When you start to do a little digging, it doesn’t take long to discover that women who traveled west—alone or with their families—had unprecedented responsibility on the frontier. By necessity, women did a great deal more physical labor on the frontier than we’re accustomed to today.
The challenge of frontier life started with the journey. Women were responsible for preparing their families for the long, dangerous trip westward. One of the most important pieces of that puzzle was outfitting a wagon. Women hand-sewed wagon covers (often in groups as a social event) as well as clothes for the journey. These items were necessary to surviving harsh and varied climates which included burning heat in the plains and deserts, and freezing cold in the mountains. Wagons were stocked with the bare necessities, forcing tough choices when it came to leaving precious heirlooms behind. Families needed to be kept clean, fed, and clothed, but saving space and weight in the wagon made this a delicate balancing act between preparedness and minimalism.
When families reached the frontier, priorities shifted away from basic survival toward establishing sustainable lives in the new land. Women were vastly outnumbered by men. Some figures place it at three or four men for every woman. However, women still shouldered a great portion of the work.
Men worked jobs that drew them west in the first place, while women took charge of home management as well as assisting with farming and ranching chores. Unmarried women often cleaned rooms in hotels and boarding houses, worked in saloons, and assisted in medical clinics that benefited local families as well as the huge number of single men who lived in or passed through their towns. Providing laundry and seamstress services also gave women with no family a way to survive. Women as a whole often pooled time, skill, and capital to provide care for the entire town’s children, bachelors, transients, ill, and injured.
Women also shouldered the responsibility for orchestrating social and leisure time. Church boards and ladies’ groups were often a town’s most important asset in terms of creating a homey, enjoyable social life in frontier towns that were isolated and detached from the rest of the country.
Because there were so many more men, women were “in demand” among those who wanted to settle down in the west. This meant that unmarried women could afford to be picky, and many women held more social and financial capital than they could have in the east.
Participating in local politics became more common among women in the west. Tough, resourceful, enterprising women, earned the respect and admiration of the town’s men through their mettle and fortitude, proving themselves through their countless contributions to the economy of frontier towns. In some towns, women secured their rights earlier than their eastern sisters. Believe it or not, women in the western territories had the right to vote well before the 19th amendment, and well before most of their sisters on the eastern seaboard.
What would you do?