Tuesday, February 23, 2010

“This is an awful place for children and nervous mothers would ‘die daily'": Women in the Late 19th Century West

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below is a section on women's experiences in the Trans-MIssissippi West following the Civil War.


The outlaw culture of the West crossed gender boundaries. Myra Belle Shirley, who later assumed the alias “Belle Starr,” won fame as a stagecoach robber, cattle rustler, and horse thief in the 1870s and 1880s. In addition to those criminal activities, she fenced stolen goods and became know for successfully harboring wanted criminals. Working as a card dealer at a Dallas, Texas, saloon in the late 1860s, she gave birth to a daughter fathered by one legendary gunman (Jesse James’ crime partner Cole Younger) and married outlaw Jim Reed, the couple fleeing to California after a warrant was issued for their arrest.

The couple returned to Texas, and Shirley again dealt cards and worked as a prostitute until Reed was killed in 1874. Shirley entered into a series of volatile relationships with six common-law husbands, all of them criminals. Living in the Indian Territory, she died mysteriously from several shotgun blasts in 1889, shortly before her 41st birthday. Though no one was ever arrested for her murder, two of her sons figured as prominent suspects.

Martha Jane Burke, a sometimes prostitute who became famous as “Calamity Jane,” earned fame by dressing as a man at age 23 and joining an otherwise all-male geological exploration of the Black Hills in South Dakota. Then, in 1876, again in disguise, she volunteered for service with a 1,300-man forced commanded by Gen. George Crook in a war expedition against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne peoples. She served an important role, rapidly traveling 90 miles, including a swim across the Platte River at one point to transmit secret military dispatches. Burke later made dubious claims that she had married and borne a child with another “Wild West” celebrity, gunman James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok and that she also was a friend of General George Armstrong Custer, famous then for his defeat and death at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Burke performed in William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s “Wild West Show” in 1893, entertaining crowds as an expert horse rider and trick gun shooter. Sadly, alcoholism destroyed her entertainment career and hastened an early death at age 51 from pneumonia.

The West, however, offered much less excitement and drama for many women, some of whom endured lives of isolation. Elite women in particular chafed against the lack of culture and community. A doctor’s wife, A.K. Clappe, complained bitterly in letters of life near the California gold mines, sharing with her sisters the emptiness of life with “no newspapers, no churches, no lectures, concerts or theaters; no fresh books, no shopping, calling nor gossiping little tea-drinkings; no parties, no balls, no picnics, no tableaus, no charades, no latest fashions, no daily mail . . . no promenades, no rides or drives; no vegetables but potatoes and onions, no milk, no eggs, no nothing.”

Such cultural niceties did not concern working-class women who faced exhausting work but also missed the extended family networks that they left behind in the East. Women constituted only about 20 percent of the adults in Western mining communities. As historian Elliott West has observed, women seeking social bonds in such communities faced two major obstacles. First, “there were few women with whom to form new relationships, especially in the early years of a town’s life. Second, the mining camps were among the most unstable and transient gatherings in the history of the unsettled young republic.” About 90 of every 100 residents moved elsewhere within a decade, making it difficult to form communities or create lasting friendships. As one Denver prospector’s wife put it in her diary in an 1863 passage, “I never was so lonely and homesick in all my life. My sweet sweet home! Why did I ever leave you in the stranger’s land to dwell?”

Men and women struggled side-by-side to survive in the West, whether they lived in one of the new frontier cities, in mining camps, in the desert, or in farming communities. The family farm depended on hard work from both the men and the women, with women assigned not only the endless chores of feeding the chickens and other poultry, planting seeds, watering the crops, and helping with the harvest, but also cooking, caring for the young, doing the laundry, hauling water to the house from the well, making and repairing clothes, and acting as a physician when someone in the household fell ill. Women milked cows, churned butter, and gave birth to large families.

In mining towns, women often earned incomes as domestic servants. Some women contributed to the family income by taking in renters, and cooking or doing laundry for other families. In many cases, family structures were informal. In several Central Arizona mining communities in the 1860s and 1870s, almost half the adult women were not married to the men with whom they lived. These couples were often mixed race, with white men cohabitating with Hispanic women. Such women dealt with a sexual double standard in which the community looked the other way when men had sex outside of marriage but defined a woman as being immoral for engaging in the same behavior.

In spite of the more loosely structured gender roles in the West, however, in mining camps, more than 90 percent of women “kept house,” according to late 19th-century censuses. Marriage became more common as frontier towns became more settled. Recent studies suggest that spousal abuse, marital rape, and violence against children were commonplace in the late 19th-century West.

Mining camps in particular posed hazards for mothers raising young children. “The fouled water, streets strewn with garbage and offal, and the crowded living conditions encouraged the spread of cholera, diphtheria, influenza, measles, and other child killers,” wrote Elliott West. Childhood mortality became a cruel commonplace for these mothers, including one who lost three children in four days in Caribou, Colorado in 1879. The landscape posed another lethal hazard. Young ones were liable to accidentally tumble into mine shafts, be exposed to lethal amounts of mercury, swallow lye or wander into the paths of fast-charging horses or heavy wagons. “This is an awful place for children and nervous mothers would ‘die daily,’” as one woman wrote in Rich Bar, California.

Women lived public as well as private lives. Women married to or living with miners on strike brought food to their husbands on the picket line, and threw projectiles at soldiers and Pinkerton Guards sent to quash the uprising. Women campaigned publicly for the right to vote and sometimes lobbied influential husbands to vote for suffrage. The Grange and other farmers’ organizations allowed women not only to join, but also to hold offices within the organization, and women took the leadership role in the campaign for the federal and state prohibition of alcohol.

Women won the right to vote in the West before any other region. In the 1876 Colorado state constitution, women won the right to vote in school elections and to hold seats on local school boards. By the 1890s, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho had approved women’s suffrage. By 1914, they were joined by California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, and Montana. Many historians have argued that the central role women played in the family economy in the West persuaded men to accept full citizenship rights for women. Such men also wanted increased female migration to the West in order to increase the Congressional representation for the region and thus expand the West’s political clout. Others note that in states like Colorado, women used the years before winning full statewide suffrage to form women’s organizations such as local chapters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Prohibition emerged as a feminist cause for many reasons. Women argued that alcohol led to spousal and child abuse, was a factor in workplace injuries suffered by wage-earning husbands, that money spent on spirits could be better invested in the home economy, and that much alcohol consumption took place in male-intense environments like saloons where men solicited services from prostitutes, often contracted social diseases and later infected their wives.

Women also formed church groups, literary clubs, and organizations that sought to improve city sanitation, hospitals and schools. These groups often attacked issues considered part of the “domestic sphere,” for instance addressing the needs of children and preserving the safety and sanctity of the family. Nevertheless, woman gained vital political experience in these groups. As historian Elizabeth Jameson argues, “ . . . [T]heir participation in rural reform movements, organized labor, and partisan politics contributed to suffrage victories,” she wrote.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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