who would grow up and lead the nation” (14). However, according to Spain, schooling for women only became acceptable when it was used to “reinforce their domestic roles as wives and mothers” (147). Spain notes that in 1793, “the reverend John Ogden made the following case for educating women in the Female Guide: ‘Every man, by the constitution, is born with an equal right to be elected to the highest office. And every woman is born with an equal right to be the wife of the most eminent man” (quoted in Cott 1977, 109). Furthermore, if girls were educated, the custom of teaching them in “the same building but at separate hours from boys introduced temporal segregation as a proxy for spatial segregation” (147). Not only did girls attend school at different times than boys, they also learned different curricula. If the academic curriculum did include reading and writing, then it also spent equal time teaching domestic skills such as sewing, penmanship, and painting. Usually the subject of mathematics was reserved for boys, as well as the subjects of Latin, Greek, and English composition. These subjects were considered useless to women but even teaching reading and writing was considered by some controversial because women “might forge their husband’s signatures or neglect their household duties by reading cheap novels” (147).

4 Over time Judith’s lifestyle has prevented “her from feeling any of the terror that is apt to come over her sex at the report of firearms” (Cooper 210), indicating that certain actions may alter what is seemly essential behavior of a female.

5 Interestingly, at one point in the novel Judith recalls how Tom Hutter once burned all of her mother’s books because he thought she loved to read too much. Judith believes that this act lead to her mother’s death.

6 Although Cooper goes into very little detail about how the Native American camp is structured, we are told that the inhabitants take shelter in one-room huts — a very different design than what may be found in a westernized community.

7 Shands cites from De Lauretis’ work, Alice Doesn’t, page 119.