Finding women in the American West

This is the first of a couple of blogposts about the inclusion of women in school history lessons. Many colleagues are arguing that the what and the how of women in the past being taught in our classrooms is leading to woefully unrepresentative history. A key problem is lack of knowledge and resources. 

In this blogpost (which first featured on the blog Nicole Ridley (@RidleyHistory) history teacher at Malet Lambert in Hull, shares her research into the women of the American West story. Nicole and her colleague, Hannah Betts (@MissHBHistory), are starting a local network of history teachers in the Hull area. Do get in touch with them if you would like to be part of this. Meanwhile, follow @histassoc to keep up-to-date with similar curriculum conversations. 

Update January 2022: blogpost updated to include the link of the continued work Nicole has done for Pearson to produce a case study on ‘Women in the West’. Nicole develops here argument that ‘gender and race were two of the most determining factors in experience of the American West.’ Her work is not about extra content to challenge outdated narratives, but about drawing on scholarship to teach a more historical – and memorable – narrative. She gives examples of the enquiry questions she uses to frame this learning. 

Bluntly, there are not enough women in our teaching of the American West. This probably isn’t a surprise for most people, given that there are not enough women in our teaching of anything, but now that I know how many women there are to talk about, it does surprise me (a little bit).

As far as I can see, and I may have missed someone, there are only six women mentioned by name in the textbook we use … six versus roughly eighty-two men. Within that, all the sources (bar one by Iron Tooth), painters, and even historians are male – probably because in popular culture (and surface-level historical analysis) the American West is a masculine space, a time defined by predominantly male pioneers, male inventors, male 49ers, male politicians, male warriors, male soldiers, and treaties that obviously have no gender at all. There is one page dedicated specifically to the role of white female settlers, on which two of the six appear, but it doesn’t even begin to cover the scope of women’s experiences and impact on the West. As much as it is vital that we study people like Amelia Knight, women were not just a window in which to view the Oregon Trail or the hardships of homesteading – they had real influence on the economics and politics of settlement in the West. They were integral to the overarching narrative – the conflict between cultures for the civilisation and expansion of America. Historian Susan Lee Johnson referred to this realisation as historians beginning “to deflate the overblown rhetoric of white masculinity”, which amused me.

The initial aim of my “women in the American West” lockdown project was just to find names: names so these women are remembered and names that we could do some research on and include at relevant points. Originally – and I’m not proud of this – I thought that women were just eyes to view the changes men made, and that it would be difficult to find a female “mover and shaker” who we could analyse without adding in more content. This isn’t true in any period of history, and especially not the American West. What I actually found in all this reading was the complex reality of women’s power, and it has increased my understanding and appreciation of this period tenfold.

Why should we include women? 

It doesn’t need to be said (again) but the argument for why we should include more women in the curriculum is neatly made by Susanna Boyd in TH175: it helps students build nuanced arguments, we’re challenging stereotypes, it’s inspiration for the girls in our classroom, it’s accurate, and it’s just good history. An effective, inclusive curriculum will reflect the full range of human experiences that aren’t “bolted-on” like an afterthought, but an integral cog in the story (shout out to @snelsonh and YorkClio for its work on slot-ins). This is the reason I feel uncomfortable with having one page on women’s experiences – they should be on every page because they experienced every event we look at.

Where are the women?

Western historians such as Susan Lee Johnson and Margaret Jacobs highlighted that there is a lack of attention paid to women’s histories in the American West, rather than a lack of history. They argue that when women are included in analysis, they often appear passive, domestic and without their own agency. First, it is inaccurate and dismissive to automatically associate domestic spheres with a lack of agency; women’s role in the home was fundamental to shaping the American West, but we can go further on that later.

Joan M. Jensen and Darlis A. Miller identified four stereotypes of women in the American West: the gentle tamers (ladies who civilise their surroundings through feminine virtues and social connections), the sunbonneted helpmates (following their husbands and dutifully helping where they could without complaining), the hell-raisers (for example “super cowgirls” that act more like men than women), and the bad women (prostitutes “with a heart of gold”). Some of these are docile, some are overtly sexual, but when tested against the reality of women they don’t hold up. They are categories defined by a male image of women at this time and they don’t represent lived experience. These historians argue that even in highly respected histories, such as Dee Brown, women are still clumped together in a domestic or social mass, which isn’t accurate. Women’s impact is wider than that.

Further, gender cannot be separated from race – they were the two most determining factors for experience, underpinning interaction and action from all sides of the story. Academic scholarship is now working on presenting a history of the American West that is diverse and representative, across all lived experience: male, female, Hispanic, black, white, Asian, Native, etc. We must look at a wider range of women because the hardships of Amelia Knight or other white women – who are still privileged by virtue of their skin – cannot begin to reflect the hardships suffered by women like Amanda Johnson, a freed slave trying to find an opportunity, or Native American women like Milly Francis or Pretty Shield, who were stripped of power, home and identity.

This illustrates one of the biggest problems with painting an accurate picture of women in the West: experiences vary drastically, by race, age, and even by state. Jensen and Miller cite a ratio of 3 men to 2 women in Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa in the 1850s, compared with 34:1 (Colorado) and 23:1 (California) – 1860s. This is made even more difficult when you try to map the states with high or low populations of Chinese, Hispanic, or African American women. They experienced government action – and the consequences of that action – in different ways because of existing or upcoming race laws. This is all without touching the story of Native American women. I’m not even close to being able to address these complexities within a resource or sequence, but it is crucial to be aware of them. Nuances of identity hugely impact not only individual experience but cultural tension and structural development within this story.

Who were these women? 

I have started compiling a mini and very informal database of women’s names – there are a few below and more in the resources. Some of them I have started to research, some I have not; some have resources, some do not. I hope that it’s a helpful starting place for anyone wanting to include more women in their lessons and I will gratefully magpie any research that comes out of it. I also hope that it’s useful for anyone coming to the American West for the first time, because I certainly didn’t appreciate how nuanced this history could be.

The Oregon Trail and early settlement:

Stansell and Faragher describe the trail as a family phenomenon, where women carve out a space for themselves within the domesticity prescribed by Victorian separate spheres. Even if we go no further and assume that all women were simply obedient wives, following their adventurous husbands across America, they would still deserve more space in our discussions of importance and consequence than they are currently given. Wives and mothers were as integral to the settlement and success of the West as the men who might have got there first; creating a functional and comfortable domestic sphere in spaces with very little infrastructure was no easy feat.

That being said, more could be done – in my SOW at any rate – to show women as active workers on a daily basis, ready to step into men’s roles when there was a need, and making independent decisions about what needed to be done in order to reach the West successfully, rather than tagging along on a man’s adventure, or “following their husbands” as it is often described. There are examples of women refusing to be left behind, taking their social and domestic responsibilities as seriously as we should, and still becoming leaders on the trail in whatever capacity they were needed. Pioneering allowed a renegotiation of roles alongside (underneath or inside) ideal femininity.

  • Diary of Charlotte Emily Pengra (hard work and nursing)
  • Clara Brown (former slave inducted into the Society of Colorado Pioneers for her early impact)
  • @thewestlive has been following the story of Abigail Scott

Rushing, settlements, farming

Ratios of men to women changed very quickly. California had been reduced from 23:1 to 2:1 in a decade, which meant there were plenty of women whose experiences we could pick from. There are examples of wives and husbands who built businesses from the ground up, women who were left by their husbands and continued to provide for themselves in an economic and legal capacity, and single women who were every bit as adventurous and entrepreneurial as the men (shocker).

  • Nellie Cashman (California and Klondike Gold Rush – life in mining towns)
  • Abbie Bright (female homesteader in Kansas)
  • Luenza Wilson (went to the California Gold Rush and owned property)
  • Maria Rita Valdez – ranch owner in California (now the Beverley Hills Hotel)
  • Lizzie E Johnson (early and incredibly successful investor in the cattle industry – apparently the first woman to travel the Chisholm Trail)

The Plains Indians

Native American women were important because they controlled supply and demand: they manufactured goods to sell, before contact with the settlers they had the power to trade with white men, they negotiated with businesses such as the fur companies, and had jurisdiction over prisoners and punishment. Intermarriage was an important political tool, but often women did have control of this (see Milly Francis). Moreover, tribes like the Cherokee were traditionally matrilineal and matrilocal – Indian women owned property as a rule, rather than the exception. Studies into the Cherokee show how Indian women’s roles were strangled by westernisation and the separation of spheres, even if they were adopted by Indians themselves in an effort to save other elements of their culture. Women became less significant – but not insignificant – in Indian society as warfare and war with the US became more important. Theda Perdue argues that during the Trail of Tears Indian men learnt a harsh lesson about power and how it can be stripped from you, but it was a lesson that women had already learnt with the arrival of white culture.

  • Nancy Ward (Beloved Woman of the Cherokee – heartbreakingly outside the period)
  • Olive Oatman and Topeka, the daughter of a Mojave Chief who traded for her
  • Maggie Stands Looking and Zitkala-Sa (life in reservations and Indian schools)
  • Buffalo Calf Road Woman (warrior and credited with knocking Custer off his horse)
  • Susan La Flesche Picotte (first Native American with a medical degree, worked with the reservation agency)
  • Natawista Culbertson (worked with her husband to negotiate with the American Fur Company and persuaded her cousin, the Chief, to allow the trade passage through Blackfoot lands)
  • Eagle Woman (negotiator in the fur trade, influential in getting Native leaders to sign the Fort Laramie Treaty 1868 – she visited the Yanktonai and Oglala camps)
  • Milly Francis (Cherokee Trail of Tears – offered marriage and money by a white man she saved – she took the money and declined the marriage)

Hope it’s helpful!


Resources – many thanks to all those that have come up with these sheets!

Meanwhile Elsewhere – I butchered the layout because I just find it easier, but it remains a fantastic concept. There are supposed to enhance their knowledge of the tribes.

Further reading:

Johnny Faragher and Christine Stansell, “Women and their families on the Overland Trail to California and Oregon”, Feminist Studies, Vol 2, no 2-3, 1975, pp. 150-166

Francis Flavin, “Native Americans and American History” University of Texas at Dallas

Margaret Jacobs, “What’s gender got to do with it?”, The Western Historical Quarterly, vol 42, No 3, Aut 2011, pp 297-304

Joan M. Jensen and Darlis A. Miller, “The Gentle Tamer revisited”, Pacific Historical Review, vol 49, No 2, May 1980, pp 173-213

Susan Lee Johnson, “Nail this to your door: a disputation on the power … etc”, Pacifc Historical Review, vol 79, No 4, november 2010, pp 605-617

T. A. Larson, “Women’s role in the American West”, Montana Magazine of Western History, 24, 3, summer 1974, pp. 2-11

Cowgirls, outlaws, and gun slingers: 10 women who ruled the Wild West –

Encyclopaedia of the Great Plains – Female homesteaders –

2 thoughts on “Finding women in the American West

  1. Wonderful! My friend and I are doing an OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) course on Creative Western Women concentrating on finding Black, Indigenous and Hispanic Women. We’ve found musicians, poets, painters, potters, rug, basket and jewelry makers to bring to the attention of our participants.


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