the forthright women

Before the opening of the West, the stereotypic spinster was a horsy type, a woman with a loud voice or a gruff manner, usually suffering from unexplainable robust health. She was an unfortunate who sometimes found tolerance for her eccentricities if she lived in a family that endured her presence with reasonable good grace. She existed on their charity.

But when the Western migration began, there was a reversal.

Men at first continued to marry the Eastern beauties with pale skin, fair hair and tight corsets, trundling them across the prairies in covered wagons. But the journey was too arduous for many of these women, and their graves dot the landscape from Illinois to the Oregon Trail.

A process of natural selection began. The men wooed the stronger women, the sisters of the beauties, the women who would have ordinarily been restricted to a life of spinsterhood.

These stronger, hardier women made it West, and contributed to one of the freest eras for women in our history. No one could afford fainting spells when the Indians circled an isolated homestead. Pioneer women ran the farms, drove the wagons, and shot game, same as the men. Many of them became widows in that lonely, dangerous land. . . . And yet many of these widows continued westward, ran their own farms, reared the children, and endured the hardships of a new and raw life.

They were respected women, and the esteem in which they were held was reflected in the pioneering laws in the Western states giving women legal rights. In 1850 Oregon decreed single women could be granted ownership of land. In 1869, Wyoming become the first state to grant women the right to vote.

But the era of the independent woman didn’t last long.

As the West settled down, women reverted to the traditional images. The daughters of the pioneers shed their mothers’ independence and self-reliance, tightened and lengthened their skirts, and presented themselves as proper, civilized women waiting for the right man.

The forthright women were once again the spinsters.

O’Brien, Patricia. The Woman Alone. New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1973. 80–81. Print.


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