Women Homesteading program Oct. 9
Women homesteaders anything but ‘reluctant’ pioneers, author asserts
by Sublette County Library
September 28, 2008
The women who homesteaded in Wyoming and neighboring states were unfairly branded in history books as "reluctant pioneers," according to Marcia Hensley, a Farson author whose book on women homesteaders has just been published by High Plains Press.
Staking her Claim: Women Homesteading the West is the culmination of Hensley’s quest to "let the women speak for themselves." The Sublette County Library will sponsor a reading and discussion by the author on October 9 at 7 p.m. in the Lovatt Room.
"I generalize that (the reluctant pioneer label) is wrong," Hensley said in an interview. "If these women made the decision to homestead, they’d be excited. And if they were excited you wouldn’t call that reluctant."
Hensley said that years ago she took a course in Western history while simultaneously reading Letters of a Woman Homesteader. The discrepancy between the textbook’s assertion that women were reluctant pioneers and Elinor Pruitt Stewart’s enthusiastic account of homesteading in western Wyoming sparked her desire to tackle her subject. Having come West herself as a single woman herself, with two daughters, in the early 1980s, Hensley was able to identify with Stewart, the single woman who came West with her daughter and homesteaded in the Burnt Fork area.
"I began to wonder if there was a difference between the attitudes of single women who chose to go West and those of married women following their husbands West," Hensley said. "Stewart was appreciative of the landscape and the lifestyle rather than reluctant and unhappy as historians generalized that pioneer women were."
The book provides data estimating that 12 percent of homesteaders in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, North and South Dakota and Utah in the early decades of the 20th century were single women. . Entitled by the Homestead Act, which gave any head-of-household the right to claim vacant federal land, and lured by the Back-to-the-Land movement of the early 1900s, independent women crossed the country to claim their share of the public domain.
The collection of letters, journal entries and magazine articles tells the stories of pioneer women who seized the opportunity to own land at a time when it was nearly unheard of for women to do so.
"Instead of talking about women’s rights, these frontier feminists asserted theirs by becoming landowners in the West," according to the book jacket. "These are intimate portraits of women’s adventures and hardships as they fight to win social and financial independence in a world where most women still led lives restricted by Victorian attitudes." The book is the first to anthologize what these ordinary women with extraordinary courage – including Pinedale’s own Madge McHugh Funk – wrote about their experiences.
By staking their claims single women homesteaders dared to take a chance on lives that would give them greater freedom, leading the way for other women to do the same. Their early 20th century successes in previously male-dominated roles suggested new possibilities for young women of their time and provide an early – and enduring - role model for today’s women.
Hensley noted in the interview that in recent decades, Pinedale has had its share of women pioneering in previously male-dominated fields, such as land management agencies and the energy industry.
Marcia Meredith Hensley was Associate Professor of English at Western Wyoming Community College where she founded and directed the Western American Studies program in addition to teaching composition courses and Western American Literature.
Since retiring in 1999 she has concentrated on writing and historical research. In 2004 she won the Wyoming Art’s Council’s Neltj Blanchan Memorial Award for writing inspired by nature. Her work has appeared in Crazy Woman Creek: Women Rewrite the West, Hard Ground 2001: Writing the Rockies and Writers on the Range syndicated column of High Country News. Her book reviews have appeared in Western American Literature, Western Historical Quarterly, and Annals of Wyoming.
She has served on the Wyoming Council for the Humanities Speaker’s Bureau presenting "Single Women Homesteaders: Lessons in Independence" and with husband Mike, "If Barns Could Talk: Creating Eden in Wyoming’s High Desert." On land located near the Oregon Trail and homesteaded in 1908, the Hensleys live in and use the log house, barn and outbuildings constructed by those original settlers.
Copies of Staking her Claim are available at the Cowboy Shop in Pinedale, and will also be for sale and autograph by the author at the October 9 reading.