Read the online article titled “Women and Their Families on the Overland Trail to California and Oregon,” by Nancy Cott and Elizabeth H. Pleck (it is listed in this module as “Rogers HIST 3260 Women and …”)
The 1800s was an era in which industrialization rapidly increased, and construction and businesses often ran seven days a week. Cities were growing in size, resulting in increasing crime rates, alcoholism, prostitution, and other vices. In response to all this activity, starting roughly in 1820 and lasting until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, an ideal concerning women’s roles existed in both the U.S. and western Europe. Referred to in America as “Cult of True Womanhood” (in England it was called “Cult of Domesticity”), it strongly urged women to focus on their piety (to guide their families to God), purity (to remain virgins until marriage), domesticity (to manage their households well), and to be submissive (their husbands should make the important decisions). This ideal was not just limiting for women — it also strongly suggested that men could not control their lust and would stray from their faith. Wives who kept a good household would provide incentive for husbands to come home. Being submissive to his will would stroke his ego — and, again, he would be more likely to come home after work. The bottom line: men went out into the world to labor, while women’s sphere was to remain in the home.
But what about women who traveled across the country to establish homes out west? Could they reasonably maintain the Cult of True Womanhood standards?
For this think piece, respond to the following prompt:
Discuss the life of a woman crossing America to resettle in the West; focus particular attention on the challenges it provided in her role as wife and mother. For example, was she actively engaged in the decision to move west? Why might she not want to leave? Was she able to maintain her “traditional” roles, as defined by the Cult of True Womanhood? How did her role change while on the trail? Did men’s roles change? In your opinion, how might women have benefited from the move west and all the changes they experienced?