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Essay on Pioneer Women
by
Lauren Baywol

 

          Before reading the book Pioneer Women, such women were always stereotyped as the quiet, obedient women who followed their husbands out west in the hopes of a brighter future for their families in the late 1800s. The book overthrows such a stereotype by showing the true accounts of women on the frontier in the 19th century who had responsibilities that one would generally contribute to males, were under extreme pressure to make their new homes just as luxurious as their homes in the east, and sparked movements and changes that would change American history and culture forever.

          First of all, women of the frontier had responsibilities that would have previously been assumed were the responsibilities of men. Their “homemaker” stereotype was only one side of pioneer women’s actually complex personality. For example, relocating the entire family is a household effort in today’s society. In the book Pioneer Women, a woman named Pamelia Fergus is credited for moving herself and her four children from Little Falls, Minnesota to Montana territory after receiving a letter from her husband to join him out west (18). Pamelia had to gather the supplies needed for the trip as well as what would be needed once the family arrived. She was responsible for packing the wagon and driving her four children as far as Illinois before meeting up with a friend of her husband’s. Today, relocating a family requires effort from all parties, including the husband or father. A woman would not be expected to just pick up everything and go at her husband’s wish without help and serious preparation. Furthermore, women on the frontier were responsible for tasks that would have seemed inappropriate to people in eastern civilization because it was “man’s work.” For example, once Pamelia reached her husband James in Montana, she took full responsibility of the household’s farming and livestock. While men were away at work, women took the responsibility of milking the cows, feeding the livestock, rounding up cattle and other livestock that have gone astray, plowing fields, digging storm cellars, and slaughtering chickens for food (98). Even in today’s society such tasks would seem “inappropriate” for a woman, making the pioneer women in their calico dresses and big families performing men’s work even more intriguing, dismissing the stereotype that such women spent her days in her home.

          However, when taking on the homemaking responsibilities, the women of the western frontier were under immense pressure to provide their families with a home full of comforts similar to those that were available back east, but with much less technology. On page 53 in the book Pioneer Women a photograph is shown of a woman named Carrie Dunn cleaning a pan in her Montana home. The photograph was most likely taken in the very late 1800s or early 1900s because that is when families begin moving to and settling in what is now present-day Montana. The photograph was obviously taken in the home of Carrie Dunn, and judging by the overall dirt and dust that seem to be apparent in the room, one might assume that her house was a sod house, although it had a window which can be inferred by the shining of light in the background of the photograph. Furthermore, the other objects in the room allow one to assume that the photograph was taken in her kitchen, although such houses were often so small that there was not a real divide between any of the rooms. The photograph is candid and shows Carrie washing a cooking pan, and was probably just taken to show everyday life on the frontier. However, the real attraction in the photograph is all of the newspapers that cover the walls of the room, which is said to be what pioneer woman did for insulation from the harsh weather they encountered. The photo shows the historical significance that Carrie, like other pioneer women of the time, took great care in providing a comfortable home for her family. To do so, she covered the walls with newspapers to seal out the cold winds and bugs upon which many pioneer women also had to deal with. Today, American women are not put under such great pressure to create a safe home. Rather, it is now a responsibility of the family overall; men and women share an equal role in the upkeep of a home. Also, today technology is much more advanced so that homeowners do not have to deal with even a fraction of what people of the pioneer had to deal with on a regular basis. For example, if one wanted to buy a house today they would enlist the help of a professional builder who would build the house out of materials such as brick, wood, stone, and siding, and would insulate the home to seal out any and all cracks to the outside world. Unlike Carrie Dunn who put newspapers on the wall to seal out the bugs and weather, people today put paper on their walls as a form of decoration and expression and not function.

        Lastly, dismissing the “quiet, obedient” stereotype associated with being a woman on the western frontier was the women’s undeniable impact on American culture. It was first on the frontier when women began serious work as teachers, lawyers, physicians, photographers and journalists. Women opened up their own businesses selling baked goods or cooking for working men at nearby mines. It was also in the west where females were welcomed into colleges such as Kansas Medical School, University of Oregon, and the University of Michigan (125), although facing some adversity at first for wanting a life other than that beyond their homes and property. For example, an Oregon pioneer by the name of Bethenia Owens was educated in medicine and sought to set up practice in Portland. While passing through her hometown, she was invited to attend an autopsy, but upon arrival, was questioned for being allowed to view the autopsy because it was a male. After staying for the autopsy anyways and participating herself, Bethenia was viewed poorly by the citizens of the town for performing such a “scandalous” act (125). With more hard work, dedication, and determination, she became Dr. Owens despite her minor setback of disapproval from others. Furthermore, women of the frontier were active in labor unions, human rights for Indians, blacks, and immigrants, among others, and temperance movements. Pioneer women were able to draw national attention to such issues, sparking up discussion among the rest of America. Such women are also used as role models for women today in regards to speaking up for their beliefs and getting involved in their communities.

       Although the women of the western frontier were required to perform untraditional tasks and were under extreme pressure, which is different from the concerns of American women today, pioneer women undoubtedly influenced American culture by being role models to women of newer generations, showing them the significance of being independent and not being afraid to overthrow stereotypes and veer from the status quo.