Settler Women and Frontier Women: The Unsettling Past of Western Women's History
Hurtado, Albert L., Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies
My interest in western women's history and the history of gender developed from my graduate study in California Indian history in the 1970s. In those days there was simply no such thing as Indian women's history. There was Indian history (or ethnohistory), and there was women's history, two discrete fields that then did not intersect. I took a reading course in women's history and learned a lot from it, but I did not see what it had to do with Indian history. In the course of writing my dissertation I looked at some basic demographic data on Indians and discovered something disturbing: In California Native women died at much higher rates than Indian men. The ramifications of these data included a depressed birth rate that contributed to a rapidly declining population. If these trends continued unchecked to their logical statistical conclusion, it would mean that Native populations eventually would die out. Put another way, without women who gave birth to and raised enough children to replace the Indian popula tion, Indian history would literally end.
Of course, Native people did not come to this catastrophic end. Nor do I want anyone to think that this is an argument that supports the idea that it is the biological duty of all women to procreate for the continuation of any particular ethnic group. I do want to emphasize that because I was forced to consider matters like the decline in birthrates, women's relative population, and related matters, women became central to the story that I was trying to tell. I found that I had to explain why the number of Indian women was declining. As it turned out, there were historical reasons to account for these developments. So, because I considered one basic question about Indians (How many Indian women were there?) I had to rethink my entire dissertation and the book that grew out of it. I learned that women's history was not a hermetically sealed field of study that was relevant only to those with a special interest in women's history (or "herstory" as some people then called it). Clearly, the fate of Indian women h ad a lot to do with the whole story of Indians, not only in California, but everywhere. I was not the first historian to recognize the central importance of women in history, but for me it was a revelatory and life-changing event.
Historical demography drove me to think about women in Indian history, and it has also made me think about other women in western history. I use the term "settler women" to mean all non-Indian women. "Frontier women refers to all women who lived in a frontier region. I use the term "Anglo American" (even though it is often an imprecise designation) in order to distinguish among peoples of Anglo American, Hispanic, Asian, and Indian heritage. There are two things that are well known about non-Indian women in frontier regions: There were relatively few of them, and they reproduced at heroic rates. Indeed, these population characteristics of settlers have been described not only in the American West but in frontier regions throughout the world. The shortage of women had a far different meaning among settler populations than it did for California Indians. Instead of being a symptom of population decline, the sex ratio imbalance of the invading population heralded eventual population growth, conquest of Native pe oples, and hegemony. The few women who came at first and the many who followed contributed to these results. In short, a few women with high birthrates plus steady in-migration of new, fertile women eventually out-populated Native peoples. At the same time, Indians were often moving out of regions that whites were taking over. So the number of women matters, but numbers alone do not predict historical outcomes.
Biological reproduction, no matter how spectacularly high the rate, does not in itself account for the successful repopulation of the American West by white Anglo Americans. Women contributed to other sorts of reproduction that were crucial to outcomes that are often assumed to have been inevitable. …