Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question for Discussion: How did women's
lives and social roles change when
they moved West in the 1800s?

Reading: Hymowitz, pp. 64-75, 176-190; Gerster, pp. 22-29;
George Batchelder promotes Dakota (web); Mary Abel
Confronts the Kansas Territory (web)

Video: Women in the West

Daily Class Web Links

Women's Role in American History

Women's Changing Roles in America

Women in the American West

Daily Class Outline

1. Women's Sphere and Women's Traditional Roles

2. Women's Changing Roles in the West

Daily Class Questions

1. How did Women's roles in society and the
family change between the 1700s and the

2. What economic and social changes
created a "women's sphere" in the home
by the 1800s?

3. How did the limitations of women's sphere
allow women to come together to challenge
their larger place in American society?

4. What role did women play in the long,
hard journey across the country to settle
the West?

5. What does Hymowitz mean when she
writes: " Women of this temperament were
probably only a minority in the West, but they
left their mark, not just on the region, but on
the nation's imagination."? (179)

6. What forces allowed women to escape the
limitations of their traditional roles and
"women's sphere" and begin to claim many
of the rights and privileges that were granted
to men?

7. Why did women in the West get the right to
vote long before women in the rest of
America did?

8. How did women's newer, expanded role
in society in the West shape the way American
women saw their role in the larger American society?

Daily Class Notes

In the last twenty years, American historians have become increasingly interested in how women's roles and lives were changed by the growth of cities and industrialization, by the American movement West, and the rise of national women's journals and magazines. Some American West historians argue that moving West help transform the lives of American women.
By moving West, American women discovered new opportunities and roles for women. Gaining confidence in their abilities and skills as women, these Western women then became role models for women throughout the country. But not all historians agree
with this perspective.

In her essay, "Women as Frontier Entrepreneurs," Sandra Myres argues that women lives and roles were transformed by moving West from 1840 to 1900. While, in her essay, "Women on the Great Plains 1865 to 1890," Christine Stansell argues that women's lives and roles were set back and damaged by their move West. Both Myres and Stansell make good argument, but who is more convincing? Did settling the West in the 1800s transform women's lives and roles?

In order to answer this question, we must first assess what women's lives and roles were like in America in the 1800s. What were women's roles in the East before they set out with their families to settle and live in the West? In the 1800s, women were expected to remain in their distinct place in American society, which was known as "women's sphere." While the "men's sphere" was the larger public world of work and politics outside the home, "women's sphere" was the private world of the family and the home. In her home, a women was supposed to raise and protect her children, to safeguard the morality and religion of her children and husband, and sacrifice her life for her the success and happiness of her husband and children. Americans believed that women did not have the intellectual ability and emotional stability to participate in the larger world of work and politics. Their husbands would protect them in the home from the larger complex, often immoral world of work and politics. Many American women in the 1800s came to believe that their place was in the home, watched over and protected by her husband, caring and supporting her family.

Myres argues that this women's traditional roles would slowly expand and become more equal to and like the role of men in society as a result of women and their families moving West in the 1800s. She argues that women "did enlarge the scope of women's place, however, and countered prevailing Eastern arguments about women's sphere and the cult of true womanhood." Myres argues that women did this by expanding their traditional roles in order to help support her family and the larger community. For example, women took in and cooked for borders, opened up restaurants, laundries, and mended and made clothing. In the West, "women's domestic skills became the basis for a profitable business." In fact, some Western banks would grant women loans to start small businesses and not men, because women proved more reliable and able to run profitable businesses.

In addition to expanding their domestic skills into small businesses, women in the West took up writing. They wrote for national magazines and journals and some wrote books. I believe that it was Western women writers who helped make changing women's roles in the West a model for American women throughout the country. In addition to writing, Western women also became teachers. Because they were in such high demand, Western women were allowed to attend Western universities to become teachers. Their experience teaching and attending university helped Western women become principles, superintendents, and serve on state boards of education.

Western women also became missionaries to the Indians. They helped run missions, Indian schools, and run missionary schools and churches. Some of these women also preached to the Indians. As a result of their missionary work and preaching, some Western women were even ordained as ministers, which was unheard of for Women in the East.

In the West, women were allowed to own property in their own name. Men encouraged women to make claims for homestead land so that they could double the size of the family's holdings. But the land was still in the women's name and she often had the final say in what should be done with it. As a result of their access to land and the booming agricultural economy in the West, some women ran ranches and farms by themselves. In doing so, either because their husbands were off mining, fighting Indians, or working in town, these women would be in a position to supervise male employees. Along with their success owning and running farms and ranches, some women became real estate agents and speculators, buying and selling Western land.

Western women also took advantage of the growing demand for professionals and became doctors, lawyers, and businesswomen. Many Western American soon became comfortable with women doctors and lawyers, which many Eastern Americans would not think of.

Myres concludes here argument by observing that surveys of Western women in 1943 found them to be "far better educated, held a wider variety of jobs, and were more likely to continue working, were less prone to adhere to traditional religious and denominational beliefs, were more excited and optimistic about their lives, were more open to change, and were more likely to approve equal standards for men and women." All of this lead Myres to conclude that these Western women's lives and roles were transformed, and that Western women were not limited by the traditional roles for women that Eastern women were.

However, unlike Myres, Stansell draws a very different conclusion about how the movement West affect women's roles and lives. Stansell argues that in "many frontier regions, women failed to reinstitute their own [women's] sphere. Without a cultural base of their own, they disappeared behind the masculine preoccupations and social structure which dominated the West." For Stansell the inability of Western women to "reinstitute" their traditional roles of caring for the family and taking care of the house hurt them and made their lives worse off, and often miserable. Stansell would argue that Myres because Stansell believes that Western women should have allowed to retain their traditional roles; whereas, Myres argues that it was precisely their inability to retain their traditional women's roles that allowed women to transform their lives and roles. Stansell sees some of the very transformation in women's roles that Myres praises as a threat to women.

Myres and Stansell also differ in that Myres draws on the experiences of women in the far West in the Pacific Northwest and California; whereas Stansell draws on the experiences of women in the Great Plains. But these environments and the women's experiences there are very different. Stansell is right: The women who settled with their families in the Great Plains often suffered and led lonely, exhausted lives. Oh the Great Plains, settlers lived on isolated farms, miles away from the nearest towns, there were fewer cities and town to support the setters, and the land they settled on was much harder to farm than the land in the Pacific Northwest. Because of a shortage of trees on the Great Plains, many women and their families were forced to live in sod or dirt houses. Living in mud houses was made even worse by the bitter cold in the winter, the hot and dry summers, and the constant threat caused by tornadoes, floods, and bitter winter storms. The very environment of the Great Plains gave women much fewer opportunities and options that women had in the Far West. Given this environment and the hardships settlers faced, it is not wonder that Stansell finds that many of these women suffered terribly.

Isolated from larger communities, churches, schools, and networks of friends, many women were now forced to struggle to recreate their traditional role, their women's sphere, without the support from other women they had once had in the East. Because of the difficulty farming and working the land, the farm came first, and women found that they would still be living in mud houses but the family could afford to buy tractors and farm equipment.

In addition to the poverty and isolation of their lives, women in the Great Plains also were forced to help their husbands work the farm, because were was a shortage of farm hands and neighboring men to help with the difficult tasks of plowing and working the land, bailing hay, and harvesting the crops. Because women also had to do men's work in addition to their own, they were often exhausted and struggled to feed, clothe, educate, and support their children and husbands. Stansell notes that overworked, exhausted women sometimes ran away from their families, went insane, or died at a very young age. If a man lost his wife in the Great Plains, he would be forced to quickly go out and find another wife because he could not run the farm and take care of his large family without a wife to do the work.

In addition to the hardships, the work, the exhaustion, and the isolation and loneliness, Great Plains women found that they could not "keep their daughters out of men's clothes." For Stansell, Great Plains women's inability to recreate their traditional roles and pass those roles down to their daughters was a tragedy and a real defeat for these women. Stansell concludes that Great Plains women often lives futile, exhausted, tragic lives.

In comparing Myres with Stansell's argument we need to consider these questions:

1). What should be the role of women in America?

2). Can we generalize about women in the West based on women's experience in the Far West and the Great Plains? Don't we need to include both regions in our analysis?

3). Why did women in the Far West accept the opportunity to expand their traditional roles, whereas women in the Great Plains saw this opportunity as a great threat?

4). Why did men allow women to expand their traditional roles so far and so fast in the Far West? Was there a shortage of men to do these jobs that women were now doing?

5). Are the women Myres and Stansell describe from the same cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds? No, the women who settled the Great Plains tended to be Scandinavian immigrants who often didn't speak English, understand American culture, and felt culturally isolated from American culture and society.

6). Does living in two very different environments make it difficult, if not impossible, to compare the lives and roles of women in the Far West and women in the Great Plains?

7). Are Myres and Stansell's arguments two halves of a larger whole that together explain the larger reality of women's lives in the West?

8) Does Stansell draw on a larger enough sample of women in the Great Plains to draw the conclusions she does. Can we be sure that all women lived like this based on the few diaries Stansell draws on.


© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 12 Sept. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/roles.htm
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