by Sandra Dallas
Sandra Dallas, author of the recently released novel, Westering Women, offers her thoughts on the incredible perils and hardships that 19th-Century women faced while seeking a new life in the American West.
For women, journeying west in mid-19th century America was a little like that old Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire joke: She did everything he did only backwards and in high heels. On the Overland Trail, a woman did everything a man did, but in long skirts and often pregnant. Women yoked and drove oxen, pitched tents, loaded wagons, cared for the sick, fought Indians, and a few even hunted. Their situation was not reciprocal. In the women’s diaries and narratives, there’s nary a mention of a man saying, “Honey, it’s been a long day for you. I’m going to cook supper and take care of the kids.” Sundays were a day of rest for men, writes a female historian. Not for women, who used the time for baking and washing clothes.
Westering appealed to men. They could leave behind stifling eastern society and run away from debts, seek adventure, maybe even strike it rich. For women, going west meant giving up the things that mattered to them—family and friends, school, church, and culture. It was a wrenching decision to leave all that behind and follow their husbands to an uncertain future where the end of the journey was often one of hardship and anguish. A South Dakota woman wrote, “It was the monotony, the loneliness that was the worst.”
So why did women go West? Many were unwilling participants, of course. Husbands or parents made the decision, and there was nothing they could do about it.
Still, I believe that as challenging as the westward journey was, many women were as enthusiastic about westering as their husbands. They undertook the journey for the same reasons as the men. “Women do not want adventure. That is unnatural,” Mary Madrid’s sister-in-law in Westering Women declares. But in fact, they did want it, every bit as much as men. Their diaries tell of their excitement in being in a land so vast they could see into tomorrow and of their pride at being able to conquer it. One woman wrote that “no matter what the environment [an American woman] can adapt herself…even to the perilous trip across the western half of this great continent.”
Once settled, women rose to the challenges of building homes and farms and businesses alongside their husbands. They herded cattle, broke the sod, and panned for gold, sharing the hardships with the men. Perhaps that’s the reason Wyoming was the first territory to give women the vote, Colorado the first state. A man couldn’t very well say, “It’s okay if you plow the fields with me, dear, but God forbid you should be unsexed by being allowed to vote.”
I believe the western experience made women feel they were the equals of their men, and perhaps at times, their superiors. Mary Jane Hatfield, who arrived in Montana in 1866, dug post holes, strung wire fence, and roofed the barn. She was also handy at sewing, and when she gashed her arm sliding down a haystack, she sent her daughter for a needle and thread and stitched up the wound herself. Her husband fainted.
Award-winning author Sandra Dallas was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley in Vogue. She’s the author of several novels—including The Bride’s House, Whiter Than Snow, The Persian Pickle Club, and Tallgrass—which have been translated into a dozen languages and optioned for film. She has won the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Wrangler Award, the Western Writers of America Spur Award, and the Women Writing the West Willa Award multiple times. She lives in Colorado.