Whenever most people think about the historical west the first things that come to their minds are cowboys, cacti, and heroism. For them it’s all about the heroic adventures the cowboys ventured
into, the criminals they killed, the Indians they took over, and the girls they saved. These were the type of incidents films portrayed in the early 1900s as well as the types of adventures that were the main attraction in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. It was all about the men. Where were the women? What did people think of women and where they belonged at that time? At that time women were only assumed to be the inferior beings that were to be seen and not heard. They had to silently undergo the lack of equality between them and the men.
As more people started migrating to the western U.S., there was a lot of change experienced across the region. People felt a sense of freedom in moving to a different land acquiring new opportunities with land and work. This sense of freedom not only affected men but also the women. Because the west was “new,” it did not consist of certain ideals of how the women should act and behave. Women could create their own identities and overcome their oppression from inequality to men. This is probably one of the biggest factors that determined the migration of women to the west. The women, who previously were engaged in pretty much only the domestic sphere, faced opportunities to work alongside men and gain independence for their own. This essay argues that the ‘uncontaminated’ regions of the west, in terms of ideologies of women, was the main reason for influencing them to voice out their cries against inequality and create a new identity for themselves. The ideologies people had of women, like they are inferior and weak, were the reason for their inequality. It was helpful for the women to find a place where they could start afresh without misconceptions about them. Women achieved this through forming alliances and organizations with each other, gaining support and courage to face their struggle.
The Changed Role of Women
"Your essay on the women in the American west was an exceptional piece of writing and your reflections on discussion board are great examples."
- English instructor, EDCC
Originally women were caretakers of the home. It was their duty to cook, bring up their children, and to take care of their husbands. With the start of the industrial revolution and more technologies on the rise, women were granted with options to work in factories and pursue their education. Though women were presented with these opportunities many of them did not consider this as a benefit to their lives. Some were forced to work, as it may have been the only way to support them. It is as Mary Beth Norton states, “Working-class daughters did not choose to go to work, they had to. Genteel middle-class single women (either never married or widowed) often turned to teaching or writing to support themselves” (139). There was a need of more workers in the public sphere, and it was easier for the employers to find women who were desperate enough for the money to go to those jobs.
There’s another aspect as to why factories chose to employ women and children first; they “were chosen as workers because they were a cheap supply of labor” (Andersen 105). It was men who were in control of the labor wage distribution and under the belief, or rather prejudice, that women are not as deserving as men, they paid men more for the same job they do than women. Kaledin shows an example of this in Mothers and More, “Typical was the Navy Yard that hired women as ‘mechanic learners’ at 54 cents an hour while men classified as “laborers” got 75 cents for doing essentially the same job” (67). Even if the women were allowed to work in the public they were not shown equality to men. It was common for women to face this kind of discrimination or sexism by their employers. In the above example it was easy for the employers to assign different names to the same job men and women do to avoid confrontations for the different wage distribution.
The increased job opportunities for women did not necessarily imply well-being for them. There were many external factors that affected the change of women’s activities. Earlier around the 18th century a workingwoman “was considered simply on her own merits” whereas at the start of the 19th century “such a woman was self-conscious, and her neighbors critical” (Schultz 588). This statement is a result from a study conducted by Dexter about colonial women. Earlier, women remained in her domestic duties and took her duty seriously. It seems that for such a woman to later become self-conscious might be because she wanted to try new things; nothing too outlandish, but a mere want in inclusion into other things besides the domestic life. This is what might have provoked neighbors and other neighbors to be critical when a woman went out to work in the public sphere. This same source proves that there were increased job opportunities for women; especially in certain fields like teaching around the 19th century. They had the opportunity but it was not fully appreciated. They had many restrictions within their workplace, lacked the confidence and had low self-esteem due to the publics’ critical view over them.
Relating to the point of the critical overview people had of women, Barr, a woman from the “elder” generation, wrote an essay that really criticized the interests of women. She believed that women were discontent with their domestic lives. “One of the saddest domestic features of the day is the disrepute into which housekeeping has fallen; for that is a woman’s first natural duty and answers to the needs of her best nature… It must be noted that this revolt of certain women against housekeeping is not a revolt against their husbands; it is simply a revolt against their duties” (Barr 389). The ladies from the older generations took great pride in their housework and believed that they were blessed creatures to serve their families and do not but delicate work. Suddenly these revolting young women jump out in life, wanting to transgress out of the boundary line that divides the home and public. This strong rebellion of wanting to work outside the home would have definitely angered the elder generation of women. It would have seemed like an insult or a slap in the face for them seeing these younger women being ungrateful towards what the elder women might have seen as blessings for themselves. It was because they saw working within the house as a safe haven; they were away from the dangers and hardships of the public life, so instead of seeing this as inequality they perceived it as a blessing. This is why during the beginning stages of the women’s entrance into the public sphere the young women faced many challenges and criticisms.
Freedom of the Land
As more people migrated to western America, everyone was becoming more aware of what the West was offering, “adventure, opportunity, or a fresh start” (Anderson and Chamberlain 235). So it’s easy to see why women may have wanted to move to the west; in search of a place where they could be removed of inequality against them by acquiring that freedom the land gave out. The land in the west was free of the previous oppressive conceptions of women, seeing them as only child bearers, and domestic caretakers. In its place there was no identity for women. Were they inferior or superior? What was their duty? Were they to assume to carry on the same duties as they did before in the East? But the women did not move to the west to carry the same identity as they did before. They wanted to change their identities and they got their chance, “Finding the West dramatically different from what they left behind, women were forced to redefine themselves and to negotiate a new gender identity. At times, the tremendous gender imbalances served to increase opportunity for women” (Anderson and Chamberlain 235). This is why they came to the West. They wanted that opportunity for themselves. This opportunity implies the chance to redefine their roles, abilities, and the way they were viewed as the inferior beings from a very young start. “From early childhood, women were trained to accept a system which divided society into male and female spheres, with appropriate roles for each, and which allocated public power exclusively to the male sphere” (Eisenstein 6). They wanted to get out of that system as the division of the male and female was done with inequality. Like Eisenstein states, men had full say over public matters, like politics. Women were to stay at home and their “appropriate roles” were to cook, clean, rear children, take care of their husbands, and – the one outlet of duties for them− gossip.
Most women didn’t get the taste of true independence until they moved to the West. Coming from a place filled with concrete sidewalks and tall buildings they saw a vast expanse of land that was untouched by the sophisticated way of city life. They found an opportunity to start work amongst men in agriculture and farming. There weren’t any certain set of ideals for women saying they had to stay at home and take care of the family. Though women found themselves working alongside men on ranches, caring for the crops and livestock they had the ability to get together with other women and talk about the political happenings across the region. Perhaps it was this freedom that gave women the courage to stand up for themselves and begin an uprising for their equality amongst men. A nice example portraying a woman’s eager self to become independent using the freedom of the land would be Annette Daisy. “Daisy jumped from a moving train in order to make her own land claim and later was wounded in a gunfight with a man who challenged her to that claim” (Anderson and Chamberlain 236). She saw this land, desired it, and completely went against the set ideal of how a woman should act. By displaying this bravery she influenced other women in the West get courage to stand up on their own by helping thousands of other women who participated in the land runs.
There’s something to say about women seeing other women act before they get the boldness to act themselves. Women need influential figures to help them come out of their shells, to stand up against the men’s oppression against them. For women, Annie Oakley was one such figure. She was daring enough to venture into inclusion amongst men. By accomplishing this goal and through her publicity in the Wild West shows, she was praised and looked upon as a role model by other women and girls. McGrath states, “If carving out a ‘New World’ required the creation of a new female icon embodying democratic and independent ideals, a character like Annie Oakley was imperative” (McGrath 210). This quote is a very good example explaining the need for a female icon for women to rely on for clues as to how they should survive.
The women in America may have suffered a lot from inequality but they were the first to challenge that idea. The outcome of all the women’s activities supporting women’s equality played a big role on being inspirations for women in other countries. Chin states, “Chinese women activists often looked abroad for inspiration and ideas…Since many believed that ‘women’s rights [were] most advanced in America and least advanced in China, one approach was to try to identify the key to American women’s success” (Chin 490). Taking China as an example one may see the extent of the effect American women had in other countries. The Chinese believed that American women were most advanced. The reason being is that American women supported each other. They formed organizations to help other women in trouble or need. With help from other women they had the strength to stand up against the people and cry for their rights.
Women’s clubs and organizations came into being when the women saw that an environment that was free of expectations of them was also free of expectations of men. The result was men roaming around as they liked, with lack of law and order. Roaming around is one thing, but men went overboard by oppressing women with the freedom they had at hand. “Middle-class women saw a need to bring morality and piety to the region. Appalled by the masculine environment, some women battled for temperance and other societal reforms, but also turned their attention to rescuing young working-class women from what they saw as male exploitation” (Anderson and Chamberlain 237). Women joined forces with each other in these reform groups and organizations to defend themselves and other women from the men’s oppression against them. By forming these associations, women “redefined their role in western society” (Anderson and Chamberlain 237), and brought a sense of power to their hearts that they did not have in the East, by being able to take action against the wrongdoings done upon them by men. So in this way men had a sort of influence over women in making them strong-hearted.
Women not only formed alliances to help other women, but to enlighten the social and business bonds between them. Before it was considered inappropriate for a woman to discuss about political matters. If they did so they would be entering the public sphere, the sphere thought to be only reserved for men because of the men’s belief of the women’s “inferiority.” But in the West they got the opportunity to get together and talk about the affairs occurring across the region without having to worry about what others would say. So the women got a good chance for socialization and starting their own businesses other than for reform groups, opposed to the isolated life they would have otherwise had to lead in farms and ranches if still under the “women are inferior” concept. A good example would be of the Arizona Cowbelles, “The women initially sponsored social activities for the local group including picnics and dances, but in 1949, the group began instituting a statewide organizational structure that focused on promoting the industry’s beef products” (Berry 152). This organization of women in Arizona started out with the intent of socializing but they grew stronger and started dealing with business affairs. Since they were not faced with any major confrontations about them not being in their rightful place, they slowly started entering the public sphere.
One of the amazing things about women is that even if they enter into the public sphere they do not forget their original duties. Most women who have careers also juggle with their domestic work. But their domestic duties never seemed to be a burden; even if women wanted to expand their lives beyond the domestic work and worked hard at gaining the freedom to do so, it was still a part of their life and some women even believed there was importance in doing their original tasks. Berry states, “part of the Cowbelle labor identity centered on the importance of their domestic labor…The women believed this labor to be vital to the overall success of the ranch and the industry as a whole” (157). This women’s club focused on their domestic duties in addition to taking care of the cattle, such as cooking and making coffee for their hired help so that they - the hired help - in turn gave out good performance levels. This is what gave the success; these women knew how to be responsible in both the domestic and public spheres. By participating in both these spheres in the new region, women proved their strength and raised their self-esteem giving a new perspective on women and their capabilities.
People may assume that the West was all about heroics and romanticism, and they would be right. The West does consist of that theme, but it should not always be perceived in the sense of cowboys rescuing the heroines. There was another type of heroism in the West; one that is overlooked though they were far greater heroic acts than any cowboy rescuing a damsel in distress. These were the acts of women rescuing themselves from the misconception people had of them. This misconception that lead to the women’s inequality was the antagonist in the women’s lives and was sought to be corrected.
Women faced challenges in their everyday lives by everyday people. At work they were discriminated by male co-workers and managers who believed that women were inferior and weak. And at home they were pursued by the criticisms of the tradition-following women who believed that work outside the home is improper for ladies who were made to do only delicate things. The beauty of this matter is that women did not remain hidden under their shells when they faced these injustices, rather they were plotting, planning and waiting for the right chance to step up and claim their equality and set people’s minds straight on what women could really do. The West, being that chance, was not only unoccupied of “heavy” civilization but also unoccupied of gender ideologies. Here, women enthusiastically got to work on standing up against the men’s oppression upon them. They proved to any doubting elderly woman that a woman could do a lot more than crochet or sew pillowcases.
Not only did women redefine their identity but they also established it in a positive and strong way. They proved that there is indeed strength in numbers by forming clubs and associations with other women. These clubs, reform movements, and business organizations made an impact on other women’s lives, saving those who needed saving from oppressive or irresponsible men, boosting the women’s self-esteem and delivering the encouragement that was so needed to help them gain bravado in life. What greater heroic story does one must hear than of women rescuing themselves? Not just stopping with the rescue, they stood their ground and changed the way they were viewed. Women no longer could be viewed as inferior beings; they rose and fought the wave that threatened to keep them under inferiority forever, redefining their identities with the help of the West.
Excerpts of this research paper was presented by an EDCC English instructor in a conference presentation,
'Personalizing the Research Essay'
held in Yakima, WA, year 2011.
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