While the Western Frontier is often seen as a masculine territory, women were among the hundreds of thousands of settlers who moved across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West to mine for gold, build the railroads and establish farms, albeit in far fewer numbers than men. The frontier offered women a myriad of opportunities not available to them back East.
Native American Women
Native American women lived on the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountain West for thousands of years before white settlers moved to the American "frontier," and their labor was integral to their tribes. In nomadic tribes like the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux, women processed bison and other large game, tanned animal hides, made clothes, gathered berries and other vegetation and set up and broke down camp, while women of the agricultural tribes often had property ownership and oversaw farming. As whites began exploring and settling the west, Native American women served as guides and married white men who utilized their wives' kinship and trading networks for economic gain.
Women formed the backbone of many of the families who took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered 160 acres of land to those who could pay a small fee, dig a well, build a road and construct a home within five years. Some women even struck out on their own as homesteaders, eager to escape urban wage-labor and find new opportunities. Single, divorced and widowed women could take advantage of the Homestead Act, while even married women qualified for a land grant under the Desert Land Act of 1878. Women accounted for more than 10 percent of the homestead grants in North Dakota and Wyoming in the late 1800s, reaching almost 20 percent by the early 1900s. Female homesteaders were a diverse group, including immigrants, African Americans and East Coast whites.
Harsh Realities of Home Life
Life on the frontier was not easy for women. They were tasked with cleaning the filthy sod houses, cooking all meals and preserving food for the hard winter months, caring for children and either establishing a successful farm on the vast prairies or assisting their husbands in doing so. These women endured hard winter blizzards, droughts, insect infestations and harsh summer heat, along with isolation and depression as a result of often living miles away from any else. However, many women also found ways to thrive and form community through art, music, schools and churches.
Thousands of women migrated West to make a living in the mining and railroad "boomtowns." In these hardscrabble towns, women ran boarding houses and worked as saloonkeepers, laundresses, waitresses, teachers, dance-hall girls and prostitutes. Life for many of these women was not easy. As historian Virginia Scharff points out, the infamous "Calamity Jane" began life as an abandoned child and worked as a prostitute before she earned fame as a sharp-shooting heroine -- only to die an alcoholic. Even so, as with men, the West provided women with economic opportunities and adventure that they might not have had in the heavily settled East. Women provided important services and helped bring culture to frontier towns by helping to establish churches and schools and create a sense of community.
The West Leads the Way
In addition to offering women economic opportunities, many Western states granted women suffrage long before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. In 1869, the Wyoming territory was first to grant women suffrage, hoping to attract women to the territory. Not all Western states promoted gender equality -- in fact, in 1870 Wyoming denied women the right to serve on juries. Even so, it was the Western state of Montana that elected the first female member of the House of Representatives, Jeannette Rankin, in 1916, and the first female governors also hailed from the West.
- Encyclopedia of the Great Plains: Women Homesteaders
- The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: Women of the West; Virginia Scharff
- Encyclopedia of the Great Plains: Native American Gender Roles
- Encyclopedia of Women in the American West; Gordon Moris Bakken and Brenda Farrington
- Encyclopedia of the Great Plains: Gender
- Women of the West Museum: Western Women Voters - Wyoming
- FooTToo/iStock/Getty Images