American West Myths: Women’s Presence

The American west symbolized a new frontier for explorers and settlers alike. The Western territories offered unclaimed land practically free for the taking. It also offered opportunities for finding gold and striking it rich. Myths about the west would be the notion that the west offered nothing but benefits and there were no real hardships involved in setting roots in the west. The vast amounts of land represented the large and bountiful aspect of nature in its pristine state.

In the introduction Lawrence recognizes the “important role in the creation and maintenance of the ideology of separate masculine and feminine spatial spheres” (Lawrence, 333). A common myth was the American west was geared toward a male audience. Most operated under the notion that it was the men who were the main demographic to forage the uncharted land and carve the path for followers. Farnham argues it is “not more extraordinary for a woman to plough, dig and hoe with her own hands, if she have the will and strength to do so” (28). This counters the idea that men were the forerunners to do everything. When families moved out into the west together the women were required to perform equally arduous tasks as men.

The move westward put people in the middle of the nature and took them away from civilization. The isolation from society created a sense of “lawless excitement of this land” (Farnham, 301). The separation created control for the pioneers because they often had to rely on only themselves and their families to remedy problems and survive the untamed nature. The American west was a subtle move towards equality for women. They were able to escape the “feminine spatial spheres” to which they were ascribed (Lawrence, 333).  Women had the choice, and were often forced, to “wear pants” and aid in the process of going west. In society, specific gender roles and expectations were already assigned and followed for generations. The American west broke down those traditions and dissolved the distinctions between males and females. Everyone was needed to lend a helping hand with farm work and commit everything they had to merely surviving, let alone building a community.

Farnham’s essays present ways in which women specifically stood as an opposing force to the American west myth. Men were not the only people pioneering the west and settling the land. Women often accompanied men in their parties to move west and were considered equal workers in the act of settling and taming the wilderness. Most people perceptions of the American west are outlaws and money-hungry gold miners. Farnham and Lawrence’s works entice readers to remember the presence of women out in the west and to understand their roles in the new land.


Lawrence, Deborah. Writing the Trail. Ch./ Art:85-92 Pub. University of Iowa Press 2006

Farhham, Eliza W. California In-Doors and Out; On, How We Farm, Mine, and Live Generally in the Golden States. Ch./ Art: Excerpts p.  28-31, 91-94. Pub. Dix, Edwards & Co 1856


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by bharta1 on October 26, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    I certainly agree with the argument that Lawrence made and the example Farnham displayed. What’s interesting with the women involved with the “Mythic” gold rush and western expansion is that their narratives tended to “depict day-to-day existence”(2), which doesn’t really shout for the makings of myths, but that is not entirely true. It is the other half of the story. When men are riding out and about, they came from somewhere, they didn’t just appear, which is what is so wonderful about mythology, its chaos and violent confrontations. Also, at the same time these narratives are important from a human standpoint. In keeping with the men riding around, the myth is a myth of movement, the end always a little out of sight, this is the American dream, something that never really comes around or is reached. These women detail this journey to the end, they connect the dots, and while it is done they relate themselves to the landscapes, give us a glance and intimate details of an environment’s affect on a person’s psyche, “the authors’ attempts to negotiate the psychological modifications of their identity as they leave the familiar space for the unfamiliar…As the landscape becomes increasingly alien and the travel more arduous, their romantic language constructions break down, and they identify their emotional and physical discomfort with the landscape” (4-5). I guess what I’m saying is that the mythic “West” used wilderness as a tool to validate the lawless or noble actions of man, essentially it was a literary tool not so much as a connection for good or ill between man, whereas these narrative directly confront nature and can in someways be seen as “Western” myth busters. Which is why Lawrence’s students might have had such a difficult time digesting them. One part may be that they are tedious, repetitive and lackluster, but at the same time what could be more real and disappointing. On the other hand, the West is full of action and fluff and stuff and happenings and morality and duality and falling maidens and rich prospectors. The myth is a part of the National identity and memory, regardless of its validity or truth. The environment in these diaries does dissolve the gender roles and invariably the mythic “West” which wholeheartedly depends on them.

  2. Posted by teagueoreagan on October 26, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    It is certainly true that the myth of the West has predominantly masculine connotations negating the essential involvement of women in the settlement of the untamed frontier. Focusing on the narratives of the countless women that moved to the frontier are changing these perceptions as “historians are having to reconsider earlier patriarchal interpretations of the West” (Lawrence, 333). I like what you said about the necessity of discarding these gender distinctions. It becomes apparent in the reading that such division is actually a luxury as opposed to a natural state in the division of labors. This is apparent in the quote (I think you should have left both halves of this quote) “…it is no more extraordinary for a woman to plough, dig, and hoe with her own hands, if she have the will and strength to do so, than for men to do all their household labor for months, never seeing the face nor hearing the voice of a woman during that time” (Farnham, 28). Here the underlying meaning of this statement is that there is nothing objectively masculine or feminine about agricultural or domestic work, rather such distinctions are subjective and should it become essential for survival to discard such subjectivity the objective truth is readily apparent–there is no such thing as woman’s work.

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