Term Paper: Women in the American West

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[. . .] Politically, women were more equal with men in the West because the men realized these were strong, independent women who could take care of themselves. As one women's history writer mused, "It was hard for men to deny the vote to women who had handled weapons, braved the overland trail, starved and struggled alongside the men or on their own against all manner of conditions" (Morris and Catt 82). Therefore, the lives and roles of women were transformed when they came west, and their roles took on different meanings in a land where men and women both worked equally hard to better themselves and survive in a harsh land.

Many women who traveled west did not live in the cities and towns, and their lives and roles were transformed because of the hardships they faced on lonely ranches and farms spread out along the frontier. Mentally, these women had to cope with the rigors of running a business on the land, but physically, they also had to transform their roles, as these writers explain. "The exigencies of farming, the presence of large animals, the requirements for survival drove women into an intense relationship with the outdoors" (Butler and Siporin 111). These rural women not only learned to love the land where they lived, they learned how to harness it, cultivate it, and profit by it, and as they did, they became physically fit and tough. These women learned they could manage large animals such as horses and cows, they could deal with setbacks the weather sent them, and they could take on all the responsibilities of managing a farm or ranch. This was often necessary when their husbands were away on business, or they lost their husbands to accident, disease, or even Indian attack. Even on farms in the East, women tended chickens, hogs, and the vegetable garden, but in the West, they learned they could do much more, and they learned to love and respect the natural world around them. As two other historians stated,

As western women passed beyond the earliest stages of migration into the West, their self-confidence and personal expectations grew. The first newcomers carried their cultural and emotional baggage of other lives in other regions into an unknown world. Those who followed them or were born in the West reaped the benefits. [...] As a result, the story of western women is not unilateral. Rather, it takes on the hues of differing time periods and the texture of many personal perspectives (Butler and Siporin 113).

While most people and experts agree that women in the Westward Movement transformed their lives, and the lives of those who followed them, there are many historians who believe the Westward movement created women who actually regressed in their roles as women, rather than progressed, as this writer notes.

Indeed, several radical feminist authors have maintained that the West exerted a regressive rather than a progressive influence on women's lives. These authors contended that women on the frontiers were forced into unfamiliar, demeaning roles, and that although women in the Western settlements continued to try to reinstate a culture of domesticity, their work as virtual hired hands prevented them either from returning to older, more familiar roles in the social structure or from creating positive new roles (Myres 238).

Some women, critics note, did indeed gain independence both economically and politically, but these women were mostly located in the cities, not in the rural areas, and so overall, they believe most women did not have the opportunity for change. However, the information presented here shows the Westward movement was a time of great social change in the United States, and a time when women took on numerous new roles, and changed their traditional roles forever. As one expert says, "Like Western men, they did not completely break with tradition nor, with very few exceptions, attempt radically to change women's lives and role in society. They did enlarge the scope of woman's place, however, and countered prevailing Eastern arguments about woman's sphere and the cult of true womanhood" (Myres 239). Perhaps every woman who came West did not automatically create different roles for herself and her family, but certainly, the West was a land of opportunity for both men and women, and thousands of women took advantage of that opportunity, and changed the way they lives their lives, and ultimately, the way all women live their lives today.

In conclusion, the women who traveled west to make new lives for their families endured terrific hardships, and many did not survive. However, many of those that did survive created new and exciting lives for themselves, and changed the way women's roles were viewed forever. These strong and valiant women took care of ranches, households, boardinghouses, and businesses, while raising families. Often they were the only breadwinner in the family while their husbands were away seeking their fortune in the mines, cities, and towns far away. These women learned how to cope with loneliness, despair, disease, and weather, and learned how to create their own incomes, and their own lives. They taught school, opened libraries and churches, and brought Eastern civilization to the Wild West. They brought a sense of morality and decency to the men and the towns. They also began to run many of the local businesses, from laundry rooms to boarding houses and general stores. All the women living in the West were not saloon girls and prostitutes, but all the women living in the West brought a new sense of freedom to their lives and their communities. Women could and would do just about anything to survive, and because of that, they learned they could do anything, and there was no stopping them.

Works Cited

Armitage, Susan, and Elizabeth Jameson. The Women's West. Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Butler, Anne M., and Ona Siporin. Uncommon Common Women: Ordinary Lives of the West. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1996.

Morris, Esther, and Carrie Chapman Catt. "Winning the Vote in the West." Women of the West. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. 75-86.

Myres, Sandra L. Westering Women and the Frontier Experience, 1800-1915.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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