August 2021

New Women in the Old West

By Winifred Gallagher
Review by
The campaign for women's suffrage in the United States was a tough slog—except in the West. New Women in the Old West unearths dozens of forgotten trailblazers.
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The campaign for women's suffrage in the United States was a tough slog over three generations, from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Frustrating defeats were the rule—except in the West. By 1914, 11 Western states already allowed women to vote. In Wyoming, they'd been doing it since 1869, well before statehood.

Winifred Gallagher’s comprehensive New Women in the Old West: From Settlers to Suffragists, an Untold American Story unearths this story through the lives of dozens of forgotten trailblazers. Suffrage is only part of it; women settlers were integral to building communities and developing the economy as the United States expanded, and the Native and Mexican women already living in the West were critical in the fight against encroachment and discrimination.

Early pioneer women were crucial full-time partners to men who were farmers and miners. Many became “town mothers,” the forces behind the establishment of schools, churches and libraries. Countless women built businesses, including Luzena Stanley Wilson, who became a successful hotel entrepreneur during the 1848 gold rush. A surprising number of women, like Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway, became prosperous as milliners, a business friendly to women at a time when everyone wore hats.

Beginning in the 1860s, the federal Homestead Acts, which granted applicants ownership rights to public lands in the West, and the Morrill Acts, which created land-grant universities, opened other paths for women. Female homesteaders, many of whom were immigrants, were relatively few in number, but they proved their claims at a higher rate than men. Coed land-grant universities also grew the teaching profession, newly open to women. 

Gallagher is candid about the less appealing elements of this story as well. Initial suffrage measures passed in part because white men hoped the votes of white women would offset those of immigrant and Black men. Additionally, Gallagher documents the ways in which white women who were missionaries and teachers demeaned people of color and backed damaging assimilationist policies.

Overall, Gallagher’s rediscoveries are inspirational. Hard conditions and sparse populations created opportunities for women in the West unavailable to them elsewhere. They fought their way into business ownership, education, professional careers—and ultimately voting booths and elective office.

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New Women in the Old West

New Women in the Old West

By Winifred Gallagher
Penguin Press
ISBN 9780735223257

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