Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849 - Vol. 1

By Kenneth L. Holmes | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION TO THE BISON BOOKS EDITION

Anne M. Butler

O that I had time and talent to describe this curious country.

-- Elizabeth Dixon Smith

Happily, the concept of a women's West no longer surprises us. Women were shaped by the West, but they did their own share of shaping, leaving a female signature on land and lives. It took Americans several decades to acknowledge this historical reality. The recognition came slowly, but we have moved beyond an earlier perception of the West as an arena reserved for male exploits. While once historians described the West as the exclusive territory of trappers, cowboys, miners, and soldiers, all of whom sprang from Anglo stock, the region is now recognized as far more gendered in its history. Women like Elizabeth Dixon Smith, the articulate and observant pilgrim quoted above, have identity and voice in the annals of western history.

Scholarly and popular publications alike have pushed back the confining parameters of western history to reveal a rich panorama of social, economic, and political forces that molded women's lives. Noted historians have turned out revealing and important works about women in the West. Yet, even as the scholarly investigation of western women has expanded, so the discussion over the nature of the experience has intensified. The more we know, the harder it seems to be to pinpoint the meaning of life for pioneer women in the American West. Did migrant women look to the West with quivering fear or joyful anticipation? What changes threaded through family interactions as a result of the struggle to relocate in the West? Were men and women affected differently by these incredible journeys? Did the pioneer experience exacerbate conditions of oppression for American women, or did it release women from cultural and economic limitations? Did the arrival of white women add to the mounting racial conflicts in the West, or did women reach across cultural divisions and perceive gender commonalities? Did pioneer wives and mothers encourage general female independence, or did they intensify the oppression of all women through their own cultural and habitual sexism and racism? Clearly, the response of Anglo women to the pioneer era remains a thorny issue for historians.

Much of the scholarly literature rests on the premise that the time period, which included a growth in American manufactures, a flood of new immigrants, and an explosion in domestic migration and western land grabbing, also saw the rise of a powerful social philosophy, ultimately known as the cult of true womanhood.1 In the mid-1800s, as the nation resonated with a vigor-

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