Posts Tagged ‘Deborah Lawrence’

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.


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

Rewriting “Herstory” in California, In-doors and Out

In Deborah Lawrence’s introduction to Writing the Trail, we are introduced to five revolutionary women who turned the traditional idea of a male dominated western frontier upside down. Lawrence argues that the literary works these women produced showcased the “conflicting versions of the American West” (Lawrence). It is traditionally believed and is “represented in both academia and popular culture” that males were the dominant force in the nineteenth century American West” (Lawrence). However, Deborah Lawrence argues, and Eliza Farnham’s writings confirm, that this is simply not the case.  The myth of a male dominated West is proved false in Farnham’s writings and is seen in her interactions both in-doors and out with her family and her land. Farnham’s writing represents the “herstory” that is left out of our popular misconceptions of the American West (Lawrence).

          The traditional views of the American West would have women in-doors tending to the children and house while the males are taming the wild new lands. However, this is instantly thrown off by Farnham who must fulfill both the male and female roles in her household because her husband is deceased. Farnham walks a fine line of fulfilling both the male and female roles in a household and this is particularly seen in her laying the foundation for her new home. We see a very traditional female gender role in Farnham as she visualizes her new home from parlor to sleeping chambers. However, she rejects the notion of a “shrinking wife, submissively following her husband” or any man for that matter, as she takes up the tools and works on her house by hand (Lawrence). She relishes in the idea of saving money every day by “doing what [she found she could do with her own hands]” instead of paying a man to do it (Farnham). Farnham defys typical gender roles out of both convenience and the innate need to survive on this new and untamed land but by working for herself and both keeping up with her family and land, she rewrite a small bit of history that implies that the American West is a man’s domain.

 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

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. Lawrence’s analysis of Farnham in nature

I agree with Lawrence’s argument which states, “Her (Farnham) romantic appreciation of the benevolence of the natural world unites her with Emerson” (Lawrence, 89). There are several examples in Farnham’s text that relate to Emerson, one of them states “I look out on a picture so filled with repose and beauty, that while I gaze, the hateful stir of the world in which I have lately been mixed up, seems to die out of the universe, and I no longer remember it” (Farnham, 45). Farnham, like Emerson, enters a surreal world of nature untouched by civilization and becomes lost in it, lifted up and flown away to a “fairy scene” (Farnham, 46). Her experience with nature purifies her spirit, leaving her renewed from the stresses of her hectic life. Farnham, like Emerson, also considers her experience with nature to be separate from reality. She considers nature a place of solitude because when she is interrupted by her children, she feels as if the charm of the world she was experiencing while surrounded by nature to be broken (Farnham, 47).

Lawrence also argues that “Farnham comes close to condemning the Edenic characteristics of the terrain, suggesting that the land’s bounty encourages the self-centered, riotous lifestyle of its inhabitants” (Lawrence, 95). Farnham sees the effect this new bountiful land is having upon the people and even herself, becoming “engrossed with her own private interests and concerns than with any of a public character” (Lawrence, 95). Lawrence leaves this section underdeveloped, not diving into the social and ecological implications that arise from these self-centered lifestyles. The social implications that arise are the dissolution of a sense of community to pursue a false sense of wealth. This dissolving of communities alienates people from one another. Desiring material wealth over connections with other human beings leads to a society much like the one we have today, where people are expendable and social status through monetary means is desirable. The ecological implications of this self-centered lifestyle are evident with the destruction mining leaves behind. The settlers dig up the earth in hopes of finding gold beneath its surface, but what they cannot see is the scar they are inflicting on the earth as well as themselves. The earth their mining leaves behind cannot be lived or built upon, nor can they farm on that land. This may not seem relevant since the settlers can live in another area, but any destruction upon the earth in such a wasteful manner should be thoroughly considered before digging up the land for some sense of wealth.

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