The Changing Role of Women in Westward Expansion

In Writing the Trail Deborah Lawrence argues that western expansion and women’s writings on the subject contrast the typical myths of the American West. Lawrence presents the idea that the strong, western woman was a far cry from, “representatives of home, church, and constraint” (Lawrence, 1). The typical myths were mainly that the West offered unclaimed land with vast opportunities with no real sacrifice, hard work, or even cost; there was land to be settled and opportunities to be capitalized on. Much like the typical American Dream, the West offered the idea of self-made worth and freedom, anyone could go westward and become successful. The American Dream and the myths of the West both retain the idea of a stable, traditional family with the husband and father at the helm and the wife and mother as the caregiver and silent support system. The writings of western women conflict this familial ideal in their development into outspoken, independent, strong women.

Lawrence argues that westward expansion allows women to change and develop their own identities: “discover a new sense of themselves in their frontier surroundings. Surrounded by chaotic and masculine environments, they rarely reflect on their losses. While they are clearly out of place, they discover that the wilderness clarifies and enhances their sense of self-possibility. Their writing validates their transformation and confirms their changed selves” (Lawrence, 5). This argument is validated in Eliza W. Farnham’s California In-doors and Out, in which Farnham recounts the daily life of a western woman. Farnham puts forth multiple accounts of her developing and changing role as a woman in the untouched, natural setting of the West, “They were so much in harmony with the general spirit of things, that we only looked on their amusing side a few moments, and presently forgot them. They represent well the harum-scarum life we led, the disregard of opinion or feeling into which we degenerated with such fearful, rapidity, that in the moments when I realized it, I sometimes feared we should never recover our old standard again” (Farnham, 93). The idea of Farnham being frightened about never being able to return to her old life as a simple and silent housewife is almost ridiculous but alludes to the fear of women of not being able to perform their domestic duties. Though Farnham presents a reluctant development there is no question that westward expansion has both enlightened and changed her.

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


5 responses to this post.

  1. While i agree with some of what you wrote here, i have to disagree with one statement you made “The typical myths were mainly that the West offered unclaimed land with vast opportunities with no real sacrifice, hard work, or even cost”. Now i think this a beleif of some and maybe because i have special interest in ‘Wild West’ writing, i have never gotten the impression that settling the west was not difficult. Nearly everything ive read, and nearly all western movies have depicted the harships of the west. Lawrence works to show women had it rough as well, and is a fairly different perspective.

  2. Posted by kbudd on October 26, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    The “western woman” definitely changed the face of the stereotypical woman. As Lawrence states, “Narratives by westering women depict day-to-day existence in the frontier West,” (2). This day-to-day writing is a way that the mythological west disappears. With this, readers of women’s writings can see the hardship of the west. It is difficult to imagine a desolate west that was easy to cultivate and create societies. As women moved to the west and began doing stereotypical men’s roles they developed their voice. Lawrence goes on to write, “the act of writing offered women a feeling of reassurance in environments that were new and frightening and in situations where they felt powerless,” (3-4). The environments allowed women a chance to express their feelings and because they were not the stereotypical housewife of the east.

  3. Posted by teagueoreagan on October 27, 2011 at 12:16 am

    I feel that your characterization of her sentiments in your analysis of the Farnham quote from pages 92 and 93 is incorrect. I do not believe this quote to be a reference to a supposed desire to return to domesticity but rather a characterization of the degeneration of personal morality on the frontier. Following that quote, Farnham writes “Trifling as they are, they exemplify… the California of ’49 and ’50. No man appeared desirous of abiding by the laws, unless the law and his pleasure were one…” (Farnham, 93). She is discussing the breakdown of order and the compromise of one’s morals amid the seemingly endless freedom that goes along with limitless land–it is impossible to enforce the laws over such a sparsely populated and expansive area. This “old standard” she supposes as desirous is the standard of conduct and comportment back East where the law and religious authority enforce and dictate the standards of morality lacking in the West due to the absence of established institutions.

  4. Posted by bhough on October 27, 2011 at 11:44 am

    I find the post and comments about this material very interesting. Lawrence definitely portrays both sides of the arguments regarding Farnham discussed above: “The role of frontier women is both recuperative and subversive: it implies a maturity and an awareness that contradict the stereotype of the reluctant and shrinking wife, submissively following her husband into the wilderness.” (Lawrence, 1). I think the differing opinions on Farnham’s portrayal of female Western life show the possible issues of Lawrence’s argument- what exactly is she trying to argue? Is Farnham furthering female stereotypes, or breaking them down?

  5. I agree that the account of western settlement told by Lawrence and Farnham argue that women were given the opportunity change and develop their identities. The hardships endured by women allowed them to see what they were made of and what they could endure. The uncomfortable life also allowed them to develop strengths to take care of themselves, such as Farnham living in her husband’s estate even though it was unpleasant but then being able to rebuild it into what she wanted it to be. Also, women in the west grew stronger since they had to endure all the men staring at them whenever they ventured into the city. Women become self-sufficient and less dependent on men once they learned how to farm, tend animals, travel, and build. Lawrence and Farnham accounts show women as they developed their identities as independent, resilient, and honorable individuals.

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