Invisible women

Alvin Josephy cried loud and often about the omission of Indians from textbook histories, and often thanked the amateur historians—the “history buffs”—for keeping Western history alive when serious historians busied themselves with government reports and people and events considered major and somehow central to the American story.
Alvin’s Civil War in the American West pulled together material from across the region and integrated it with goings on in Washington and the Eastern War. That is the war that still plays on the main stage in American popular history and American film, but Gordon Chappell has pulled together a 24 page bibliography of books and pamphlets on the subject—he omits journal and magazine articles in the interest of brevity—that includes material “since Josephy.” Interesting that it appears as a National Park Service document:  So the history buffs keep plowing the turf in the shadow of “Lincoln” and Daniel Day Lewis.
Although he did not write specifically of women in history, I know that Alvin encouraged others who did. He introduced me to Patty Limerick, who now directs the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado, and to Sue Armitage, who broke ground with The Women’s West in 1987. Diaries, photos, paintings of women—Indian women and white women—are prominent in the books and papers we are sorting at the Josephy Library.
Alvin would have loved the current exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society, “Tough by Nature.” Accomplished portrait artist Lynda Lanker, now of Eugene, spent 19 years traveling the West with notebook, sketchbook, and camera, and produced a wonderful series of paintings, drawings, and prints of 49 women working the West. There is a young Indian barrel racer and a grizzled cowgirl who rode broncs almost 100 years ago, mothers with daughters, and sometimes wives with husbands. But one knows from these images and the brief quotes that accompany them that these women were and are “actors in their own lives, not passive participants in their husbands’ ventures.” That line is from an early review of Sue Armitage’s book. I can’t put an image on this page, but you can get a bunch of them here:  Unfortunately, the exhibit closes this week, so if you are in the Portland area, get on down there; if not, you can catch it next in Texas, or in a book called Tough by Nature with a foreword by Larry McMurtry.
In over 40 years discovering my own West from my perch in the Wallowas, I have met rodeo queens, women ranchers and potato farmers, women who drive trucks and tractors, rope and brand—and cook and dance. But even here stereotypes persist. I remember a play written by an Eastern Oregon woman about growing up with the ranch and the Pendleton roundup—sorry I can’t come up with name or title—performed by Whitman College players. When they kicked women out of the bucking events in the rodeo in the nineteen teens, the heroine explains, it was supposedly in the interest of safety. Why then did they turn them to trick riding, where injury and death were even greater possibilities? The daughter in the play can’t have the ranch—there are no sons—until she finds a suitable man to marry. Etc. etc. etc.
There are some things that we need to be constantly reminded of: Indians are part of our history and part of our present; the West and all that happened and happens here was and continues to be as important in the American story as are Eastern and Midwestern events and stories; and women were here all the time, and are still here, ”actors in their own lives,” and actors too in the ongoing American story. 

Lynda Lanker’s 49 women should give courage to women still fighting stereotypes and pause to men who further them.

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