In the mid-19th century thousands of women trekked across this vast country minus the comforts of McDonald's, Handiwipes and Summer's Eve. Many undertook the arduous journey to be with their husbands. Most of these small family units entertained the peculiar American concept that you can make a new and better life. But once these women and their men reached their destination, life proved new but not better.
In these worst of times the pioneer women were at their best. While the reader applauds their courage it's useful to remember: They had no choice.
Julie Roy Jeffrey's "Frontier Women" assaults the idea that the hardships of the frontier weakened accepted sex roles, therefore liberating women. Not only did the West provide no liberation it added further drudgery. At least in the East there were community, creature comfort and the security of established traditions. Better to be a second-class citizen in Syracuse, N.Y., than one sleeping on a mud floor in Walla Walla, Wash.
Not content to explode myths about women's status in the West, Jeffrey provides a profile of the typical pioneer. Few were escaping the privations of poverty: You needed money to hit the Overland Trail. The solid middle-class backgrounds of the pioneers helps to explain their disgust at the social disorganization of the all-male mining towns. Had these miners been non-Anglo-Saxon their violence would have been reported with the smugness reserved for discussions of Indians and firewater. The fact that Protestants acted like animals shocked even the drunken, disorderly men themselves. Women to the rescue! Not only would the West offer families more economic opportunities, it would also offer women the chance to shine as civilizers, teachers, custodians of decency, culture, and order. The West reinforced Victorian standards of conduct for women; it did not challenge them.
Environment did not alter the system of beliefs. The fact that this system, i.e., severe sexual polarization was inappropriate to conquering the environment, means little. An ideology need not correspond to reality in order to motivate people. Few pioneers wanted a truly new life and a new social order; they wanted economic advancement. Money, politics, power remained the domain of men. Western women, like Eastern women, had no place vying for power. The only women honest enough to go out for the buck were prostitutes. Eventually even they were driven underground as more pious New Englanders and Midwesterners filled up the golden West.
Early women's suffrage and coeducation in the West are usually hailed as evidence of emerging female freedoms. Jeffrey stoutly denies this. In order to preserve their political power against newcomers, men granted their women the vote in the expectation that the women would vote along with the men. As for coeducation, the women were expected to become teachers. The states were so poor and disorganized they couldn't provide separate educational facilities for women and men, hence coeducation.
The sexual conflict in the West exploded out of women's acceptance of their lot as opposed to a desire for equality.
"For men and women often held different visions of community. Men sought a community marked by outward order, but it was to be a place where individuals had freedom to pursue their fortunes and their pleasures.... Many women...saw the ideal community in a different light; it was to be a place of real, rather than apparent, order, a place without disruptive threats to family unity and purity. If domestic ideology encouraged women to visualize the community in these terms, ironically it could involve them in organizational activities which contributed to the very social disorganization they deplored."
This different concept of community, held not only on our continent but in Europe as well, found its great battleground in the fight for prohibition which began to be organized in 1879. Jeffrey's fresh analysis of prohibition could be applied to today's anti-pornography movement, in fact, to any segment of society which seeks to impose a "higher" morality on the rest of that society.
Any fault to be found with "Frontier Women" rests with its art director, not its author. The pages are print-heavy, the typeface small: ingredients for a headache.
The presentation and fairness of this book's contents mark it as the example by which other women's histories are to be measured. This doesn't mean a reader will agree totally with Jeffrey but certainly readers will be impressed by her. Unfortunately, "Frontier Women" doesn't go far enough, making us need many more books from this important historian. And we need a generation of feminist scholars who are willing to follow her example of putting the truth before special pleading - amend that to all scholars.