The American West, in the period of approximately 1865-1890, was called the ‘Wild West’ for very good reason. There was little that could be called ‘law’ or ‘justice,’ and that justice was very often vigilante justice, which is as good as no justice at all. Men, especially young men, were drawn to this atmosphere like a moth to a flame. Fortunes were to be made, there was the excitement of ‘six-gun justice,’ and there were few restrictions on the activities of these young men.
Women were drawn to this atmosphere, also, many for the same reasons, but an important distinction must be made, here. The culture of the time made a distinction between a ‘woman of leisure,’ as a ‘decent,’ married woman was called, and a woman who worked for a living. The latter category included, of course, whores, which were prominent in the West, as well as laundresses, cooks, women who ran boarding houses for the men, and any other woman who worked for a living. A miner in, say, Deadwood, South Dakota, could (and did) write home and say that he was doing pretty well, but missed the fact that there were no women in the town. Of course, from our perspective, he was wrong. The town was full of women…but there were few, if any, women that were considered ‘decent,’ and a working woman deserved little or no respect in those climates.
Women, as opposed to the other kind of female person, were honored in a way we would never understand. Isabella Bird wrote a book titled “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” where she describes wandering in the Rocky Mountains for several years, often spending the winter snowed in with miners, without every being molested, or even threatened, in any way. She was a woman, something men rarely saw at the time, and she was treated with respect. Narcissus Preston Whitman describes crossing the Rocky Mountains around this period, the first White Woman to do so, and her diary has no mention of feeling awkward or threatened. That is not to say that women were never molested; there were desperadoes in the West who were quite capable of anything…but the general populace revered and respected women, and, more often than not, defended their honor.
The Colt .45 is a gun that gained the reputation of a peacemaker; its nickname is ‘the gun that tamed the West. In many ways, that is true, but the real change occured around the 1890’s, when more and more ‘decent’ women began entering the towns that had been built around mining and cattle interests, and demanding that sidewalks be built, schools established, main streets be paved, and the rule of law be enforced…not, as was in most cases, simply laws against carrying and/or shooting firearms, but a real code of law that made life, for them, seem safe and clean. The Colt might have tamed the West, but women made it a good place to live and bring up children.
And that is the central point to consider. The role of women has been quite constant throughout the centuries, despite local variations. Women are the glue which hold society together; where the women are, that is where the society is. Men can form armies, migrate, mine, hunt, and do whatever they want, but they do not have a society until women show up. Women, and the children for whom the raising has always been a woman’s role, are society.
In our present day and age, women, in Western society, have achieved a level of independence unheard of before. Never, in recorded history, have women had the freedom to have a career, run for office, and participate in virtually all facets of life that exists in Western culture. For women living in Europe and the North America, it is probably the best time and place for women to be living that ever existed.
Does that mean that the role of women has changed? That women are, no longer, the cement which holds society together? Are we getting close to the dream of our 1960’s feminist generation, of making men and women co-equal, if not devaluing the role of men to the point where they become unnecessary, as suggested by Maureen Dowd?
Have we changed, from the point where working women were shoved into the background, ignored, abused and forgotten?
I don’t think so. The role of women in society has not changed for the vast majority of women. Mothers are not considered to be ‘working,’ by a great part of society, and their contributions to society are greatly undervalued. There are millions, if not tens of millions, of prostitutes living in this country whose existence is rarely acknowledged, who are denied adequate health care, for lack of insurance, have a short life expectancy and whose death is rarely acknowledged as significant by even a causal mention…and women without a husband, who have spent their lives bringing up children, are often thrown upon charity for lack of resources when their children leave the home, and refuse to take responsibility for them.
The basic role of women to every society is still there. Women are the child rearers, the most basic function of any society. Men simply are not going to take over that job from them. Men don’t ‘do’ babies. The fact that many women feel free to combine career and family responsibilities does not change the basic equation that women are primarily responsible for bringing up our children. Wishing it were different does not change this.
Women have to make a choice of career in their lives. Are they going to be mothers, or are they going to pursue a career? If the latter, they cannot be mothers, also; you cannot plow two fields at the same time.
If women decide to be mothers, we, as a society, have a responsibility to support them in this position, and we have not been doing this. Motherhood is the most important job in our society. Women who choose this career should be guaranteed adequate health care, retirement benefits, pension, etc, etc, all the trimmings that a woman working in a corporation enjoy. They deserve to have outlets for their creativity , and, above all, when their child-bearing and child-rearing years are over, they deserve, in grateful thankfulness for their efforts, a slot and role in society to fill their useful lives until they are too old to work.
Hillary Clinton wrote a book with the title “it takes a village to raise a child,” and I cannot argue with that. We have, in many ways, shattered the communities which used to ensure that our children were supported. If women are ‘the glue’ which holds society together, we have begun diluting and weakening that glue. We need a national dialogue about who we are, where we are going, and what is important in our lives.