Old West Female Outlaws – Women’s Roles in the West


The California Gold Rush was perhaps the major event that triggered the desire to go West. During this time, 80,000 joined the drive westward. Most of the participants of the gold rush were single men hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields. These men formed rough mining camps made of tents and makeshift buildings. In many of the earlier camps there were no women, which posed a hardship on the men who in addition to missing female companionship were unused to doing domestic chores, such as laundry. The first women to arrive on the scene at the mining camps were the prostitutes, who followed as soon as a town of sorts was established. These women were welcomed with open arms by the lonely miners. In many early frontier towns the only women were prostitutes. For a time, the ratio of men to women was ten to one.

Another event that led to western expansion was the 1862 Homestead Act. The Homestead Act drew families to the west by promising settlers 160 acres of free land if they stayed for five years. The people who took advantage of this offer came to settle, and were more interested in farming, ranching, and making a living off the land than in seeking quick riches. The homesteaders included women, who by that time were journeying west with their families. Women were, however, still in the minority. The women who came west later were more community and family-oriented than the prostitutes who had earlier followed the mining camps. These “respectable” women began to build up churches and other social establishments patterned after the ones they had left behind.

For a time, two distinct cultures existed in the United States, the established New England colonies in the East, and the wild and unchartered territory of the West. The East was already well-established and cultured while the West was new land, for the most part wild and unpopulated. Women in the East had grown up to adhere to the mores of genteel society. In the West these rules were relaxed, especially in the earlier days of settlement. Gradually, as stagecoach and railroad made transportation easier, larger towns and cities began to spring up, and the gap between the East and the West narrowed.

The purpose of this lesson is to gain a perspective of how life in the West differed from the East, and how women in particular fit into this new environment. The lesson will also include an in-depth study of Belle Starr. Sources used in this lesson include the website www.outlawwomen.com , With Badges & Bullets Lawmen & Outlaws in the Old West,Queen of the Bandits , Riley, Glenda, Etulain, Richard W. and Riley, Glenda, Editors. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, CO. 1999., and Women of the Western Frontier in Fact, Fiction and Film, Lackmann, Ron McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1997.

A Woman’s Role and Outlaw Women

In the west, women were, for the most part, still expected to marry, stay at home and raise babies. While men had the traditional job of seeking work, hunting, and providing for their families, a married woman’s lot consisted of running a household, establishing schools and churches, caring for the sick and sometimes acting as midwife. For the frontier wife, who was usually up at dawn, work such as child-rearing, cooking, soap making and clothes making ran in an endless cycle. All of this work was done under harsh conditions and with none of the amenities of home. The unsettled land was filled with hardships such as drought, prairie fires, and epidemics. An atmosphere of lawlessness pervaded. On the frontier, Indian attacks were an ever-present danger.

As the west gradually became more settled, many young single women other than prostitutes began to venture forth by stagecoach or train. Some were simply seeking employment and new opportunities; others went west to escape bad family situations or a scandal such as pregnancy before marriage and to start a new life. In the unsettled west, there was no way of tracking identity, and a name change was easy enough to accomplish. Few decent jobs for single women existed in the western towns. Women were offered low-paying job opportunities as teachers, laundresses, shopkeepers, seamstresses, or maids. Women had no right to vote and in many places could not own property. Sometimes, dire circumstances made women turn to crime or prostitution in order to survive. By the mid 1850’s “respectable” women had begun establishing communities for their families and supporting churches. Prostitution had been tolerated if not accepted in the days of the early mining camps, but it was not as readily accepted by the new settlers and their wives, who brought with them the standards of the East. Women who turned to prostitution were looked down upon and became scorned and outcast.

Women shunned from society ran gaming houses, became prostitutes or madams, and often fell in with robbers and cattle rustlers. It is interesting to note that few women bandits worked on their own but were influenced by the male company they kept. It is also interesting to note that few of them actually killed anyone. Even in the outlaw world, it was still very much a male-dominated society. Women usually played supporting roles in the crimes, held horses, scouted, fenced stolen goods, cooked and kept house for the outlaw gang.

Dime novels made the life and image of both the male and female outlaw seem larger than life. Few lived up to that image. Many women who turned to crime were either forced into the situation by dire necessity or in ignorance chose the path most available to them. Some of them were victims of circumstance, others would have been considered criminals in any day and age.