The American frontier era – or the ‘Wild West’ as it is more commonly known – is traditionally associated with men. It took real grit, determination and a certain degree of foolhardiness to succeed, and many of the jobs involved in creating settlements out west required backbreaking work.
However, much as it could be difficult, the frontier was also a land of opportunity. Women in particular found themselves able to live with far fewer constraints than society bound them to back home. There was a chance to carve out a new role within family and wider societal structures: it was by no means a utopia, but it was different.
Here is a brief history of some of the most remarkable pioneer women, and the ways in which women participated in life in the Old American West.
A land of opportunity?
The frontier lands weren’t bound by the laws and conventions of the eastern parts of the United States: past the Continental Divide, people were expected to dispense their own justice within communities. This lawlessness also meant people were no longer bound by day-to-day conventions of life in established towns and cities.
Women found themselves able to own property, they could carve out new identities, and found themselves engaged in a variety of work. Some even pursued careers, rather than simply performing more traditional domestic tasks. Skills were in demand, meaning those who were adept were highly valued, regardless of their gender.
However, many more women found themselves sorely disappointed. Life was hard, and if things went wrong, women could easily find themselves sucked into the murky world of sex work in order to make a living. There were plenty more men than women out west, and many of them paid handsomely for female company.
Life was also far from comfortable much of the time: work could be back-breaking, terrains hostile and dreams of wealth and prosperity crushed extremely fast when crops failed or prospecting proved fruitless.
Business and pleasure
Canny women found plenty of opportunities to make a living: from ‘Poker Alice’ who made a fortune playing poker to Bonnie McCarroll who was a successful rodeo competitor, many found themselves wrapped up in the entertainment industry, performing as musicians, horsewomen, madams or actresses.
Some women participated in business activities. Ellen Jack, for example, was a successful silver prospector, making a fortune where many before her had failed.
Women were also integral in the formation of communities. Many still spent the majority of their time at home, looking after children, growing fruit and vegetables and undertaking domestic duties. With a lack of schools, some women who had received education back east taught their own children and others how to read and write: more formal schools and churches began to spring up over time too.
The origins of the women’s suffrage movement in America began in the west. Virtually all of the western states enfranchised women long before states in the east granted women the vote. The movement was partly tied to the abolition campaigns before and during the American Civil War, but it was Wyoming and Utah where women first legally cast ballots. Colorado and Idaho followed shortly afterwards.
The western states were also considered to be progressive, placing emphasis on political and social reform and striving to be more democratic than the states they had left behind back home. In many cases, aspects of social reform were championed by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).
The WCTU was not just about prohibition. It championed women’s rights across a variety of cultural, political and social divides, often leaning towards socialism in many cases. Believing that women needed legal rights in order to best fulfil their roles within the home and beyond, members of the WCTU campaigned for better working conditions, equal pay, voting rights and the end of exploitation of women.
Part of this newfound freedom involved women ‘transgressing’ what was expected of them. Women in the west found themselves able to run businesses, act as bounty hunters, divorce their husbands, wear trousers, drink in public, strike out on their own and all the while be offered a kind of begrudging respect for doing so, rather than the condemnation they may have faced back home.
One of the most famous figures in the Wild West, Calamity Jane, was one such example of this: she eschewed normal life for one as a gunslinging frontierswoman – drinking alcohol, posing as a man and earning notoriety for her antics.
But opportunities to transgress or blur normal boundaries did not mean that everyone did so. In the Old West, plenty of women still lived traditionally domestic lives within the confines of the nuclear family, or found themselves at the mercy of men and the shackles of societal expectations.
Even those who broke free of the shackles of societal expectation did not necessarily find themselves widely supported by other women or men: their exploits were often barely tolerated rather than widely welcomed.