Women In Waiting in the Westward Movement

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During the last half of the nineteenth century, thousands of men went west in search of gold, land, or adventure-leaving their wives to handle family, farm, and business affairs on their own. The experiences of these westering men have long been a part of the lore of the American frontier, but the stories of their wives have rarely been told. Ten years of research into public and private documents-including letters of couples separated during the westward movement-has enabled Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith to tell the forgotten stories of "women in waiting."

Though these wives were left more or less in limbo by the departure of their adventuring husbands, they were hardly women in waiting in any other sense. Children had to be fed, clothed, housed, and educated; farms and businesses had to be managed; creditors had to be paid or pacified and, in some cases, hard-earned butter-and-egg money had to be sent west in response to letters from broke and disillusioned husbands.

This raises some unsettling questions: How does the idea of an "allowance" from home square with our long-standing image of the frontiersman as rugged individualist? To what extent was the westward movement supported by the paid and unpaid labor of women back east? And how do we measure the heroics of husbands out west against the heroics of wives back home?

About The Author

Ursula Smith pursued graduate work at San Francisco State University under a Ford Foundation Fellowship and taught in the San Francisco school system. She began collaborative work in women's history and biography with coauthor Linda Peavy in Bozeman, Montana. Since then Peavy and Smith have coauthored ten books, including Women in Waiting in the Westward Movement, Pioneer Women, Frontier Children, and Frontier House. Currently residing in Vermont, Smith has given presentations and workshops with Peavy across the nation, including at the Library of Congress and the White House. With Peavy she has been awarded a Redd Center for Western Studies Independent Research Award, a Smithsonian Short-Term Visitors grant, two nonfiction writing residencies at Centrum, Port Townsend, Washington, and two Paladin Awards for excellence in writing western history.

Linda Peavy has published fiction, poetry, and drama in numerous literary journals and anthologies. She began collaborative work in women's history and biography with coauthor Ursula Smith in Bozeman, Montana. Since then Peavy and Smith have coauthored ten books, including Women in Waiting in the Westward Movement, Pioneer Women, Frontier Children, and Frontier House. Currently residing in Vermont, Peavy has given presentations and workshops with Smith across the nation, including at the Library of Congress and the White House. With Smith she has been awarded a Redd Center for Western Studies Independent Research Award, a Smithsonian Short-Term Visitors grant, two nonfiction writing residencies at Centrum, Port Townsend, Washington, and two Paladin Awards for excellence in writing western history.

John Mack Faragher, Arthur Unobskey Professor of American History at Yale University, is the author of Women and Men on the Overland Trail.

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