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New Women in the Old West, by Winifred Gallagher

Winifred Gallagher’s just-published New Women in the Old West: From Settlers to Suffragists, an Untold American Story, is an interesting entry in the ‘rescuing ignored people in history’ genre, pairing the histories of western expansion and of women’s rights in the United States between 1840 and 1920.

Women’s suffrage is a big part of the story: women gained the vote in Wyoming Territory in 1869 and in Utah Territory in 1870, and by the time the 19th Amendment extended it nationwide in 1920, fully eleven of the 14 states in the West had already granted suffrage to women. But it isn’t the only part of the story: women made other advances in the western territories and states ahead of their counterparts in the east.

Part of the reason, Gallagher believes, is the simple fact of the grueling nature of the western journey. Out of necessity, the assumed more responsibilities, learned more skill sets, and persevered through mental and physical hardships that belied the prevalent medical mindset that deemed women frail. An interesting statistic: 20% of women in the western migration did so while pregnant, yet that subset suffered a lower mortality rate than men on the journey.

Women also stepped up into public service roles as they pushed for the creation or schools, libraries and churches in their new outposts. This history is hard to excavate in part because, as women generally lacked legal rights to incorporate the institutions they created, it was their husbands or other men whose names appeared on the legal documents and who were thus credited as ‘town fathers.’

Two atypically gender-neutral national laws passed in the Civil War era also helped women. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any head of household, including unmarried women, to claim 160 acres in the west, gaining access to financial equity otherwise not easily available to them. Then, the Morrill Land-Grant Act created colleges in the west open equally to women and men at little or no cost. The Federal law left the controversy of whether to allow co-education to the individual states; most of the new settlements in the west opted for coeducation simply to cut the costs of building campuses. A full one-third of the students in these western colleges constituted were women, and they graduated at a higher rate than men.

This, in turn, opened up employment opportunities for women, especially as teachers. Indeed, the general earlier opening of doors for women in the west extended to other careers: by 1890, 14.5 percent of women in the West worked as lawyers, doctors and other professional areas, versus only 8 percent in the rest of the country. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

There was also a more lenient view towards women’s property rights and divorce in the western region than back east. In the hardscrabble frontier communities, where women worked alongside men to create prosperity, it made sense to respect the need to end an unhappy marriage. In addition, local governments didn’t have the means to care for the women and children of broken homes, and so wanted women to feel free to remarry as soon as possible. Judges in the west frequently granted child custody to the mothers, which at the time was rare back east.

While highlighting these advances for women and the settler heroines who helped make them happen, and who took advantage of the opportunities, the book doesn’t shy away from the controversies. In particular, many of the settler women believed in their destiny as a ‘civilizing influence on the savages,’ or else were completely heedless of the devastation being wrought on Native Americans by the Homestead Act and the Morrill Land-Grant Act, and other advantages which helped them gain their rights faster than women in the Eastern states. There were some women who recognized the reality and advocated for Native Americans, but even here it was a mixed bag.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher, for example, America’s first woman anthropologist, on the one hand advocated that “each Native people had its distinct culture, complete with language and politics, arts and even fashion…and took pains to stress their humanity and sensitivity.” But she was also an advocate for assimilation and was instrumental in the passage of the Dawes Severalty Act, which, among other travesties, established the ‘Indian schools,’ where Native American children suffered loneliness, dislocation, physical and sexual abuse, and often death, trauma which continues to resonate today.

The book also takes a more complex view of the Temperance movement:


For good reason, temperance, not suffrage, was nineteenth-century women’s major social and political cause. On average, men drank seven gallons of hard liquor per year, not counting copious amounts of beer and wine, compared with about two gallons now. Some brutalized their wives and children, made poor business decisions, or squandered their livelihoods on gambling or prostitution, leaving their families homeless….Contrary to its later puritanical, reactionary image, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—one of the largest, most important political organizations in the nation’s history—gave tens of thousands of its members a path from the home into the larger worlds of women’s rights, large-scale social reform, and personal growth. They regarded slavery and the lack of universal suffrage to be as great of evils as alcohol and other vices.


The WCTU’s second president was a Midwesterner, Frances Willard. She broadened the organization’s goals from its focus on alcohol to include a complete social reform platform: public health, the regulation of adult and child labor and an eight-hour workday, kindergartens, aid to the handicapped, legal aid and even world peace. This caused a bit of a rift with the more traditional eastern WCTU members, who hewed more to the focus on alcohol. The impression among politicians and men in general that the suffrage movement as supported by the WCTU was merely a trojan horse for prohibition: if women got the vote, they would outlaw alcohol. This may even have delayed suffrage, both in the western regions (over two decades passed between Wyoming and Utah territory’s granting of suffrage and the next states to do so) as well as nationally.

Nevertheless, the western chapters continued a focus on the corruption and economic dislocation of the industrial age. Willard urged the organization to “stand bravely by that blessed trinity of movements, Prohibition, Women’s Liberation and Labor’s Uplift.” The Temperance movement helped give rise to another professional career pathway for women: social work.

In all, an interesting history. Recommended.