Myths of the American West

As Lawrence states, “[despite] recent studies on western history, women’s diaries, journals, and letters are considered by literary scholars as subliterary- pieces of local color, at best (Lawrence 3). Because women’s writings of the American West and frontier life has been so disparaged, many myths about that land and life have been preserved. Eliza Burhans Farnham’s writing dispels many of the myths, as do many other women’s writings, yet until recently they were considered of little importance which goes to show that men’s accounts are considered more accurate or relevant which perpetuates the myths of the American West surrounding women.

Farnham’s depiction of herself completely contradicts the depiction of women within other texts. The most striking difference is that she did not travel with her husband, but instead with just “her two little sons, a female friend, and a farmer” because she was widowed (Farnham 41). This is in sharp contrast to the usual depiction of women traveling west solely to follow their husbands. This myth persists because “[historians] rarely mention that single and widowed women traveled west” (Lawrence 83). The patriarchal undertones of this seem to indicate that women are unable to be independent, yet that clearly is not the case as Farnham shows well.

Farnham further differs from the usual myths of women on the frontier by being heavily involved in both the building of her home and the farming of her land. She states that it is not “extraordinary for a woman to plough, dig, and hoe with her own hands, if she has the will and strength to do so” (Farnham 28). She did just that, because as a widowed woman on the frontier, “‘women’s work’ was a misnomer- they did whatever work needed to be done” (Lawrence 83). Farnham even finds this work so fulfilling that she laughs at the idea of needing to pay a man to do it (Farnham 107). Although many women, whether they were married, single, or widowed, did do outside work, their lack of presence within literary texts is severely lacking. This is not a problem solely with women in the American West, but for women throughout all time time and places, whose work has gone unnoticed and unrecorded. This myth that women never did work outside the home is not an accidental thing, because the patriarchal society wanted people to believe that the American West was built on the hard work of men alone and that women’s experiences were unimportant, and thus not as instrumental in the settling of the frontier.

Apart from the myths about women in the west, the myth of how the land was settled is also strong. Many people did move west in order to mine, but many also went in order to farm and settle the vast expanses of “uninhabited” land, or ended up farming as a result of finding over-mined land. Farnham specifically addresses this myth by stating that she wants others to know “that there is something in California other than mines” (Farnham 29). So while most of the myths that Farnham contradicts relate specifically to women, she also wants to break myths related to the land itself.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. I think you have done a really nice job breaking down the Farnham peice. I too felt that while she was trying to dispell myths about women, it is myths as a whole that she has a problem with as well. Its funny how much myths penetrate our society in popular culure and academia.

  2. To be quite frank with you, reading “California, In- Doors and Out” by Eliza Burhans Farnham completely took me by surprise. I completely agree with you on the fact that Women played an instrumental in settling the West. Just to add on to your argument, when Farnham was dressed in men’s clothing and “took off her glasses in order to avoid being recognizes by her neighbors” (342) it shows that although she does not fit the “norm” expectations of wearing dresses , subconsciously she still cares about how she is being perceived by society. Do not get me wrong, dressing in men’s clothing was a radical decision from her part but the same time Farnham still feels the pressures of being an independent and strong person. Furthermore, Eliza Farnham does not depict the typical woman in the West by living and farming with her female friend, Margaret Fuller Geordie. Even though the text does not say whether she was criticized by her neighbors I am sure her neighbors must have thought she was having some sort of romantic relationship with Geordie. I write this because I have heard old Hispanic couples who question a woman’s sexuality if she is single or widowed and who is living with a woman. However, I have to disagree with you on the point where you said she tries to separate herself from the land. Farnham views nature as a provider. She says “Childhood is so inestimably blest where nature as the provider of the life food to her earlier self” (Farnham 345). Farnham acknowledges that Nature does provide her the necessities to live and therefore respects Nature. I see where you try to show how Farnham implies that there is more to land than simply making a profit from it.

  3. I definitely agree with you that Farnham’s text dispels certain myths about women in the west, as well as about the land itself. I have to side with you also about the lack of women being recognized for their work throughout history, especially in the west. For me reading Farnham in addition to Lawrence’s introduction about all these different women who had gone west really surprised me, because it was just something that had never occurred to me. However, I do have to mention that Farnham, regardless of the boundaries she herself pushes, continues to place a serious importance on the traditional role of women as homemakers and those who instill virtue in their husband and children.

  4. Posted by kbudd on October 26, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    I enjoyed your interpretation of the text because, I too, enjoyed seeing how the stereotypical role of the woman was changed. In my opinion, because she was a widow the stereotype was easier to break, but this is not a stab at Farnham. As she took on the typical manly roles she equally takes ownership for herself, and her actions. This is also how she found a voice for herself. I also agree that Farnham wants to break the stereotypes of the land as well as stereotypes on women. As she takes the lead in farming her land she does realize that there are other benefits in California besides gold mining.

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