Southern Arizona: Lives that Shaped the Frontier Experience

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"Ordinary" Women in Early Twentieth Century Southern Arizona: Lives that Shaped the Frontier Experience Some historians have argued that women’s roles in early 20th century Arizona centered exclusively around the domestic sphere and typified values of femininity such as passivity, motherhood, and loyalty to marriage. Their journeys to the West are likewise portrayed as involuntary and life on the frontier a hated struggle. For example, Christiane Fischer states, “Frontier conditions tended to reinforce women in their traditional roles and did not open up any new possibilities for them” (Fischer, 46). Although this may have been true for some, women’s overall experiences and contributions to Arizona’s history were much more complex. Although historically “important” figures are often over-represented in the stories we tell about our past, it is essential to remember that social change cannot occur without the involvement of thousands of ordinary folks. According to E.D. Branch, “If there is a moral to the history of the westward movement, it is this: the transcendent importance of small things and of unimportant people” (Branch in Poling-Kempes, xii). This is especially relevant to women’s history in that women’s experiences are often ignored in dominant discourse and their achievements are relegated to the invisible sphere of domesticity. This essay will explore the ways in which “ordinary” women influenced the development of the Arizona frontier and to what extent the conditions of this lifestyle affected their roles and opportunities. At the turn of the century, women in the West enjoyed greater freedom than their sisters in other parts of the country. Various social and economic necessities both allowed and forced women into situations that were traditionally reserved for men. Lesley Poling-Kempes states, “Liberation may have been a side effect, rather than a motivating force or premeditated goal, for women in the new society of the American West” (Poling-Kempes, 49). Women in this region generally had a better economic status, more job opportunities, and higher legal status than women in other regions (Rothschild and Hronek, xx). Historians have presented several hypotheses to explain this geographical distinction. One such theory is that the biased sex ratio (many more men were present than women) required men to be tolerant of women leading unconventional lifestyles. Another possibility is that, overall, the frontier embraced a more democratic way of life than settled areas, which in turn affected women’s rights (Rothschild and Hronek, xx).

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