Tiya Miles’ beautiful new book, Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation, opens with a provocative suggestion: Being outdoors—experiencing unfettered, wide, risky and exciting natural environs—can open one up in unique ways that defy gendered expectations.
A professor of history at Harvard whose previous award-winning work has explored interconnections between African American and Native American histories, Miles first became interested in the way the outdoors could propel women and girls toward freedom and a fuller expression of self upon considering that Minty Ross, better known as Harriet Tubman, would have had “a pronounced ecological consciousness.” Her first chapter, “Star Gazers,” takes a close look at Tubman’s youth and the childhoods of two other slave girls, all of whom witnessed the same meteor shower. Miles considers the differing expectations for African American girls (strong field workers or docile house servants), Native American girls (“Indian princesses,” like Sakakawea, who were seen as mythically connected to idealized landscapes, or young adolescents sent to boarding schools for forced assimilation) and white girls, most notably Louisa May Alcott, whose wide-ranging outdoor experiences, Miles posits, made her able to create a gender-deviating character like Josephine March. Miles connects these historical women in what she calls “a newly conjoined cast of historical actors who navigated their social world differently because of their experiences in the outdoor world.”
Alongside miniature portraits of more well-known historical figures, Miles’ leaves space for lesser-known girls, such as the astonishingly accomplished Native girls’ basketball team at Fort Shaw. Through basketball, Miles argues, the girls may have been able to tap into cultural ways of knowing despite boarding-school spaces that were anything but welcoming. Miles also shares her own story of walking across the icy Ohio River and standing in a meadow when she was young, which felt “big, so big, all-encompassing, like my idea of an ocean.” If you, like Miles, were once a girl who found an expansive sense of wonder and possibility in wild spaces, this is a book to savor.