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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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Another possible explanation for women’s increased independence in the West relative to other regions is simply that the harsh conditions of frontier living required that everyone perform laborious work. Distinguishing men’s work from women’s work was a luxury not available to most. Husbands and wives laboring side-by-side was not evidence of a progressive philosophy, but rather resulted from the need to complete a day’s work. Although Fisher argues that “men’s and women’s preoccupations were totally different in many respects,” there are numerous examples that dispute this claim. Elaine Hallmark Francis describes the intense toil required in building their small home in the Arizona Strip and notes the necessity of the entire family’s participation, including herself and her mother (Francis, 125). The demands of the frontier placed great value on all available laborers, and families and communities needed women’s participation in a wide variety of work.
Frontier conditions required women to adopt other unconventional roles. These included the physical defense of homes and general management of farms and ranches during sons’ and husbands’ absences. Shooting and defending property are typically described as men’s responsibilities, too dangerous and rough for women. Women, particularly during this time period, are often described as weak and fearful and are assumed to be incapable of such tasks. Evidence from women on the Arizona frontier easily dispels these misconceptions. Oren Arnold recalls how “Aunt Adaline” talked about defending her home against raiding Pima Indians. “I’d shoot over the wall at one end, run and shoot over the other and keep that up as long as they stayed close enough” (Arnold in Fisher, 43). G. M. Allison describes a fight between pioneers and Apaches on her family’s cattle ranch near Globe, Arizona in the late 19th century. Women as well as men participated in protecting the family and driving off the attack. (Allison in Wooten, 351). These examples illustrate the ways in which women acted in non-traditional roles under the auspices of upholding sanctioned values of defending home and family.
Despite some increased freedoms in the West, women’s lives were dictated to a significant extent by existing social norms. Poling-Kempes notes, “There seemed to be a collision of signals and values: a chance for women to expand their roles in the new West, along with an equally strong expectation that they would maintain the status quo” (Poling-Kempes, 51). Motherhood was highly valued and childrearing was considered primarily a female responsibility. Frontier life was nearly always arduous, and keeping a family fed and clothed posed a difficult challenge for women. In accounts of life in Arizona during the early 20th century, many authors commend the hard work demonstrated by their mothers that essentially kept families afloat. Elaine Hallmark Francis recalls in her memoir, “Mother always managed, and somehow she kept us fed through all of the inconveniences and discomforts” (Francis, 120). In a memoir, Owen White fondly remembers his mother’s devotion to her family, “If there was any way she could twist a situation around so that she bore the burden of it she did so” (White, 98). Sacrifices made as mothers were (and continue to be) highlighted as among women’s greatest contributions to Arizona history.
Ideal roles for girls and women were clearly delineated in most frontier contexts. They were expected to be obedient, particularly to fathers and husbands, selfless, and bastions of tradition. “Dad and mother discussed [my future] as if I was a piece of furniture to be moved and manipulated as they saw fit…I had been taught well; my preferences were unimportant” (Francis, 140). According to convention, strength of character and hardiness and adaptation to the frontier should not have superseded women’s feminine nature. White states, “[My mother’s] life on the frontier had made her as big, and broad, and capable as a strong man without taking away from her any of the attributes of a true woman” (White, 101). Tolerance, hard work, and caring for the family under adverse conditions were valued in women; adventurousness and initiative were not. Women who were too independent, behaved promiscuously, or otherwise disrupted the accepted social structure were often ostracized. Although traditional values did limit women’s opportunities, women were not passive observers and actively participated in determining social structure.
Women both challenged existing societal norms and upheld them. Women themselves were often the harshest critics of those who strayed from their proscribed roles. According to Fischer, women preferred a “stratified society” in which “there was an unbridgeable gap between respectable women and those who were not considered to be so” (Fischer, 46). For example, in Tombstone, Arizona, women refused to patronize the Bird Cage Theatre, convinced of the corruptness of such establishments. They stayed away even after the institution of “Ladies’ Night,” intended to provide an air of respectability (Fischer, 46). In much the same way, a young schoolteacher whose “use of lip rouge shocked the good ladies of Bundyville,” was monitored most closely by other women (Francis, 137). Whatever the motivations behind enforcing social norms, women played an active role in regulating such traditions.
Women’s challenges to the traditional social order appeared in a variety of forms, ranging from overt to accidental. Women who chose to reject feminine notions of marriage and the domestic sphere generally “adopted a masculine attire and remained on the fringes of society” (Fischer, 45). Female outlaws apparently engaged in lifestyles similar to their male counterparts but never attained the same romanticized status in our historical imaginations. Rather, they have essentially disappeared from historical accounts and few historians have explored their pasts. Embellished stories of prostitutes and dance-hall queens, the “soiled doves” of the West often dominate popular literature about women who challenged Western society (Poling-Kempes, 50). Both of these views of women in the West fail to account for real experiences and those who contested social norms in less obvious ways.
The Harvey Girls provide an example of women who were able to appropriate traditional values in order to gain unusual and liberating experiences. Fred Harvey hired women from the East and Midwest as waitresses to work along the Santa Fe railroad at Harvey Houses, a hotel/restaurant chain. Unlike other waitresses and working women, these women were closely monitored by Harvey and attained social acceptance. Although the constraints placed on them, particularly regarding dress and manner, seem restrictive in our modern context, these were necessary limitations so as to ensure their public approval as upstanding citizens (Poling-Kempes, xii). They were praised for their ability to serve food and provide hospitality, traditionally conservative feminine values. The implications of their work was much broader, however, as they were among the few women at this time who supported themselves financially. The traditional values associated with waitressing and a patriarchal institution were overruled in many ways by the possibilities for young women’s independence in the new West.
Other successful and independent women gained acceptance primarily by emphasizing traditional feminine values. For example, Nellie Cashman, one of the first women in Tucson to open a restaurant alone, is remembered by a male historian for her “charitable undertakings, her strong Catholic faith, [and] her modesty” (Fischer, 50). Similarly, widow Violet Irving launched a campaign to bring electricity to her rural area and succeeded in part due to her social skills and coordinating efforts. The electricity principally benefited her store, but it was necessary for her to emphasize the needs of the community first in order to gain public acceptance.
Although dominant ideology taught girls to consider their needs last and devalued women’s education, many examples indicate that mothers and girls found clever ways to educate themselves and their children without disrupting the accepted social order. For example, Francis states that her father “vigorously vetoed” the idea that she attain a high-school education and that “right or wrong, his decisions were the law of the household.” However, she managed to convince him to allow her to help the local teacher with younger kids in exchange for further education (Francis, 136). In this way, she succeeded in using the traditional feminine value of teaching to attain a non-traditional education. Some mothers, especially those who lived on ranches far from other families, managed to attain an education for their children by moving to the nearest town during school months (Fischer, 45). Living away from their husbands would otherwise not be acceptable, but because they were acting as good mothers, these women’s actions were tolerated. In addition to these examples, women facilitated and supported education in a variety of ways.
Another prevalent theme throughout many recollections of women in Arizona’s pioneer history is their role as “civilizers” (Rothschild and Hronek, xxi). The homeyness of towns and hospitality for neighbors and travelers is often highlighted among the attributes women brought to early Arizona living. Although it is easy to view this part of frontier life as just another example of women in positions of powerlessness, too often historical accounts of women rely solely on description of submission and drudgery. It is essential to consider women’s agency in all aspects of frontier life, even those that seem trivial or forced. For example, in home-making, it is possible to draw out the ways in which women shaped their own and others’ experiences. Sharlot Hall claims that “it was the women in log cabin and sod shack and covered wagon who turned the West from a land of adventure into a land of homes” (Wooten, 333). Francis describes the importance of her mother’s hospitality and home-making in molding the general character of frontier Arizona. “Mother made two rag rugs that winter that helped to dispel the barren look…making the room look cozy and home-like” (Francis, 130). Although women were thrust by social expectations into particular roles, they ways in which they performed these roles significantly shaped Arizona history.
In addition to affecting the pioneer experience through work in the home, women participated in many public activities including voluntarism, politics, social reform, and religion. Women’s clubs often provided an avenue through which women got involved in effecting social change. These clubs were often the driving force behind construction and maintenance of public libraries, schools, and hospitals (Rothschild and Hronek, 81). Funding campaigns, hands-on work, and other related jobs allowed women to get out of the home and help shape Arizona history. Rothschild and Hronek state, “Through their clubs, women negotiated an entrée into the public sphere that did not interfere with their self-definition as home-makers, yet allowed them to build institutions that changed the public nature of their communities” (Rothschild and Hronek, 82). Again, women’s work outside of the domestic sphere was sanctioned only if accompanied by conventional feminine values.
Although only white men could officially participate in politics in the late nineteenth century, women were an operative force in “community building”, an activity they viewed as deeply political (Rothschild and Hronek, xxiv). The temperance movement, women’s suffrage, and improving education were among the projects women headed. A battle over the suffrage amendment drew women more directly into the political arena (Rothschild and Hronek, xxiv). After several failed attempts, Arizona women created an Arizona Equal Suffrage Association. Women’s suffrage was finally passed overwhelmingly in 1912, after its previous exclusion from the successful state constitution passed by Congress in 1911. Following this victory, Arizona women became active participants in politics, as both volunteers and politicians (Rothschild and Hronek, xxvi).
Women’s voluntarism often centered around their religious communities. Women both helped create churches and participated in charitable work within the churches (Rothschild and Hronek, 93). For example, Nellie Cashman “prompted the erection of a church and contributed funds from her own money” (Fischer, 50). There are many other examples of women’s work in social reform through religion.
Another important aspect of women’s participation in social reform was some women’s efforts toward desegregation. Women lead the struggle to integrate Arizona public schools, sometimes working alongside the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Rothschild and Hronek, 82). In Florence, Marjorie Mandel, the leader of a Girl Scout Troop, claimed that hers “was one town that did not segregate…I, being the only Jewish [woman], would very readily find that out and never did I find anyone who was a bigot” (Rothschild and Hronek, 95). Although this may have been an overstatement, it does indicate an awareness and concern about both racial and religious prejudice.
Despite some women’s efforts to create a more just society, very few aspects of pioneer life escaped the specter of race, class, and religious prejudice. The near invisibility of Native American, Mexican-American, Chinese-American, and Black women’s experience and influence throughout Arizona history is testament to this bias. In addition to white settlers, the Pima and Maricopa Indians (forced by Congress into the first American Indian reservation in 1859) as well as the Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, Mohave, Yavapai, Papago, Yuma, Walapai, and Apache were present at this time. Mexican-Americans also composed a fairly large portion of the population, but along with African-Americans and Indians, there is insufficient census data to accurately estimate numbers. Often, early census takers only counted white settlers or grossly undercounted minority populations. Also, only women of “good repute” were included (Rothschild and Hronek, xxii). The language of historical accounts of early 20th century Arizona reveal the class and race prejudice prevalent at this time. The “Indian menace” is cited often, indicating that the context of frontier Arizona prevented many people from seeing others as anything different from “wild animals,” incredibly distinct from themselves.
Opportunities available to poor women or women of color were extremely limited. The kinds of work they could do prevented, for the most part, economic independence or any possibility of professional mobility. Only white women were hired as Harvey Girls, for example, and women of color typically found jobs as stigmatized domestic servants. Women as well as men encountered stringent hierarchies in the work environment, most of which were based on race or class (Poling-Kempes, 53). Volunteer work followed a similar pattern. Leisure time was necessary for women’s involvement in unpaid activities such as women’s clubs, and for many poor women, immigrant women, and women of color this was not an option (Francis, 96). Women’s participation in effecting change through voluntarism was determined in large part by economic and social status. These women were not only under-represented in politics and public affairs, but also were silenced within “women’s work” for social reform.
The inadequate censusing techniques at the beginning of the twentieth century, general lack of information about people of color and women who did not conform to traditional lifestyles, and clear class and race bias have resulted in a very limited history of Arizona during this time period. Although it is important to tell the stories of pioneer women on the Arizona frontier, even among “ordinary” folks, white women with decent social standing compose the bulk of accounts that are recorded or recalled. Their contributions provided a driving force in shaping Arizona history, but their status as heroines seems marred by the bigotry present at this time. They were important figures within one sect of the population, but should not dominate our understanding of “women’s history” in 20th century Arizona. This narrative is not complete without integration of women whose influences were marginalized to the extent that their voices and experiences were invisible even to those who lived at the same historical moment. Absence of these women’s voices is as important as the presence of others and indicates the great need for exploring history in new and different ways. Allowing everyone to recall their own experiences would provide the most accurate and comprehensive account, but this is impractical in the face of centuries of persecution and prejudice. Determining how to encourage even small pieces of silenced voices to squeeze through dominant discourse is a challenge well worth tackling. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this project and my experience but I hope that someone will find avenues through which to explore these issues. Unearthing the available resources about “ordinary” women and their accomplishments is a small step toward recognizing how historically “unimportant” figures shaped Arizona history.
Fischer, Christiane. “A Profile of Women in Arizona in Frontier Days.” Journal of the West. 16(1977): 42-53.
Francis, Elaine Hallmark. “A Corner our of Time: Pioneering the Arizona Strip.” Journal of Arizona History. 30(2): 117-142.
Poling-Kempes, Lesley. The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West. New York: Paragon House, 1989.
Rothschild, Mary Logan and Pamela Claire Hronek. Doing What the Day Brought: An Oral History of Arizona Women. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998.
White, Owen. A Frontier Mother. New York: Minton, Balch & Co, 1929.
Wooten, Mattie Lloyd, ed. Women Tell the Story of the Southwest. San Antonio: The Naylor Co, 1940.