Western Expansion, Manifest Destiny, and the Mexican-American War

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Women's experiences and roles during the Westward Expansion


During the Westward Expansion, women's experiences varied widely. Some women found opportunities, such as dictating marriage terms or working as prostitutes, due to the scarcity of women. Wives faced hard lives with physical labor and isolation but earned respect for their toughness, leading to early voting rights. Women primarily served as homemakers, managing households and sometimes farms, but also worked independently as prostitutes, laundresses, cooks, and schoolteachers.

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What were women's experiences during the "Westward Expansion?"

Different women had very different life experiences during the period of Westward Expansion. 

For the most part, women were very rare in the West during much of this period.  It is estimated that about 75% of the people who moved west were men.  This had some important impacts on the women who moved west.  To some women, it meant opportunity.  A single woman in the West would be much more in demand than in the East.  This meant that she could dictate the terms of her marriage much more than she could in the East.  However, the paucity of women also meant that many women were brought to the West as prostitutes.

Women who came to the West as wives tended to have relatively hard lives.  This was simply because life in the West was hard.  People were having to make do without much in the way of civilization.  Women had to do hard physical labor.  They had to endure being far from family and friends and much in the way of society.  They had to survive in areas with little law, few medical services, and very little technology to help them.  This could all be very difficult.

However, the fact that women shared in the hardships of pioneering made Westerners somewhat more respectful of women.  Because women were seen to be tough and independent in the West, men in the West gave women the vote long before they got it elsewhere.  In this way, the West can be seen as a good place for women.

In short, different women had very different life experiences and life chances during Westward Expansion. 

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What roles did women play during the westward expansion?

The first role of women in the settling of the West was that of the homemaker. Women were considered to be stabilizing influences on men. Many states and territories passed laws giving women the right to vote in order to attract more families to the West. Women reared children and did the domestic chores while the men were engaged in either mining, ranching, or farming. Women also proved capable of managing farms and claims when the men either left or unexpectedly died.

Women also served roles independent of men. Women served as prostitutes in many of the boomtowns of the West. Native women married with trappers in the early days of the West and were responsible for maintaining the hides for shipment. Women served as laundresses and cooks and often made more than the miners, as their skills were in demand. Women also served as schoolteachers when towns had enough families to have a school; these women often had to resign once they got married. The West was a place that had some of the same discriminatory practices of the rest of the country, but it was also a land of opportunity, especially for women.

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What roles did women play during the westward expansion?

During westward expansion, women played a variety of roles.  There are two main roles that are more famous than others.

The first, and most common, of these roles was the role of wife and mother.  Many people who came west as pioneers did so in family groups.  In those days, of course, this meant that women’s main role was to care for the family.  They cooked, cleaned, and did those sorts of domestic things.  However, women did have a greater role in these terms than they did in the more settled East.  The reason for this was that they had to do more things on their own and more things that were economically important to their families.  They often had to do things like gardening and caring for animals.  They would have to care for and protect the home when their husbands were away.  In other words, they were more independent and important than women were typically seen in the East.  This is one reason why it was Western territories that first gave women the right to vote.

The second role that women played was a more commercial role.  In much of the “Wild West,” women were few.  This meant that they were in demand as things like bar girls and prostitutes.  Prostitutes were numerous in many parts of the West, particularly in towns where there would be a lot of single men either permanently or periodically.

While women did play other roles, these were their main roles in westward expansion.  This may sound like a negative thing, and it surely was for many women.  But women in the west also tended to have more opportunities to have more control over their own lives than many women in the more settled areas of the country.

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