Women and Westward Movement

Jessica Moore's picture

Women and Westward Movement

When teaching the movement west I like to spend part of the class on how women were affected and women’s impact on westward migration.  I find John Gast’s American Progress to be a great starting point for this lecture.  I ask the students what they see in the picture and how it represents American views about westward expansion.  I also ask for their opinions on Columbia, the female presentation of America, and the fact that she is bringing education and technology.  What did it mean that a woman brought these things?  Was the idea that manifest destiny was more acceptable to those who already lived on the land if a peaceful woman brought American progress?  This leads to a discussion of the image of women as cultural bearers during westward movement.  Background information from books such as Julianna Barr’s Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands is helpful for this discussion.

I include slides on reasons for westward movement, how women felt about the move, building a new life in the west, health and community, and food preparation and diet on the frontier.  To give them a first-hand idea of how it felt for a woman to move west, I place them in groups and have each group read and discuss an entry (organized by month) from Kate Dunlap’s diary available on the Library of Congress website.  They seem to really enjoy the details she offers about the trip and are amazed at how different life was then.  When covering food on the frontier, I discuss aspects of the daily diet of the time including pork, cornbread, and whatever fruits and vegetables were available from the garden.  I explain the importance of a crop such as corn that could feed the family and livestock and be stored for the future.  I finish the food discussion by explaining that due to the frontier location, dietary staples such as cornbread had to be made with whatever was readily available.  This meant that for many households that ran low on flour, cornbread consisted of cornmeal, salt, and water, and was not nearly as tasty as our modern version.  The idea of having to eat this sort of cornbread on a daily basis brings home the idea to students that living on the frontier impacted every aspect of a person’s daily life.

Since the focus on women is worked into a lecture on westward movement, a topic most professors already cover, it does not require any changes to your course schedule and introducing this topic to your class should be an easy option for everyone.

Teaching Resources:

Kate Dunlap Diary, 1864-1865 http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/h?ammem/upboverbib: @field(NUMBER+@band(upbover+dia6747))

Julianna Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands  - http://www.amazon.com/Peace-Came-Form-Woman-Borderlands/dp/ 0807857904

John Gast’s American Progress  - http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/item.php?item_id=180

Mark Kurlasnky, The Food of a Younger Land - http://www.amazon.com/The-Food-Younger-Land-chainrestaurants/dp/1594484570