The settlement of the United States has occupied traditional historians since 1893 when Frederick Jackson Turner developed his Frontier Thesis, a thesis that explained American development in terms of westward expansion. From the perspective of women’s history, Turner’s exclusively masculine assumptions constitute a major drawback: his defenders and critics alike have reconstructed men’s, not women’s, lives on the frontier. However, precisely because of this masculine orientation, revising the Frontier Thesis by focusing on women’s experience introduces new themes into women’s history—woman as lawmaker and entrepreneur—and, consequently, new interpretations of women’s relationship to capital, labor, and statute.
Turner claimed that the frontier produced the individualism that is the hallmark of American culture, and that this individualism in turn promoted democratic institutions and economic equality. He argued for the frontier as an agent of social change. Most novelists and historians writing in the early to midtwentieth century who considered women in the West, when they considered women at all, fell under Turner’s spell. In their works these authors tended to glorify women’s contributions to frontier life. Western women, in Turnerian tradition, were a fiercely independent, capable, and durable lot, free from the constraints binding their eastern sisters. This interpretation implied that the West provided a congenial environment where women could aspire to their own goals, free from constrictive stereotypes and sexist attitudes. In Turnerian terminology, the frontier had furnished “a gate of escape from the bondage of the past.”
By the middle of the twentieth century, the Frontier Thesis fell into disfavor among historians. Later, Reactionist writers took the view that frontier women were lonely, displaced persons in a hostile milieu that intensified the worst aspects of gender relations. The renaissance of the feminist movement during the 1970’s led to the Stasist school, which sidestepped the good bad dichotomy and argued that frontier women lived lives similar to the lives of women in the East. In one now-standard text, Faragher demonstrated the persistence of the “cult of true womanhood” and the illusionary quality of change on the westward journey. Recently the Stasist position has been revised but not entirely discounted by new research.