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women in the American West during the Westward movement. Specifically, it will discuss historic evidence to support the position that the westward movement did indeed transform the traditional roles of American women, just as it transformed the American West. Women traveling west during the Westward movement created opportunities for themselves, became active in business and politics, and created new and exciting lives for themselves. These women transformed how America looked at women, and how women looked at themselves, which was probably the most important transformation of all.
The Westward movement began in the early 1800s, after the explorers Lewis and Clark opened up the first trail from St. Louis Missouri to Oregon, and proved overland travel was possible, if not difficult. Migrants began heading for Oregon and other areas of the West as early as the 1830s - in fact, the first women to cross the Continental Divide were Eliza Spalding and Narcissa Whitman - traveled to Washington as missionaries to the Indians with their husbands in 1836 (Whitman and Spalding 67-70).
Initially, the only inhabitants of the Western United States were Native American tribes scattered throughout the region, and the occasional trapper or mountain man there to trap furs for his livelihood. The West was empty, untapped, and waiting for westward expansion, and there were plenty of Easterners ready to travel west for new opportunities. However, after gold was discovered in California in 1848, the trip west took on new meaning. Now, going west could mean riches beyond the wildest dreams, and thousands of immigrants headed west to seek their fortunes in the gold mines of California. This was the time when women began to head west in much larger numbers, and this was the time when women's roles truly began to transform themselves. As these historians assert,
The fragile image of women, cultivated in eastern society, fell away in the West. While respiratory ailments, especially tuberculosis stalked the East, western women and their daughters acquired a robust vigor that helped curtail the much feared "wasting diseases"
Butler and Siporin 112).
Thus, women in the West began to transform themselves and their roles almost as soon as they arrived on the Western frontier. One must remember, however, that the ultimate choice to move west was almost always that of the men in the family, and women had little say in the uprooting of their homes and families, as many historians have discussed. "Although historians differ about the impact of the westward journey on women's roles, most agree that the decision to move west was made by men" (Armitage and Jameson 149). Thus, when the thought of how much women endured, and how they transformed their lives in their treks west is truly evaluated, it is even more amazing to see how women clearly transformed their lives under such harsh and often unwanted conditions.
Women always worked hard on the farm or in the home wherever they lived, and the West was no different. However, in the East, even in the smallest hamlets, women had other women nearby to work with and confide in. As women came west, they would often discover they were the only women for hundreds of miles, as this historian notes.
Most of all, frontier women missed the company of other women. "Give a woman a chance to talk to a sympathetic listener about the things that interest her," one wrote, "and she will be happy." But often a sympathetic listener in the person of another woman was not readily available. On those frontiers where men outnumbered women by ratios of five or six to one, women often lived for months without seeing another woman (Myres 168).
Not only did they have to create their lives without the support of family and other women, they often were the objects of great adulation by the mainly male settlements in the West, and the women desperately missed other female companionship, as this historian continues.
Another commented of her first impression of San Francisco, "men were to be seen everywhere, nothing but men, not a woman -- nor a child." Men were fine, in their place, but they were not the same kind of companions and friends as women. "If men was company to me like friends at home," one wrote, "I would never get lonesome." These women were not isolated, but they were lonely (Myres 168).
At home in the East, these women would have had companionship and camaraderie with other women, but in the West, they often spent long hours, days, and months alone, and it changed the way women felt about themselves, and about the land around them. Some women coped quite well with the loneliness because the tasks at hand were so demanding, and others simply broke under the increased pressures of hard work and isolation (Myres 169). This was the first indication women in the West were transforming their traditional roles. Women depended on each other for many things, for companionship to help during childbirth, and in the West, they began to learn they could not only fend for themselves, they could succeed, and this lead to many women taking on roles they might never have considered in the East.
When women came west, they often came alone. Their husbands may have traveled ahead, looking for gold or land, and they followed when their husbands or fiances sent money back for them. In addition, they were often left alone on the farm, ranch, or in town as their mates went off to earn a living. Of course, some lost their mates to death, accident, or simple abandonment. These women battled loneliness, but when they were left without a mate, they also had to earn a living. Some women who had no skills or imagination turned to prostitution, which was a lucrative profession in areas where men outnumbered women by such great numbers. Nevertheless, many other women turned to entrepreneurship to support themselves and their families, and they were remarkably ingenious in the things they did to earn a living.
Of course, there were the common occupations for women such as teaching, dressmaking, and taking in laundry. However, many women in the mining towns and cities of the West knew how to perceive needs and creating budding businesses catering to those needs. For example, women saw the need for decent housing for the men, and opened boardinghouses where the men could get a clean bed and a decent meal for an affordable price. Other women found their niche in baking pies or bread, and one woman wrote that she made a good living selling fruit pies while her husband was ill, and often made over 100 pies per day at $1.50 per pie, while making a good living (Myres 242). Other women became successful writers, sending stories and novels back East to publishers who ran their compelling stories about frontier life in their magazines and newspapers, and many branched into novels, as this woman's historian remarks. "The Western frontiers supported a number of successful women writers who drew on their pioneer experiences and the rich natural resources of their frontier homes for source material eagerly read by a fascinated Eastern public" (Myres 246). Women in the West turned to a variety of roles to support themselves and their families, and in the West you could find women doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, miners, and journalists who earned a decent living while transforming the traditional "housekeeping" role of women.
Politically, women in the West certainly transformed their roles and their opportunities. Women in the Territory of Wyoming were the first ever to vote after the territory passed a law allowing women to vote in 1870. Therefore, on "September 6, 1870, the women of Wyoming went to the polls to cast their ballots. It was the first time that women anywhere in the world exercised the right to vote as fully enfranchised citizens" (Morris and Catt 75). Women in several other states followed, although it certainly took time, as these historians clearly illustrate. "In 1893 Colorado became the second state in the union to enact woman suffrage. Three years later Idaho followed suit. Then came Utah in 1896. At the end of the century only four states, all of them in the West, were in the suffrage ranks" (Morris and Catt 82). As women in the West gained political independence, women in the East stepped up their work for women's suffrage with renewed vigor. As women gained the vote in the West, they also began to take on civil responsibilities in growing numbers. The first female justice of the peace in the world was Esther Morris of South Pass City in Wyoming in 1870 (Morris and Catt 78 -79), and many other women followed her example, becoming involved in many areas of local, state, and territorial government. While women back East were fighting hard for their political rights; many women in the West had already discovered theirs, and were taking advantage of new ideas about women to…[continue]
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