The Important Things of Life: Women, Work, and Family in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, 1880-1929

The Important Things of Life: Women, Work, and Family in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, 1880-1929

The Important Things of Life: Women, Work, and Family in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, 1880-1929

The Important Things of Life: Women, Work, and Family in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, 1880-1929

Synopsis

Sweetwater County lies in southwestern Wyoming, and has stood as a significant symbolic geography for the "new Western Woman's" history. As the county in which Elinore Pruitt Stewart ( Letters of a Woman Homesteader, Nebraska 1990) said she proved up her homestead in 1913, it is a fitting locale for the study of western gender relations. The Important Things of Life examines women's work and family lives in Sweetwater County in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The 1880's discovery of coal caused a population boom, attracting immigrants from numerous ethnic groups. At the same time, liberalized homestead law drew sheep and cattle ranchers. Dee Garceau demonstrates how survival on the ranching and mining frontier heightened the value of group cooperation in ways that bred conservative attitudes toward gender. Augmented by reminiscences and oral histories, Garceau traces the adaptations that broadened women's work roles and increased their domestic authority. Hers is a compelling portrait of the American West as a laboratory of gender role change, in which migration, relocation, and new settlement underscored the development of new social identities.

Excerpt

"Why does woman long for the ballot?" asked the editors of the Big Piney Examiner in 1915. Newspaper to ranchers in the Green River Valley of Sweetwater County, Wyoming, the Examiner opposed woman suffrage. With rhetorical flourish, the editors deemed the national suffrage campaign a misguided effort:

When all is said and done, is not the selection of the butcher more important to the home, than the election of mayor; is not the employment of the dairyman a far more important event in the life of children than the appointment of a postmaster; is not the selection of books for the family library more important than voting books for the jail and courthouse? Why does woman lay aside the important things of life? Why leave the substance and grasp at the shadow?

According to the Examiner, the "important things of life" for women were "the substance" of home and family, not "the shadow" of female equality, sentiments that echoed Victorian mores from the nineteenth century. The Examiner's editorial revealed the paradox of conservative gender consciousness in a setting where material adaptation to frontier conditions was gradually broadening women's roles. But the story behind such conservatism is not told in political speeches. Rather, it begins with subtler changes that characterized the informal spaces of work and family life, where so much of female activity took place.

On the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Sweetwater County frontier, survival required adjustments that expanded women's work roles and increased their domestic authority. At the same time, survival on this ranching and mining frontier heightened the value of group cooperation. On ranches, such cooperation was grounded in familiar, older traditions of separate gender spheres and patriarchal authority. In mining towns, such cooperation placed women squarely within reciprocal kin and ethnic networks, which restricted as well as supported them in their expanding roles. The combined needs for gen-

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