Wednesday, March 28, 2007

School Marms, Saloon Girls, & Calamity Jane

Western Heritage Gathering: Women of the West--Part IV

Molly Gloss set the record straight about women in the West. Her love of literature, and westerns in particular, has provided ample opportunity to become familiar with the "accepted" version of women's roles out West. However, dissatisfied by the dime novel and Hollywood portrayals she did a little research of her own. The result: The Jump-Off Creek and Wild Life.

Think about frontier women--women of the west--whom you have seen on TV or movies. I think of the mothers who gave their all, such as "Ma" Walton and "Ma" Ingalls. Or the rough and tumble tom-boy Doris Day portrayed in Calamity Jane. Or Judy Garland (the proper maid) and Angela Lansbury (the saloon girl) in the Harvey Girls. The other often portrayed woman of the west is the teacher, as in Christy or Ms. Beadle from Little House. More often than not, women in old westerns were portrayed in stereotypical ways and suffered from the want of a good husband. Was there more to the story?

Molly's presentation was "Proving Up: Homesteading Women in the Literature of the American West." In the late 1800s less than one-half of homesteaders were women (without men!). By the 1910s every one in five homesteader was a woman. Women made their way West as mothers and wives. But how often do we hear about the single women wanting to work the land? The hard-working widow? Or the deserted wife/mother who must make the way as head of the household?

To "prove up" an individual had to be 21 years of age, head of the household, live on the land, make improvements and farm the land for five years. The real kicker? Women proved-up more often than men!

Read about real women of the West. Dozens of books are available regaling the lives and struggles of these women. Read until you break the mold of popular novels and movies.

Tip: Look for memoirs written by women who homesteaded in your area.

And don't forget, Alice Day Pratt's Homesteader's Portfolio (1922), Three Frontiers (1955) and Animals of a Sagebrush Ranch (Juvenile, 1931). This remarkable woman, single and nearing forty, traveled from her home on the East Coast to file claim on 160 acres of land in Central Oregon (Prineville area).

For a more modern version of the homesteading woman read Jane Kirkpatrick's, Homestead. I will write more about this fabulous book in an upcoming post.

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