The history of the American West as recently as the 1970s was largely a masculine preserve, with the focus on cowboys, trail bosses, mountain men, prospectors, ranchers, farmers, and soldiers. In the wave of scholarship known as the new western history that began in the 1980s women have been much more prominently featured. Students in the American Seminar have just finished their discussion of Glenda Riley’s The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains (1988). In some ways the west was less restrictive for women, most notably perhaps in the divorce laws. Women could not only rid themselves of a husband more easily than in the east, but they were more likely to be awarded child custody.
But even on the frontier gender was destiny. Men’s lives varied dramatically depending upon the particular region and period, and whether they worked as miners, ranchers, farmers, merchants, or professionals. Women’s lives were hardly affected by the local economy, and less so by the era in which they lived than were men’s. Instead they struggled and many succeeded in establishing the eastern cult of domesticity in a soddie or shack, complete with curtains, and Haviland china, perhaps carried all the way from the old country, or ordered from a Sears Roebuck catalog. If the roof was dirt, then the covering was muslin, and it had to be washed twice a year. All the finery a woman owned was displayed for a supper to which guests were invited or on any special occasion.
Copiously documented and crammed with factual details on western women’s lives taken from a rich collection of primary sources found in archives across the West, Riley’s comparative approach between prairie and plains regions seemed largely repetitive. Women in one region did the same jobs and filled the same roles as those in the other. And there was less difference than students expected between the lives of women in both regions and the settled east. The greatest contrast was that women on the frontier had to work much harder to perform the same tasks. Fetching water, for example, for cooking, cleaning, and bathing was arduous, especially so on the arid plains, until a woman had a well. They coped with snakes, mice, hordes of grasshoppers, and prairie fires, yet many managed to produce significant amounts of butter, eggs, and poultry, enough in some cases to save a family’s farm in bad years.
At first life was hard, especially for women living in covered wagons or tents. If they shared a hut they rejoiced when they moved into their own abode, or when those sharing their space left for a home of their own. Most women married and most wanted and had large numbers of children. When new technology arrived, it was the husband and his domain that got it first. Supporting the family was more important than lessening a woman’s work. When women did get the latest invention, such as a sewing machine, they often found that it resulted in even more work.
Perhaps ten percent of western women chose not to marry and supported themselves as farmers, teachers, seamstresses, milliners, maids, or nurses. Women lived with other women. One pair occupied the same structure, built on the boundary between their adjacent homesteads, with each having the end of the residence on her own land. Town residents or women close enough to participate, joined clubs, kept churches going, and engaged in politics, all while supporting themselves and their children and performing much the same kind of domestic duties as wives.
The women in The Female Frontier were not the “Gentle Tamers,” “Madonnas of the Prairies,” or “Reluctant Pioneers” of stereotype and legend, but substantial Americans who not only endured but won out, more often than not.