Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 2001, pp. 29-44.
The plight of women on the American Great Plains is a familiar one to anyone who has explored the region's history. Account after account exists of women during the early years of Euro-American settlement who suffered hardship, persevered, and triumphed, or who succumbed to homesickness, lost their children or husbands, and sometimes descended into madness.2 The women's historical situation on the Plains has also been popularized in fiction and dramatized or romanticized in dozens of films.3 But what of today's Plains women?
Few sources describe women's contemporary experience of Plains life. Some works have given us a glimpse into the lives of exceptional Plains women, but explorations of the everyday experience of ordinary women are scarce.4 This article is intended to help remedy this lack of contemporary knowledge and to render one particular aspect of High Plains sense of place: the women's perspective.
Between 1991 and 1996, I conducted a field study of sense of place on the High Plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado in an attempt to discover the contemporary experience of Plains life. I chose this area because it is one of the flattest, most featureless parts of the Plains and is relatively isolated from the influence of large cities and major transportation routes. Trees exist only where they've been planted, and population is sparse. I primarily used in-depth interviews with local residents to find out what they think and feel about living out there in small, isolated towns in the middle of a huge, flat landscape. I had not originally set out to make a distinction between men's and women's sense of place, but as my field work progressed I became more and more impressed with a fundamental difference between the way men and women experience the region, both in its environmental and cultural aspects.
I found my participants through a technique ethnographers call "snowball sampling," which takes advantages of existing family, friendship, and professional networks to make contacts. In effect, an interview with one person led to more contacts, and each of those led to more potential participants. My sample included women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, economic levels, social groups, and differing degrees of education. Most were white EuroAmericans, which is a reflection of the region’s population.5 I also interviewed Hispanic women, recent Mexican immigrants, one African- American woman, and one European immigrant.6 Among their occupations were farm or ranch wife, business owner, banker, teacher, convenience-store clerk, social worker, farmer, artist, cattle breeder, retiree, nurse, and school-bus driver. The group ranged in age from eighteen to seventy-five, in education from eighth grade to graduate degree, and included Catholics, Protestants, Mennonites, and Quakers. Some of these women were life-long natives, and many were natives who had left the area and later returned. The minority were immigrants from other parts of the country. As part of this study, I also interviewed a similar cross-section of men. In the following pages, I incorporate men's voices where they serve to emphasize the women's perceptions of the sense of place.