Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring 1985, pp. 81-92.
During the past dozen years or so, scholars have become increasingly involved in researching the lives and experiences of women on the Great Plains. At the same time, interest in learning more about the lives of all types of western, frontier, farm, and rural women has burgeoned. As a result, researchers now devote their careers to these topics, national conferences convene to disseminate and refine this increasing scholarship, and journals commit theme issues to presenting research results.
This essay is a survey of research developments concerning plainswomen between the early 1970s and the present day. The purpose of such an examination is twofold: first, to gain an understanding of the dimensions of current research and scholarly perspectives regarding women on the Great Plains, and second, to suggest some crucial methodological issues yet to be explored. An underlying assumption is that scholarship regarding plainswomen has now reached a stage that demands introspection so as to continue to grow and become more sophisticated.
During the early 1970s, agricultural historian Mary W. M. Hargreaves was the first modern scholar to focus attention on researching EuroAmerican women on the Great Plains.1 In two essays published in Agricultural History, Hargreaves approached a topic that most historians had not yet thought about.2 While it is true that at this time women's history was gaining increasing impetus, few women's historians had the awareness to initiate investigations into the historical experiences of particular types of women. The customary practice was to consider predominant groups of white women rather than to explore those of various regions, cultures, or races. Those historians of the West who mentioned women did so almost exclusively in terms of image and myth. These stereotypes included the Saint in the Sunbonnet, the Pioneer Mother, the Frontier Feminist, the Helpmate, and the Light Lady.3
When Hargreaves first approached the topic of female settlers on the plains, little evidence of scholarly acumen existed. In a 1973 review essay, Hargreaves observed that, although plainswomen "performed a partnership role more difficult than on any previous frontier," their story had been customarily overlooked by most historians. In critiquing three recent books by women settlers on the Great Plains, Hargreaves noted that these women's statements finally provided some insights to scholars about women who participated in "an important and generally neglected segment of the' westward movement."4