Journal “New women in the old west”: pioneers of progress


“Go west, young man, go west and grow with the land. Replace the word “woman” with “man,” and this famous exhortation – attributed to newspaper editor Horace Greeley in 1865 – could serve as an epigraph to Winifred Gallagher’s book On The Forgotten Women of the American Frontier.

In “New Women in the Old West” (Penguin Press, 277 pages, $ 28), Mrs. Gallagher examines the decades between the settler period of the 1840s and 1920s, when the ratification of the 19th Amendment gave all American women the right to vote. Most Western women had earned this right years earlier, as Ms. Gallagher notes. The Wyoming Territory freed women in 1869. Utah followed suit the following year. In 1914, most women in the West could vote, a right denied to their sisters in the East.

“New Women in the Old West” is truly two books skillfully stitched together. It’s a quick story of the galvanizing role played by Western women in the national suffrage struggle. It is also a sort of portrait of a group of independent and resourceful women who have managed to find a place for themselves in a man’s world. Ms Gallagher tells her story through a sometimes dizzying series of mini-biographies of dozens of women, from the brave early settlers to the politically savvy women who worked for suffrage. Her goal, she writes, is to look beyond the “anonymous apron helpers depicted in the many generic ‘Pioneer Woman’ memorial statues.”

She portrays ambitious, often single women who have worked as homesteaders, teachers, entrepreneurs, ranchers and cowgirls. The most effective profiles let subjects speak for themselves in quotes Ms. Gallagher pulls from diaries, journals and letters. Most of the women, however, left no paper trail, and compiling their stories required a stupendous amount of research. Ms. Gallagher collects their biographies from tax rolls and other public documents, as well as private archives and newspapers.

A few well-known women are browsing these pages. Sniper Annie Oakley – born Phoebe Ann Moses – is known to receive the same salary as the male stars of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show”. The first woman member of Congress, Jeannette Rankin, a Montanaise, was a dynamic activist for women’s suffrage.

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