Between 1840 and 1910, hundreds of thousands of men and women traveled deep into the underdeveloped American West, lured by adventure, opportunity, and the spirit of Manifest Destiny. These settlers soon realized that survival in a new society required women to compromise eastern sensibilities and take on some of their husbands’ responsibilities. At a time when women had very few legal or economic–much less political–rights, these women soon proved just as essential as men to westward expansion.
During the mid-nineteenth century, the traditional domestic model of womanhood shifted to include public service, with the women of the West becoming town mothers who established schools, churches, and philanthropies, while also coproviding for their families. They claimed their own homesteads and graduated from new, free coeducational colleges that provided career alternatives to marriage. In 1869, the men of the Wyoming Territory gave women the right to vote–partly to persuade more of them to move west–but with this victory in hand, western suffragists fought relentlessly until the rest of the region followed suit. By 1914 western women became the first American women to vote–a right still denied to women in every eastern state.
In New Women in the Old West, Winifred Gallagher brings to life the riveting history of the little-known women–the White, Black, and Asian settlers, and the Native Americans and Hispanics they displaced–who played monumental roles in one of America’s most transformative periods. Drawing on an extraordinary collection of research, Gallagher weaves together the striking legacy of the persistent individuals who not only created homes on weather-wracked prairies, but also played a vital, unrecognized role in the women’s rights movement and forever redefined the “American woman.”