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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Women's Rights in the Old West

C.A Asbrey

First of all it's important to be clear that we’re talking about recent immigrants who came from the eastern U.S. and from across the globe, particularly in the 19th century. Indigenous women had actually lived in the West for thousands of years, and the structures of their cultures had little or no effect on the laws Europeans brought with them across the continent. 
Thing actually were different out West. They had to be to attract more people to make the perilous journey and to make best use of the resources available to them. Who cared if the best person for the job was a woman if they were the only person for the job? And women weren't slow at seizing the opportunities which presented themselves out on the new frontier. 


After the Civil War women found plenty of opportunities in the West which were not available in the East: everything from the right to vote, to equal pay for women teachers to more liberal divorce laws. Wyoming Territory passed a series of such laws in 1869, partly in an effort to attract more white settlement, which, of course, was also intended to unsettle indigenous people. The West was the first home of women’s suffrage in the U.S., with nearly every western state or territory enfranchising women long before women won the right to vote in eastern states.
The east, however, beat the old West by a long way in simple voting though.  Lydia Chaplin Taft (left) became the first woman in the USA to cast her vote in an election. She voted in an official New England Open Town Meeting, at Uxbridge, Massachusetts, on October 30, 1756. This was only a proxy vote for her son though. Throughout the 18th century women gradually lost the right to vote at all. For women to have a meaningful voice, however, it took until 1838. Women in Kentucky benefited from the statewide woman suffrage law allowing female heads of household in rural areas to vote in elections deciding on taxes and local boards for the new county “common school” system. 
The first woman to serve as a mayor in the USA actually had her name placed on the paper as a prank in 1887.  Susanna Madora Salter (below right) was active in the local Woman's Christian Temperance Union and Prohibition Party organizations. Her name had been placed on a slate of candidates by a group of men against women in politics hoping to secure a loss that would humiliate women and discourage them from running. Because candidates did not have to be made public before election day, Salter herself
did not know she was on the ballot before the polls opened. When, on election day itself, she agreed to accept office if elected, the Women's Christian Temperance Union abandoned its own preferred candidate and voted for Salter en masse. Additionally, the local Republican Party Chairman sent a delegation to her home and confirmed that she would serve and the Republicans agreed to vote for her, helping to secure her election by a two-thirds majority. She was not the first woman actually elected to the office though. The first woman recorded winning a mayoral election was Nancy Smith in 1862, who declined to be sworn in as mayor of Oskaloosa, Iowa.

Property Rights

Under colonial Spain and newly independent Mexico, married women living in the borderlands of what is now the American Southwest had certain legal advantages not afforded their European-American peers. Under English common law, women, when they married, became feme covert (effectively dead in the eyes of the legal system) and thus unable to own property separately from their husbands. Conversely, Spanish-Mexican women retained control of their land after marriage and held one-half interest in the community property they shared with their spouses.
If a woman on the Illinois prairie, the only child of a prosperous farmer, lost her parents and inherited the family homestead she could take that with her in marriage. But if her husband had a mind to sell the farm and travel west, she could not stop the sale. However, if she grew up near Albuquerque, her husband could not sell the property you had brought to the marriage, thus giving her significant leverage in household decisions. So she might not end up bouncing around on that buckboard after all.
There were numerous landed women of note in the West. For example, María Rita Valdez operated Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas, now better known as a center of affluence and glamour: Beverly Hills. (Rodeo Drive takes its name from Rancho Rodeo.) After the U.S.-Mexican War, the del Valle family of Southern California held on to Rancho Camulos, and when Ygnacio, the patriarch, died, his widow Isabel and daughter Josefa successfully took over the ranch’s operations. Other successful entrepreneurs and property holders, who defended their interests in court when necessary, included San Francisco’s Juana Briones, Santa Fe’s Gertrudis Barceló, San Antonio-born María del Carmen Calvillo, and Phoenix’s Trinidad Escalante Swilling. In a frontier environment, they utilized the legal system to their advantage as women unafraid to exert their own authority.

The Arts

The West gave women special opportunities as authors. Aspiring writers saw literary “material” in the stuff of their daily lives in frontier, rural, and urban western spaces. They shaped that material into letters, journals, sketches, essays, and stories for eastern magazines and presses—and received popular acclaim.
For readers outside the West, the settings these women described were exotic: California gold camps and desert outposts, northwestern logging and mining communities, Rocky Mountain and Great Plains homesteads. Elinore Pruitt Stewart, writing from Wyoming in 1913, placed a series of letters about her homesteading experience in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. She reported on the letters of thanks she received from appreciative readers, like the elderly woman who told her “the Letters satisfied her every wish. She said she had only to shut her eyes to see it all, to smell the pines and the sage.” Through its association with romantic national mythologies of sublime landscape and heroic endeavor, an ordinary woman’s life on a ranch in Wyoming seemed to mean more—and to reveal more—than one on a farm in Wisconsin or Connecticut.
Yet women writers were just as likely to revise as support these mythologies, which centered on male endeavor, and they frequently portrayed western sites as not wild and liberating, but provincial and claustrophobic. The Story of Mary MacLane, for example, one of the most notorious books of 1902, depicted the 19-year-old author’s desperation to escape her middle-class home in the copper
boomtown of Butte: “Can I be possessed of a peculiar rare genius,” she demands, “and yet drag my life out in obscurity in this uncouth, warped, Montana town!” Nevertheless, the city MacLane denounced was key to her literary success: Readers would have been far less intrigued by the thoughts and experience of a girl hailing from a more familiar place.

A Fresh Start and a New Identity

Many people, male and female, found a fresh start in a move to the West, leaving behind old mistakes and identities. Some left infidelities behind, others criminal convictions, while couples unable to divorce in their original homes, fled to states where divorce was possible. Some simply lived in sin or presented as married couples. 
Divorce is never easy, but some states made it possible to try to temp people to their territories. It wasn't uncommon for people to find out they had been divorced without their consent, or without even informing them. 
The difference between divorce in the Old West and other areas of the world at that time is that women were able to make their own decisions about their future and take charge of their own lives while still retaining the respect of their peers. They were also able to support themselves with respectable employment without feeling censured by the local society. As Augusta Tabor proved, there were plenty of jobs to be had other than working in saloons.
Single women often gathered in large groups to travel to the West in search of husbands, and for good reason. For instance, after the American Civil War, few men returned home and the wives and daughters of these deceased soldiers were forced to fend for themselves. This changed society in many ways, particularly marriage.
 One of the most famous divorces in the Old West occurred between Augusta Tabor (left above in the prince nez), a loyal wife, and her philandering husband, Horace, who fell in love with a much younger woman, moved out of the home and left Augusta to fend for herself and care for their child alone.
Augusta refused to divorce her husband, to no avail. The divorce was finalized and the young "Baby Doe" became the new Mrs. Tabor. Horace Tabor died a broken man. He lost his fortune and his reputation. At the time of his death he was working as the Postmaster in Denver, but for a short time was forced to live in a mid-class hotel with his new wife and their children. 
Augusta Tabor, who had supported her husband's ventures every step of the way by cooking for miners, setting up tents, renting rooms in their home, and doing everything she could to provide for her family, was told she would receive nothing from her husband when he left her. However, she continued to work hard and became a shining example of the women of the American Old West--determined and proud. When she died she left their son an inheritance of over a million dollars. Baby Doe Tabor (right) died in a shack outside a mine once owned by her husband.
It was a new chance for many people. Ethnic minorities who could pass as white frequently took the chance to grasp every social advantage their appearance gave them. A step away from an area where their background was known, let them live the American dream and save their children from the prejudice they had suffered.  
Nicholas Earp, the father of Wyatt Earp, moved west due to debt problems, having served time for bootlegging, and accusations of tax evasion. That, of course, placed his offspring in the right place to make his mark on American history. 
Ty Burrell (left) is descended from a former slave who moved to Oregon and passed for white. Names were anglicized, and past indiscretions were never mentioned in an attempt to start again. The old West was littered with people building a new future while hiding their own foundations - which is probably why it's so interesting.


INNOCENT AS SIN (The Innocents Mystery Series) (Volume 2) by C. A. Asbrey

Nat Quinn and Jake Conroy are just doing their job—robbing a bank! But when Nat sees Pinkerton agent Abigail MacKay is already there, he knows something isn’t right. Is she on the trail of The Innocents again, or has she turned up in Everlasting, Wyoming, by coincidence?
Abi can’t believe her bad luck! Nat and Jake are about to make her true identity known, and botch the undercover job she has carefully prepared for—a job she’s been working on for months. When Jake discovers she’s cooperating with a sadistic bounty hunter who never brings in his prisoners alive, he suspects Nat might be the next target. How could Abi betray them like this?
On top of everything else, someone has dumped a frozen corpse after disguising it as a tramp. The town is snowed in and the killer isn’t going anywhere, but can Abigail’s forensic skills solve the murder before anyone else is killed? Abi and Nat manage to admit their feelings for one another, but will that be enough to overcome the fact that they’re on opposite sides of the law?  
The Innocents and Abigail MacKay must work together to solve the murder case, but they’re still best enemies. It’s an emotional standoff, and they’re all INNOCENT AS SIN…


     It took another half-hour before Jake saw her neat, feminine figure approaching, her light blue dress standing out against the sun-parched dust of the streets. By this time, his breath came in rapid, shallow pants until his fingers prickled and his head spun. The everyday sounds of the town swamped his senses until they crashed around his skull in an echoing cacophony. Her voice reverberated, unusually strident and harsh, echoing between the screaming and shouting from years ago in his head.
     "Jake?" Abigail's eyes darted around drinking in the surroundings, looking for danger. Why greet her openly in the street, near her gate? His glazed eyes sparkled and the pupils looked enormous, but he didn’t seem drunk.
     "Abi, come with me. It's urgent."



  1. Ah yes, a subject near and dear to my heart. Thank you for a great overview. One thing I always found so fascinating about Helen (Hunt) Jackson was her life as an independent woman, who felt women should be there to raise their children. (It is a bit more complicated than that, but that is the idea in a nutshell).

    If one but looks, there are many women who stood up to and defied the norms of society and succeeded splendidly. Like you say, the West gave the opportunity to many more than those back on the East Coast. Doris

  2. C.A. -- I loved this post! A lot of great info!! Thanks for posting.

    1. Thank you, Kristy. The history of the West is a gift which just keeps giving.

  3. So interesting! Thanks. Can you imagine living in a time when as a woman you couldn't vote? It's hard for us to understand the mindset of that time. Whenever I've traveled west, I'm struck by the independent nature of the people there. The west did attract those looking for their place and the spirit of those people survives.

    1. I agree. Whenever I watch 'Who Do You Think You Are' I'm amazed by how often history repeats itself and people continue with traits and behaviours they never even knew were in their blood. I'm sure it forms the characters of people in certain areas.

    2. Me too. When I was laid up I got into researching my own family tree. It's catching. I contaminated almost everyone I know!

  4. C.A.,

    Your article took me smiling and nodding back through the years to my early teens. Virginia Slims, a brand of cigarettes purposely marketed toward women, actually had a brilliant strategy. The slogan was, "You've Come a Long Way, Baby." While I was never tempted to smoke cigarettes because of this marketing campaign (excepting the brief teenage rebellion and experimentation *cough-cough-eyes-watering-and-eyelashes-singed* phase), I was captivated by the female empowerment within the campaign. Brilliant marketing. The ads compared "then" to "now" which gave a visual reminder of what women had overcome (discrimination) and what they'd fought for (equal rights with men) to achieve the freedoms they had to date. And, by golly, somehow having a female gender cigarette was the crowning achievement for equality, aka Feminism. Here is a link to Virginia Slims ads in a year-by-year examination.

    1. Oh, my. You reminded that my grandmother was advised to START smoking during WW2 while pregnant, "as it has a disinfectant effect on the baby. She didn't and aren't we all pleased about that!

  5. Because western territories passed laws that enhanced life for women and offered them opportunities the east did not, they were, as you mentioned, successive at attracting women into their communities--success!

    This was certainly a great deal of information you put in here. I can tell you really dug into some research--and I like the photos you included, too. Terrific job, C.A.!

  6. Thank you, Sarah. I love doing the research. I so ISN'T a chore.

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  8. Christine, as always, this is another fascinating post. You must have done tons of research for this, and it shows. This reminded me of one night when I was watching Antiques Road Show and a woman brought in something, can't remember what it was now, but some legal document, and when the guy was explaining it to her he asked her if she really wanted to know the true meaning of it, and she said she did, and it turned out that her mother had been passing for white all her life, but on her birth certificate there was a cryptic notation that let the ARS guy know that the mother was black and it was so noted when she was born. He told the woman and showed her on the birth certificate where the "code" was, and so she found out that not only was she black, as well, but that her mom had truly lived a double life and now she had passed away and there was no way of asking her about it. I thought that was the saddest part--a whole lifetime of memories and so on that could not be shared with her daughter for fear of someone knowing they were black. Makes me sad to think of it. The woman was shocked but seemed to embrace having a 'starting place' to begin looking for her relatives from the past.

    Anyhow, I truly loved this post of yours and will enjoy going back to reread it again in the future, and looking at these wonderful pictures, too!

    1. Aw, that is so sad. I'm sure almost every family has some kind of 'secret', even if it's only illegitimacy somewhere. I have often pondered on whether life would take a different turn if we knew more. Every family tree I've seen done had a skeleton fall out somewhere.

  9. Isn't research fun and addictive. So glad you wrote this fascinating account of strong and courageous women who fought for what was right and fair. We have so much to be grateful for because of these wonderful women. Thanks for sharing, C.A.

    1. Thank you. Yes, it's so addictive! I love doing it.