Madonnas Of the Prairie: Real Women of the West

niveThe fascinating myth of the Wild Wild West has shaped the minds of America’s youth, through films, popular TV shows, music and books. It has generated, however, an infatuation and incorrect depiction of what truly happened in the West. Much of this folklore is nothing but a myth. When most of us think about the Wild West, images of the Lone Ranger, a prostitute in distress, violent brawls, rural open space, miners, robbers and starry nights come to mind. When in fact, the truth is very different. This conjured idea of the West might have a small amount of truth, but is not the majority of the experiences of the west.

The hero of the myth of the west is white, single, and male; violent and honorable. However, the West was also a place for single women who staked claim to their own land and property. Also for the families they raised, often alone.

Joyce Gibson Roach stated in a review of Claiming Their Land: Women homesteaders in Texas by Florence C.Gould that Walter Prescott Webb declared that the lives of farm women were hard and plain and nothing to take notice of. Webb is a well known historian who was particularly interested in the West and its history. It is shocking that he would condemn women’s work to be uninteresting and worthless. The history of the West has primarily been about men and their conquests and not about the women who faced the same experiences. In that era single women often had to turn to prostitution to survive. But women in the West were not just prostitutes; they were mothers, school teachers, farmers and ranch women. Most of the women who traveled west were well educated.  Women not only showed courage moving far away from what was familiar, but also worked side by side with men, often doing the same physical labor. In Texas, during a fifty-three year period  1,500 single women laid claim to their own land ; shifting the social landscape of Texas. Evelyn Funda examines Debra Fink’s book Agrarian Women: Wives and Mothers in Rural Nebraska. Fink cites “ Household” a column in the Nebraska Farmer, magazine. This magazine encouraged women to maintain gender roles, and promote the family rather then self-interest. Fink found out that even government agencies promoted traditional gender roles. A wife in this society was suppose to be satisfied, hardworking, caring to her family and subservient to her husband. In the Myth of the West, men are encouraged  to be daring, to take risks and strike gold. Men are expected to be wealthy and self made. On the other hand, women are pushed to be the constant, reassuring shadow and  inevitably their position and significance erased from the history books. Many woman who travel West wrote down their thought and feeling in their diaries. For example, Sarah Roberts, kept a diary and wrote down her experiences. Later, her son adjusted and edited her stories.  Some might say he policed her freedom of speech. Would those stories be considered hers still?  Unfortunately, even primary resource  material might be distorted by others motives. We might never know the truth.

The people who moved west not only had to deal with loneliness and being homesick but also the challenges of prairie fires, blizzards, rattle snakes, remote mail delivery, limited educational opportunities and long distance medical aide. And there were also deadly raids by Indian tribes., when women were subjected to brutality, rape, and even enslavement. And yet, they survived and flourished. Women homesteaders formed a community and bounded together. These women were the nurses and the midwives , they reared their children, were fierce members of the PTA and advocated  for community organizations such as church groups and ran community dances. The West was a hard place, but why aren’t women a part of the myth?  And if they are remembered at all it is as  a prostitute. They were so many women who were a part of the push to go westward. There are so many interesting stories, that are lost and need to be found. For example: Cynthia Ann Parker, was captured at the age of nine by the Comanche in a raid. She became a part of the tribe and married a chief and had three children. She even forgot the english language. Carry Nation, was an unattractive older woman who berated the women on their dress as much as the men on their health choices. She was an advocate against drinking and smoking. She spent her life fighting prostitution and giving away her earnings and she even spent time in jail. Charlotte Crabtree, was an actress and entertainer known for her jig. She made it big in San Francisco. High on fame she tried to make it in New York City only to Fail. Eventually making her way back to San Francisco stage . There are countless stories and rare personalities that need to be discovered. Women homesteaders, farmers, ranchers, teachers and mothers where a huge part of the West and need to be included.

By: Paige Hanger

Bibliography

Funda, Evelyn. “Agrarian Women: Wives and Mothers in Rural Nebraska: Review” Great Plains Quarterly. Vol. 13, no. 2 (Spring,1993):,137-138, accessed November 5,2015. MSU Database

Hargreaves, Mary W. “Homesteading and Homemaking on the Plains: A Review” Agricultural History, Vol 47, no. 2 (April 1973): 156-163 accessed November 5,2015, MSU Database

Miller, Brandon Marie. Women of the Frontier:16 tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs and Rabble- Rousers. Chicago, Il : Chicago Review Press, 2013.  

Roach, Joyce Gibson. “Claiming Their Land: Women Homesteader in Texas: Review” The Journal of Arizona History, Vol 33, no. 4 (Winter, 1992): 429-430, accessed November 5,2015 MSU Database.

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