Wild, Wild, Women of the American West

Chapter Four of Anne Butler and Michael Lansing’s The American West: A Concise History discusses the semi-settled frontier and its inhabitants.  Included in this group are the male outlaws and their female counterparts referred to as “social deviants.”  As some men think, the control of women, in particular their wife, is a direct reflection of their manhood. Domination of women in all ways shows that men are the rulers of society, and who would dare contradict that?

The female outlaw of the nineteenth century American west broke the previous barriers of the idea of womanhood and emerged into a new category known as the “social deviant”  For the first time, some women were engaging in activity that was not completely servile or passive to their male counterparts. Women, such as Calamity Jane, participated in some of the same law breaking activities as male outlaws, sometimes to help the needy. However, these women were punished, oftentimes more harshly than men, because of their breaking not only the legal code, but the social code as well.

Martha Jane "Calamity Jane" Canary

Martha Jane Canary (better known as Calamity Jane), a female outlaw in the American west

In an inadvertent way, these women can be seen as early American feminists. They were not crying out and pleading for equality to men, but they were defying the belief that only men can carry out certain acts through their actions. And even in some cases proving the old saying, “whatever you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.” Maybe they only carried out these actions because they needed to survive, or were playing Robin Hood and taking from the rich and giving to the poor, but they did not do anything different from the men performing the same misdeeds.  The female outlaw, or woman of easy virtue, of the American west should be revered, not only for refusing to bow down to “The Man” in times of intense punishment, but for setting a precedent for women to come.

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Illusion of Freedom: The 19th Century American West

One of the widest held beliefs in American history is that the Louisiana Purchase and land beyond is a land of opportunity and space to be free. There is just something about wide-open spaces that causes one to visualize an Eden of peace, tranquility, and understanding. However that is only if you are Anglo-American, male, Christian, and, above all, dared to make the journey.  Chapter Three of Anne Butler and Michael Lansing’s work The American West: A Concise History challenges this clichéd idea by looking at the “Americanization” of the west from a different point of view.

What many people failed to realize at the time, and even in current times, is the oppression of religion that the Native Americans of the American west faced because of lack of understanding. People such as Marcus and Narcissi Whitman, who used “terminology that had no relevance in Oregon,” which proved they did not understand the culture, invaded the Native people in Oregon, completely disrupting and disrespecting the freedom of religion the Indians had forever enjoyed (Butler and Lansing 97). They felt that in order to “Americanize” these people they were meant to convert them.  However, even the most “Americanized” Indians from Georgia, the Cherokee, were forced to change their culture and religion, and embark on the Trail of Tears because their Anglo counterparts wanted their land. But didn’t the first group of civilian settlers come to America because they wanted freedom of religion from Britain? And isn’t freedom of religion one of the rights guaranteed in the American Constitution?

Native American Children praying at school in 19th century Utah

Native American Children praying at school in 19th century Utah

It is simply mind blowing how only between a few generations of people the ideals that a country is founded upon can be lost. We, as a country, forgot where we came from, caught up in a wave of intense American exceptionalism and nationalism. America was not intended to be a nation made up of people of only one religion, but a nation that accepts, no matter if they disagree, the religions of all its subjects. The brief loss of these standards is unacceptable, for the sake of us and for the sake of those affected.