‹ Go Back

Is a Second Rising Due?


“The new woman means the woman not yet classified, perhaps not classifiable, the woman new not only to men, but to herself.”

Elsie Clews Parsons



Almost exactly 100 years ago, a number of extraordinary women began to flow into Northern New Mexico to play major roles in creating something of a cultural revolution. At this anniversary, I’m suggesting that a reprise would be timely.

Elsie Clews Parsons, whom I quoted above, was an outspoken anthropologist, sociologist and feminist in this flow. However, this post will focus on two other women who preceded her by a few years and who settled in the state in 1917.

The “New Women”

Alice Corbin and William Penhallow Henderson

The first of the two was Alice Corbin Henderson, a poet and editor of a Chicago poetry magazine. The doctor who diagnosed her tuberculosis in 1916 told her that she would live only one year but recommended that she go to the Sunmount Sanitorium in Santa Fe to rest.

After a few months of enjoying magnificent views and a constant supply of dry, fresh air, Alice recovered completely; and she and her husband, artist and architect William Penhallow Henderson, made Santa Fe their home the next year.

Mabel Dodge and Tony Luhan

The second “expatriate,” as the cultural immigrants would be known, was Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan. (The last names represent four husbands.) She passed through Santa Fe in 1917 on the way to Taos, about 100 miles north.

A wealthy socialite, arts patron, and author with international connections, Mabel had arrived at the urging of her husband. A Russian artist, he had moved to Taos upon being banished for infidelity. Fascinated by the Southwest, he believed that Mabel would find a cause here: “Save the Indians, their art—culture—reveal it to the world!”

Mabel was indeed intrigued by the landscape and the ancient Native American culture, and she soon imagined that it could become the setting–not to put it lightly–of the rebirth of American civilization. After another divorce, her spiritual embrace of the land and its history deepened with marriage to Tony Luhan, a full-blooded Indian of the Taos Pueblo.

Escape from America

Both women were enormously intelligent and vibrant, and their homes in Santa Fe and Taos became the gathering places of famous writers, artists, and intellectuals. They were free-thinking individuals needing to escape from an emerging American culture inhospitable to their ideals.

Much against the will of many, the United States had entered World War I in 1917, and there was a new focus on military power, industrialization, mechanization, and commercialism that would spur development of a hyper-materialistic society. To escape, the cultural rebels formed colonies in places like Woodstock in New York and Carmel in California as well as in New Mexico.

But back to the “Women of the Rio Grande,” as Alice, Mabel, and all the women who followed them would also be called. They were real individualists, like writers Mary Austin and Willa Cather and artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Many of them were single, some wealthy and eager to invest both time and money in the preservation and support of pueblo culture as well as renowned museums and institutions.

Mabel Dodge Luhan described an atmosphere that was uniquely supportive of feminine creativity and individualism: “They do as they please, they say what they think, and nobody cares, for everyone is busy doing likewise.” It has remained so for 100 years.

Many books have been written about this cultural shift, a significant number dedicated to some aspect of feminine achievement. In fact, one came out in 2003 titled Santa Fe Originals featuring the portraits of 80 women of remarkable diversity and distinction by photographer Athi-Mara-Magadi.

The portraits are striking, not featuring plastic, Hollywood-like-glamour—although some subjects are visually dramatic in their own ways—but the mature peace and dignity that have come from living authentic and meaningful lives. On the cover is retired actress Ali Macgraw who has become an activist with an honored presence on many stages here.


The Spell

This part of the country has always drawn the creative, adventurous and visionary individual. Many writers have tried to explain its allure, including Oliver La Farge, Santa Fe author of Laughing Boy, a Navajo love story that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1930:

It is a land full of the essence of peace, although its history is one of invasions and conflicts. It is itself, an entity, at times infuriating, at times utterly delightful to its lovers, a land that draws and holds men and women with ties that cannot be explained or submitted to reason.

Northern New Mexico seems to have special appeal for the feminine, and it may be time for a new and conscious wave of activity in that regard. This comes to mind in the moment because there is a movement afoot among millions of women feeling as uncomfortable with our evolving culture as the expatriates did at the onset of World War I.

So let’s assume for a moment that the country stands in urgent need of a new kind of change, and what could be more different than a major feminine role in that? If so, one facet of the initiative could launch in a region where there is much experience in this matter.

Such a change would require the ability to think way, way, way out of the box; and that is a tradition here. Among those attuned to this approach, such a change might be supported spiritually by the land itself and by the pueblo people who have a relationship with it like no other.

But I will close for now, with further background to come and an even larger perspective on the timeliness of a second rising.




3 Responses to “Is a Second Rising Due?”

  1. Orwell or Aldous Huxley? Les Fenter

    Ellen, once again, you have touched my heart’s soul. My heart bleeds for the Puebloans who endured the Spanish subjugation of the 1600’s. That finally erupted in the “Pueblo Revolution” somewhere around 1680. YES! They finally resisted the Spanish conquerors. And they established their freedom. We were blessed with the Tiqua/Isleta people near El Paso. I lived among them on “Old Pueblo Rd.” They despised me, as a “Gringo Salado”. I did fathom it then; but today, . . . . . so clear. They had every right to hate me and other Anglos who infringed on them — again. I have a dear, well, I should say, “had” a dear family friend, who was born around 1915. She had a memoir from the early days of the Los Alamos developments. That is when Santa Fe became sacred to Anglos!!! It was, and perhaps still is, the confluence of the old and the new. Yes. As I cogitate on it, I think way back to the Spanish Governor with the Mountain men and Native Americans, trying to establish “Who’s on First.” Has it worked out yet? Hmmm, depends on view-point. So the Santa Fe charm remains. I look forward to buying some beautiful jewelry from the true Natives at the Plaza. Yes, and watching the activities around the Plaza. And doing this while drinking a Starbucks coffee stimulates my “pleasure-button.” Did I mention, Thomasitas, or The Shed? Or a new place only a native would know? Ellen, we look forward to visiting w/you soon. P&L

  2. Carolyn Sklove-Gill

    In my first adventures in New Mexico, I met and subsequently became impressed with several women of the Southern Pueblos of Sandia, Isleta. One was a woman married to a white man. Together they raised a blonde-haired, blue -eyed Sandia boy in tribal customs and cultural modernism. Jenny Holmes was a smart, energetic, woman who had lived in Europe with her soldier husband. In Sandia customs, she belonged to a high clan and was respected for her duties in that sense. Jenny was aware of the disparities facing Pueblo children in trying to become academically proficient. In this light, Jenny helped me bring an educational project to the Tribal Educational Counsel. At a time when women were not among the tribal counsel leadership or governing bodies of each pueblo Jenny brought me to a Santo Domingo Tribal Counsel meeting where we represented ‘women’ interested in improving the opportunities for pueblo children to succeed in the public school system that existed on the pueblos.
    Jenny had told me a short, funny, personal tale of how she had fought off a ferocious ‘billy goat’, one day in Sandia. She allowed me to type her story and form a little booklet and then had her nephew illustrate the story . Together, we presented the booklet to the elderly men of the Indian Education counsel at Santo Domingo. The head of the IE was a man named Benny Star. As the booklet was passed around the long table, each man, in turn, began to smile, chuckle, nod, and understand. After all had read and agreed, Benny Star said to Jenny and me, “This is good for our kids.” And so, the Pueblo Regional Reader Project was born. In the end, 30 short stories were told in the comfort of living rooms or on front porches in five pueblos. Illustrated by cousins, sons, daughters, grandpas, the books belonged to the people.
    It’s been 40 years since I was privileged to enter the lives of the pueblo people through their personal tales of humor, hope, excitement, sentiment, and thought. Where are the booklets now? I have thought to visit the pueblos to ask, but the people I knew are gone.
    Maybe one day, I’ll try. Maybe a cousin or nephew will remember. Maybe as a child, someone will remember reading the tales in their pueblo elementary school.

    • Ellen Heath

      What a beautifully written and important memory, Carolyn. I really do hope one of the booklets will surface one of these days, and I would love to see it. You have done such wonderful work here — a contemporary example of the “new woman.”