The Women’s West
July 1, 1988
Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
The Women’s West
Edited and with Introductions by Susan Armitage and Elizabeth Jameson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 323 Pages. $24.95 Hardback; $12.95 Softback.
Reviewed by Ronald J. Quinn, State Historian, California Department of Parks and Recreation; and Lecturer, Department of History, San Diego State University.
The Women’s West contains twenty-one articles exemplifying the most recent historical scholarship on the diverse experience of women in the settlement of the West. If there is one single theme in the volume, it is that women were not passive victims in an historical process, but active participants in the community-building this enterprise demanded. In her introduction, Susan Armitage emphasizes the variety of women who participated in the peopling of the West, claiming that they cannot be stereotyped under the familiar images of refined lady, helpmate, and bad woman. The editors urge historians to concentrate less on prescriptive literature dealing with how women were supposed to act, and instead to study the experiences of the women themselves.
The book accomplishes this admirably. Respective authors examine the experiences of homesteaders in Northeastern Colorado, prostitutes in Montana, immigrant domestics in Canada, Harvey girls, and Union maids. This is as comprehensive a coverage of women’s experience in the West as can be found in one volume.
If there is a weakness in this treatment, it is that the narrative description of these experiences often lacks analysis. Since many of these essays draw upon work in progress, the tentative nature of their conclusions is not surprising. The most provocative article in the entire work is that written by Elizabeth Jameson, “Women as Workers, Women as Civilizers: True Womanhood in the American West.” Of all of the authors, Jameson makes the most serious effort to offer interpretations of the female pioneers and their lifestyles. She cautions against heavy reliance upon Euro-American prescriptive religious literature. She says that such literature may have had an impact upon the attitudes of upper middle class white women, but has no relevance at all for American Indians, Hispanics, blacks, and poor European immigrants. Jameson also warns that ideology is frequently not indicative of behavior. She suggests-that ethnic composition, female literacy, age and spacing of children have much to do with women’s work in the West.
California readers will be drawn to a number of these essays, especially those by Micaela di Leonardo on “Family Among Italian-Americans in Twentieth Century California,” and Patricia Zavella’s work on “The Impact of ‘Sun Belt Industrialization’ on Chicanas.” Additionally, Susan Johnson’s examination of cohabitation of Hispanic and Anglos in Central Arizona mining towns has obvious application to the same phenomenon in California mining communities.
The Women’s West shows clearly that Western women’s lives were complex and divergent and that the more women’s complicated experiences are recognized, the more difficult it will be for historians to develop comprehensive theses that are applicable to all women. But it is only after the experience is understood, that valid interpretations can be offered. Previous scholarship frequently constructed models, and then attempted to fit women’s experience into them. With sensitivity to the experience of the women themselves, future interpretations of women’s contribution to the West will be more securely rooted in historical reality.