The Western Frontier and its Impact on Women

American Pioneer Women

A profound phenomenon occurred during western migration, changing women and their history forever. Women found new opportunities which created new paths to independence.

A profound phenomenon occurred during western migration, which changed women forever. Most women, who traveled to the western frontier, went out of necessity. Some either traveled with their families or husbands, while others were called to follow family members or husbands who had gone ahead in order to stake a claim, start a business, acquire land, etc. While on the other hand, more single women than are realized headed for the frontier as well. For example, young single school teachers and civil war widows, as well as professionally educated women who could not practice as doctors or lawyers in the east.

Granted, some women traveled by rail after it became an available mode of transportation to the western frontier. However, most women either found themselves traveling across the plains or traveling by ship (when they could afford it) in route to the west coast. As pioneer women (and their children) traveled across the plains to get to the new western frontier, they were tasked with having to endure what was traditionally called “men’s work”. These women were confronted with the concept of survival. In order to do so, they had to endure extreme weather, terrain, and basic living conditions.

Women in Route

While during traveling hours, wives, daughters, and sisters drove wagons, cleared roads, and etc. They were still required during non-traveling hours to prepare meals and wash clothes. The typical wagon train that many of us have, with the help of motion pictures, is one of families heading west in covered wagons pulled by ox or horses. Many wagon trains crossing the plains that were made up of hand carts and women and children who literally walked across America to the West. Although ship passage cost more than going by land, it could be just as difficult. There were health and safety concerns, as well as many hardships that were endured.

Arriving on the Frontier to Experience “Double Duty”

Once the pioneer women arrived at their destination, they found in many instances, hardship was not over, but had just begun. Women arrived to find housing very different from the homes they left behind in the East. Luckily for these women they learned quickly during travel to “make do.” Some found their first home in the form of a tent, some used their wagons, or parts there of, and others were able to construct tar paper shack or sod shanties. A few women even learned from the native women in they way they built their lodges and tee pees, in order to fashion temporary housing. While most homesteads in the west were far from the nearest neighbor, women found themselves continuing their “double duty.”

During the course of a work day, usually before dawn until after dusk, women found themselves plowing, milking cows, raising chickens, and working beside their husbands on the claim, panning for gold, etc. These same women were still the keepers of the home and family. After working out in the elements at physical labor all day, they in turn continued to keep the home clean, prepared meals, laundry, and for those who had children, they simultaneously attended to them as well.

First Steps Towards Women’s Liberation

Along with the hardships that pioneer women endured, came benefits and freedoms that were not available to them back in the East. Pioneer women were responsible for creating and implementing new forms of social order on the frontier. They took much of what they left behind in the East and used it to form new social, educational, and spiritual institutions that worked on the frontier. Much of their work was accomplished through women’s clubs. Women fund-raised for the building of churches, schools, and social halls like Grange Hall’s. In experiencing new freedoms, some women were direct enough to successfully participate in politics, which was unheard of in the East. In the East physicians, lawyers, and school teachers were men, there was such a demand for professionals in the West, that a few western universities started educating women. These new professionals were able to do quite well on the frontier in such professions.


  1. Holmes, Kennith. ed. “Diaries of Women”. In Covered Wagon Women, vol. 2, Glendale: Author H. Clark Co., 1983.
  2. Hodgson, Mary A. “The Life of a Pioneer Family: A True Account by Mary A. Hodgson.” California State Library, Sacramento.
  3. National Park Service. The Overland Migrations: Settlers to Oregon, California, and Utah. Handbook 105. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1984.
  4. Texan Cultures Museum and Archive. Personal letters, Government documents, and Land title records. San Antonio Texas, September 8-10, 2009.