Women who helped shape the American Wild West
By Ismail Veli…….
The equality of women has been a subject of intense debate in the countries considered as belonging to the western world. The suffragettes in particular are well known, but what of certain individuals who against all the odds fought and won what they considered to be their own personal rights. Love, courage, outlaws and downright audacity it seems played a big part in shaping American attitudes for women who simply refused to accept the millennia held belief that ”women belong at home”. Martha Jane Canary better known as Calamity Jane, Kitty Tatch, Lillie Hitchcock Coit, Nellie Cashman, Fay Fuller, Belle Starr the ”cattle rustler”, Pearl Hart the angelic looking robber who held up stage coaches, Martha Maxwell the ”Colorado Huntress”, Sarah Winemucca the Pauite Indian teacher, Ann Eliza Webb Young the first Mormon woman who openly denounced polygamy. The woman news editor Caroline Churchill who used crime and scandalous articles in order to attract readers to women’s equality, and founded the ”Colorado Antelope” newspaper and pursued a campaign for women’s equality. The legendary Shosone Indian Sacagawea are just a few who despite all the odds against them helped make their mark in advancing the proof that women had equal courage against all adversity.
Then there were the love stories that helped break traditional rules, one particular woman, little known by the general public who broke all taboos in her quest for love that was considered scandalous in the early part of the 19th century, Josefa Carrillo was one such woman. The Governor of California Jose Maria Echeandia was infatuated by Josefa, sadly for him he was spurned by Josefa. Her eyes were on another gentleman named Henry Fitch. Due to his position as Governor Senor Jose Maria Echeandia banned the union of Josefa and Henry at the very altar of marriage. Josefa and Henry however did not care about traditional norms. They were in love and nothing would stop their union to each other.
They decided to take the decision to elope. Henry whisked Josefa from her home and went to Chile. the fact that Henry Fitch was a sea captain who owned ships helped the elopement on his ship. This act went against all convention and traditional values in 1829. The scandal for the family was no doubt unbearable. Their love survived all the odds and the Governor finally accepted the reality that he would never have Josefa. They made peace and returned to California the following year.
Among the first few women in history who founded a newspaper was Caroline Churchill. In her attempts to highlight the injustices inflicted on women. Few women had her courage and tenacity in pursuing her fight for women’s rights. With no funds she refused to sit down and do nothing. Her first monthly edition of the Colorado Antelope in 1879 waded into the established system of the dominance of men. she even called men ”The arch enemy of the human race”. She pushed for vocational education for girls and pensions for mothers. By 1882 her monthly publications became weekly and by 1893 Colorado became one of the first states to grant equality to women. How much her individual role played in this part is of course not very clear, no doubt she played a massive part in the historic changes that began to take shape in the USA. Not forgetting Abigail Scott Duniway who was the editor of ”The New Northwest” in 1871.
Hardly any women won positions in high office before the adoption of equal voting rights for women. One such woman who fought tenaciously for such a position was Marietta Stow. She ran for the position of the San Francisco school director in 1880 and her determination finally succeeded in her winning the elections as Governor of California. She continued making history when in 1884 and 1888 she became the first woman to be nominated as Vice President of the United States. She endorsed the protection of suffrage, widows rights, racial equality, physical culture and family communes. She fought for dress reform by campaigning in unconventional attire by designing her own clothes. This included the design of skirts, stockings, leggings and trousers 12 inches from the ground. Sadly she only ended up with 15 votes in her first nomination and no more than 4000 in 1888. Her legacy however helped lay the foundation for women to succeed in later years.
There were of course women who like men turned to crime. To look at the angelic photos of the pretty Pearl Hart one can be forgiven for thinking she was a kind hearted wonderful lady, and yet she has gone down in history as the bandit who held up the last stage coach as a bandit robbing $431 in the process. A photo taken during her five year prison sentence in Arizona shows her as a reformed and beautiful young lady that any man would fall for.
Cattle Annie and Little Britches were two innocent looking teenage ladies who actually joined the notorious Doolin gang and acted as lookouts. When captured they fought wildly against their captors but after they served their term in prison they became reformed characters by going straight.
Carry Nation a tough woman thought nothing of smashing up bars in order to highlight what she considered as immoral. In her opinion alcohol was immoral so therefore worth fighting to have it abolished. She often charged into bars wielding stones and smashed photos of women in sensual photos that were used to attract male customers. When put in jail for malicious destruction of property she shouted out that ”You put me in here a cub, but I will go out a roaring lion and make all hell howl”. Clearly she feared no man or law in her quest to highlight her cause.
Sarah Winnemuca a Paiute Indian lobbied for the restoration of her tribe’s land and denounced the American government’s Indian Bureau’s policies towards her people. Though given much publicity by the press she sadly failed to overturn the government’s policies. In the last years of her life she turned to teaching.
There were some who took on tasks unheard of for women in that era, for example Fay Fuller became the first woman to climb the 14.000 feet high Mount Rainier. In 1890 she re-enacted her achievement in a studio photo which has left us an image of this amazing woman. Her climbing clothes were considered scandalous by the standards of 1890. Heavy boy’s shoes, ankle length bloomers and her blanket rolled around her waist caused an uproar among men and women who were not accustomed to women going against the accepted norms of female behaviour.
The image of Kitty Tatch in 1900 practically dancing on the mountain edge of Yosemite valley with a friend was captured on camera, and as a waitress printed postcard copies and signed them for her customers. Her antics attracted much attention, but her carefree attitude was not diminished by a critical society.
Then there was Biddy Mason a black woman born into slavery in 1818 who moving to California in 1851 was finally set free in 1856. Going into nursing she saved enough to buy her own home, invested in other properties and used her hard earned cash to help poor people and black churches in need of urgent funds. Even paying for grocery bills for poor people who were left homeless after floods destroyed their homes. She died in 1891 and a book of black history hailed her as ”The most remarkable pioneer of colour coming to California”.
The amazing courage of women against all adversity in helping shape history is not as rare as people may believe. To name all would be an impossible task in itself. The few in this article are just a tiny sample of many. One thing we can be certain is that with growing democratic freedom women’s role in society can and will continue to help shape our future. Of that there is little doubt
Sources for this article from my collection of the ”Time Life Books” published in 25 editions in the 1970’s