Westward Women

A new anthology takes an academic look at the lives and struggles of 20th-century Western women

Who were the homestead wives?
Who were the gold rush brides?
Does anybody know?
Do their works survive
Their yellow fever lives
In the pages they wrote?
The land was free,
Yet it cost their lives.
--Natalie Merchant, "Gold Rush Brides"

The history of the taming of the American West is nothing like Shakespeare's drama, The Taming of the Shrew. That's mostly because history is rarely funny, articulate and sexist. Oh wait--scratch that last one. History is plenty sexist.

Which is why, since at least the late '70s, women academics (historians, sociologists, literary theorists) have sought to shed light on women's issues of gender and equality, and--sorry for the mixed metaphor--to balance a historical record that has almost exclusively focused on the struggles of men.

Alas, since at least the late '70s, academics have increasingly immersed themselves in the airless realm of theory and/or demography, leaving the layperson to mull over polysyllabic words like "decolonization" and to stare dumbly at charts and graphs. Naturally, this makes it difficult for even the most intelligent of "unprofessional" readers to grasp the relevance and resonance of a professor's technical prose.

Sandra K. Schackel's new anthology, Western Women's Lives: Continuity and Change in the Twentieth Century, does little to change this. Moreover, the book continues a wearisome tradition of discouraging laypeople from buying a book published by a university press. How? For starters, there are way too many footnotes here to warrant the most passing glance. This is because most of these essays were published previously in academic journals, and rather than demand that the contributors (gasp!) re-write their essays to suit a general-interest anthology, Schackel has, it seems, simply imported the works and organized them into awkward, vague categories. (Does a section titled "Uncovering Women's Voices" mean anything specific to you?) Which is fine. After all, every professor needs a little tenure padding in his or her file.

These major criticisms aside, Western Women's Lives is still invaluable in the way it accounts for the history of women of color in the Southwest. For instance, during my recent and first trip to Oakland, Calif., I wondered about the origins of that city's Chinatown, and about the extensive African-American and Latin-American neighborhoods. How exactly did this multiculturalism come about? My host did an admirable job of describing the shipyard jobs during the '40s that attracted people of all colors to Oakland and Alameda. But it wasn't until I read Xiaojian Zhao's "Chinese American Women Defense Workers in World War II" that I learned the specifics--and the specific struggles that Chinese American endured, even as they built the equipment that would ultimately dismantle the first Axis of Evil.

By 1943, there were 5,000 Chinese Americans who worked or had worked for the defense industry. During that time, their struggles were immense. The Cable Act made "women citizens who married aliens ineligible for citizenship" and invalidated their own status as American citizens. The Exclusion Act of 1882 "forced male Chinese immigrants who had married women in their native provinces to leave their wives and children in China." Our nation's racist policies have been recorded many times, of course. But Zhao buttresses all this information with the stories of individual women, some of whom succeeded in staying on with the shipyards or finding economically similar work. Others, however, went back to traditional women's work, paid and unpaid, like housekeeping and domestic service.

There are more great essays in this collection. Paul R. Spickard's "Work and Hope: African American Women in Southern California During World War II" offers great narratives, including that of one woman who used a blowtorch to protect a Filipino officer from being beaten to death by a white officer. As a result, her employer labeled her a Communist. Women's studies professor Carole Wolfe Konek, meanwhile, interprets the personal history of her Kansan grandmother, Goldie Keltner Ford, in a powerful, epic, 10-part poem called "Farm Wife." Dolores Delgado Bernal uncovers the Chicana leadership that helped beget the East Lost Angeles School Blowouts, which Chicanas organized to protest unequal education. And Judy Tzu-Chun Wu's exploration of the first Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Beauty Pageant is fascinating in the way it chronicles a joint effort by the Chinese Chambers of Commerce and San Francisco city officials to discover "the loveliest daughter of Ancient Cathay."

If you possess an intense love of history filtered through a feminist perspective, Western Women's Lives will help you see the full picture, the complete struggle. You'll need to skip around, though, to avoid a struggle with some of the academic jargon and theory that occasionally obscures the voices of some amazing Southwestern women who lived and worked during the past century.

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