The Personal is Historical: Opportunity and Loss in the American West

Women on the Oregon Trail

Women on the Oregon Trail

By Shannon Kirkwood

Many years ago, I read an article about women’s experiences on the Oregon Trail. The authors expected to find that these women experienced a new level of freedom and equality on the trail that they lacked at home because they were performing essential and similar tasks to their male counterparts. That this was their expectation is not surprising, given that the article was written in 1975 – the halcyon days of the ERA, when work and notions of equality were at their peak convergence. Instead, the authors found that moving west was not viewed as an opportunity for equality, but as a process of loss for women. In relocating, they lost their families, their friends, their houses – everything that defined their identities and self-worth. They even lost their personal belongings, since china dishes, musical instruments, and heavy pieces of furniture were the first to be off-loaded along the trail as inessential. Generally speaking, moving west meant opportunity for men, and loss for women.

As it happens, I now live near the trailheads of the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the California Trail, and the Mormon Trail. The women who traveled westward on these famous trails had to pass through the area where I live on their way. My own relatives (my grandfather’s grandmother) came through this way and landed in Southeast Kansas, three hours from my house. Knowing the history of the area has highlighted for me in a very personal way all of the things that have changed in the last hundred and fifty years, and all the things that haven’t. Like those women before me, I have moved here from Michigan not for myself, but for my husband’s job. While I didn’t have to leave my stand mixer or the couch somewhere along I-70, I did have to leave behind my friends, my colleagues, and my sister. When my son was born three months ago, nurses asked repeatedly if I had a support system – anyone that could help us out – and were quite distressed when I answered, "No, we’re new here." It wasn’t anything like giving birth in a sod house, days-ride from the nearest neighbor, but the isolation was very real all the same.

What has changed since the 19th century are my own expectations from family life. The women who traveled the Oregon Trail did not expect equality, which is why their household objects were so important to them. The tea sets and the pianos represented a domestic domain where they had authority and autonomy, which they lost along with the actual possessions. Today, I expect a certain level of equality – we both do housework and we both have identities outside of the house. But even that is gone now – we are in an arrangement like that of generations past. My husband earns while I stay at home with the baby. This is has been one of the hardest and most surprising losses for me. I have never not worked. Ever. Much of my identity has come from my work.

While I am grateful for the fact that we can afford for me to stay home, I am also envious of my husband. He gets to teach, mingle with co-workers, and even grade papers, while I spend all day with someone who, for all that he’s cute, doesn’t realize that his feet are connected to his body. Not the most intellectually stimulating environment for someone with three degrees and working on a fourth.

Luckily, I have the benefit of historical insight for this time in my life as well. Yes, I am feeling more of the personal losses. But I know that it won’t be that way forever. I take comfort from the fact that I will go back to work at some point, and from the fact that I am not the first woman to feel torn between family and personal ambition. I just keep reminding myself it is possible to overcome these obstacles, and that women have done it in the past – with less support from their husbands and more children. Like the women who passed here before me, I feel the loss of what I left behind, but like them, I continue on this path knowing it holds promises for the future. This is just a weigh station on the road.