The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1992, Volume 38, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

So Much to Be Done: Women Settlers on the Mining and Ranching Frontier.
Edited by Ruth B. Moynihan, Susan Armitage, and Christiane Fischer Dichamp. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Bibliography. Illustrations. xxii + 325 pages. $12.95 paper.

Reviewed by Eve Kornfeld, Associate Professor of History, San Diego State University. Author of articles on women, gender and American culture in the Journal of American Studies, Journal of the Early Republic, Canadian Review of American Studies, and Journal of American Culture.

Women were not merely victims or passive observers of the settlement of the Western frontier; they were actively and creatively involved in every aspect of that complicated process. Women participated in making important decisions, producing essential income and services, and building new communities, both individually and as members of complex networks of women, family or other social groups. But Western frontier women have remained largely invisible in traditional American historiography, their diverse experiences and contributions obscured by prevailing myths of independent, active Western men and dependent, passive Western women. So contend the editors of this useful collection of nineteen narratives by women settlers on the mining and ranching frontiers of California and Nevada, the High Plains and Rocky Mountains, and the Southwestern desert in the late nineteenth century.

In a brief, lucid introduction, the editors sketch the historiographical context for the documents they have gathered from little-known printed sources and unprinted manuscript collections. Feminist scholars’ development of perspectives and methods for understanding women’s narratives, and social historians’ discovery of the importance of “ordinary” living conditions, work and economic activities and social relations, have both led us back to such long neglected sources as women’s diaries, letters, memoirs and autobiographies. Moreover, pioneering historical interpretations of gender attitudes in western history came to starkly different conclusions: while Julie Roy Jeffrey found strong continuities between Western attitudes and Eastern Victorian domesticity, Sandra Myres stressed nonconformity and adaptation among Western women. Broadening the base of documentary evidence was clearly necessary. The editors hope that the documents they have selected will justify both interpretations, and lead readers to a more complex appreciation of the importance of time, place, social circumstance and personality to different attitudes and experiences among frontier women.

The nineteen narratives themselves are indeed diverse and fascinating. They include lightly-edited excerpts from a good variety of types of sources, over a wide geographical area. While they are necessarily limited mainly to the writings of white, literate, middle-class women, the editors have done their best to include and highlight references to poorer, uneducated women and to women of color. An excerpt from Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins’ Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1883) is rendered particularly memorable and poignant by the editors’ note that Winnemucca’s education in California schools lasted only three weeks, because white parents objected to having their daughters attend with an Amerindian girl. Most important, the narratives undeniably demonstrate the variety and richness of women’s roles, experiences and contributions on the Western frontier, without masking the range of gender attitudes and racial prejudices that women brought to or developed in frontier communities. As the editors justly conclude, these documents together “reveal women’s bravery, physical strength, and independence equal to any man’s, even as they also reveal the failures, weaknesses, and tragedies that beset both sexes during the complex settlement process” (xvi). Roughly one-third of the book is devoted to California materials of 1849 through 1880. This fine collection might well supplement more traditional materials in history classes about the modern United States, California, or the West, as well as in women’s studies classes at all levels.