Women of the West

Women of the West

Women of the West

Women of the West


The J030136independent-minded western woman was often eclipsed in popular literature by sensations like Calamity Jane and Belle Starr. Dorothy Gray looks at the actual lives of women who made their own way out west.

Starting with Sacajawea, the Shoshone guide for Lewis and Clark, Women of the West gives a historical overview of various pioneers: Narcissa Whitman, trailblazer to Oregon and missionary to the Indians; Esther Morris and Carrie Chapman Catt, leaders for women's suffrage; Susette "Bright Eyes" La Flesche, the first Indian woman to become a political advocate for her race; and Willa Cather, the first writer to transmute the experience of western women into serious literature.

Women of the West is enriched by other portraits: Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young's ninth wife, who divorced him and fought against polygamy; Bethenia Owens-Adair and Anna Howard Shaw, pacesetters in medicine and the ministry; Agnes Morley Cleveland, author of the classic No Life for a Lady (also a Bison Book); Mary "Yellin" Lease, a populist who urged farmers to "raise less corn and more hell"; the black freedom fighter Biddy Mason; and Donaldina Cameron, scourge of the Chinese slave trade.


Paula Mitchell Marks

When Les Femmes Press publishedDorothy Gray Women of the West in 1976, historians had paid little attention to nineteenth-century western women beyond promulgating the usual "one-dimensional stereotypes" prevalent in popular culture. A rich and exciting American women's history had been developing, spurred in part by the women's rights movement and its adherents' interest in the feminist works of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. Yet the path-breaking historians of American women's experience--such theorists as Barbara Welter and Gerda Lerner--had focused overwhelmingly in the late 1960s on the lives of antebellum eastern women. This trend had continued in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, nineteenth-century western women continued to be depicted as "gentle tamers" (the title of a popular book by Dee Brown first published in 1958 and reprinted in 1968 and 1974), as "madonnas of the prairies," as "Calamity Janes," as clearly secondary or even tangential "helpmates" in the conquest of the American frontier. And minority western women remained virtually invisible, aside from the occasional romanticized or derogatory portrait of Native American women.

In 1976 our understanding had not yet been informed and enhanced by such western women's history scholars as Susan Armitage, Elizabeth Jameson, Julie Roy Jeffrey, Sandra Myers, Paula Petrik, Glenda Riley, and Lillian Schlissel.Nancy Wilson Ross 1944 Westward the Women for decades had stood virtually alone as a challenge to simplistic and peripheral portraits of western frontier women. Western women's history was slowly beginning to percolate with Mary W. M. Hargreaves's early-1970s work on plains women. Then the year 1976 saw the publication both ofChristine Stansell "Women on the Great Plains, 1865-1900" in the fourth issue of Women's Studies and ofGray Women of the West.

Glenda Riley identifies Gray's work as one of "a few early dissident voices" raised against "stereotypical depictions" of western women. Indeed, in her . . .

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