The Cult of True Womanhood
and the Western Movement

by Jerry L. Parker

Originally published in the Chico Historian, Spring 1992

"The things you ought to desire in a wife are: 1) chastity, 2) sobriety, 3) industry, 4) frugality, 5) cleanliness, 6) knowledge of domestic affairs, 7) good temper, and 8) beauty." -- William Colbert, Advise to Young Men, on the Duties of Life, 1840.

Between 1820 and 1860 there occurred a restructuring of society's views towards the proper role of women. Defined by Barbara Welter as the Cult of True Womanhood, the new view stressed four attributes or virtues for women: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. By application of these qualities, the role of women in the rapidly growing industrialization of America was redefined. But did the Cult of True Womanhood define the role of women in the migration West or did migrating women redefine it to fit the situation on the frontier?

This Cult was not a deliberate conspiracy against women. It developed as a result of industrialization and immigration in the early years of the nineteenth century. With Alexander Hamilton's blessing in 1791, manufacturers began to employ women in various mills and factories. Hamilton believed this would keep men tending the land, the real source of America's strength, while occupying the idle hands of young women. But, as Irish and German immigration increased, with its subsequent increase in employable single women, and as more men grew prosperous in farming and entrepreneurial development, many married American women found their leisure time increasing. Social leaders, male and female, began to emphasize domestic and religious activities as a way to fill that leisure time. Since men had become the primary source of income for women, it was deemed natural to invoke the Pauline doctrine that women be submissive to men. Through their increased activities in church and Sunday school, women were able to nullify Paul's decree on woman's silence in church. To show that the emerging middle class women were becoming as lady-like as the upper, leisure class, an increasing emphasis on purity in women developed. Over the years, the Cult of True Womanhood grew to define "ladies" and most women truly desired to be so defined.

But nothing in the Cult of True Womanhood prepared a woman for the trials, tribulations and struggles following her Lord and Master's declaration, "Woman, pack! We're headed for California!"

What kind of "True Woman" moved west at the beginning of the Great Migration (1840-1848)? Not the low paid working class, it is clear. There were only two ways to reach California; by sea and overland. When the steamship California made its maiden voyage in 1848, first class passage, from Panama to Oregon City, was set at $300-350; state-rooms for emigrants were $150-175. Similar fees applied for the trip from the East Coast to the Isthmus and for the cost of transport across the narrow passage. Add the cost of food and personal support to the $450-1050 cost of passage and sea travel quickly approached $2000.

Overland travel was no cheaper. A wagon cost $120. Three or four yoke of oxen were required to pull it, at $25 a yoke, plus spares. Horses ran $25-45, mules $20-30 a head. Corn ran 10 cents a pound, wheat 45-50 cents, oats 13 cents, potatoes 15 cents, beef $1.50 per hundredweight, pork $2.00, sugar, coffee and rice averaged 6 cents a pound each. Pilot and Captain fees ran $1.25- 2.50 a head and may have to be paid two or three times during the trip. These were the prices at the various starting points in Missouri. They were higher at places like Ft. Bridger and Ft. Hall. The Martin Murphy family, on their 1844 journey to California, were proud their average net worth was nearly $2000.

The typical annual salary in the mills, for women, was about $104. In 1872, the average working man earned about $700 a year. As late as 1917, the average annual salary for male textile workers in New York was $520. Obviously, it was not the working class who first migrated West. They could not afford the trip. And the leisure or upper class had little or no reason to migrate. Only the middle class, successful but desiring to improve, had both the resources and motivation to migrate. Exactly the same class most impacted by the Cult of True Womanhood.

At its height, the Cult defined women as weak, protection seeking, non-productive, child rearing homemakers. The true ladies had domestic help and nursemaids for the children. There was a clear distinction between spheres of labor. The Westering woman could not be weak, had to be able to protect herself, was productive, reared children and made a home-like atmosphere without any help. In many cases, they had to perform the same labors that their men did. And often men had to cook, tend motherless children and do the other chores traditionally considered women's work. It is this intermingling of gender specific chores that has lead some historians to question the impact of the Cult on the West.

In the West, the view among men was that two kinds of women existed, Sunbonnet Sue and Goodhearted Sal, the first quite respectable while the latter was fallen into sinful ways. Ignored by men was the fact that native women and Mexican women also occupied the West. They formed a third group neither bound by the rigid morality of the New England-Eastern society nor seeped in the innate wickedness envisioned by Anglo-American men. Immigrating women saw them and recognized, no matter how much they would ignore native and Mexican women, that these women had a greater degree of personal freedom than American women had. Sunbonnet Sue could only look with wishful eyes at the Californio women in their comfortable rebozos and unfettered clothing.

Each of the attributes that comprised the Cult of True Womanhood underwent change and modification in the West. It is difficult to document exactly how women felt because little has really been written about women in the west that is based on their own writings. Much of what has been said about the Western Woman has been by men and through masculine concepts and dogmas. However, when the actions of women are weighed against the standards of the Cult, a picture much different from the masculine view emerges. As this picture is examined, the modifications indicate Western women ignored the ideal of the Cult while adopting its image as a source of power over the Western man.

One of the constantly recurring themes in women's overland diaries and journals is the religious conversion or revelation each experienced. After thunder storms, prairie fires, raging floods, cholera epidemics, Indian encounters, droughts, desert heat, mountain cliffs, snow-blocked passes, broken bones, and funerals, how could a woman keep going? Knowing that, at any moment, her husband could be killed, or she could die, or both could die leaving their children orphaned in a strange and inhospitable land, they turned to God in reality, not just form. Women quickly became aware of the might and majesty of God's world and how small they really were in His sight. As Sarah Royce said, "I poured out my heart to God in prayer, and He gave me comfort and rest. I felt a full assurance that He would not afflict us beyond our strength to bear." Small wonder that one of the first things women demanded after arriving and getting their homes built was that a church be constructed nearby. They had seen the face of God and felt His Hand and they had to give thanks that He had seen them safely through to their destination.

But this thanksgiving wasn't allowed to stand in the way of these women enjoying themselves. They had survived the journey and needed to express their joy. Social events were rare and the women made the most of them. In California, the earliest social "soirees" were organized by Goodtime Sal, but Sunbonnet Sue soon took over. She, too, wanted a good time and to be appreciated. If they were going to ride forty miles, dance all night, and ride home the next day, they were going to enjoy themselves. Few men seriously objected to their women flirting and dancing. After all, the women were outnumbered, surrounded and idolized by the men. If anything else happened, it was between the couples. And if their husbands seriously objected, the women could, and some did, leave with another man.

This would seem to suggest the Western woman had abounded the idea of submissiveness to their men. The evidence is unclear. Eighteen year old Nancy Kelsey refused to be left behind with an infant child when Benjamin Kelsey accompanied John Bidwell in 1841. "Where my husband goes I can go. I can better endure the hardships of the journey than the anxiety of an absent husband." Jane McDougal, wife of John McDougal, governor of California in 1851-52, endured the passage across Panama in 1848 to join him in San Francisco. She was a passenger on the first northern voyage of the steamer California; dismayed over the lack of servants, she returned east on the first southern voyage of the same ship! Some came west because their husbands expected it, some for the excitement and against their husbands wishes. Being submissive had little to do with it. Yet, in the face of danger, most reacted to their husbands' commands without argument.

It was clear to early Western women that, no matter how hard they had to struggle to maintain even the semblance of making a home, a domestic atmosphere, they would have to work along with their men to survive. As Luzena Wilson, founder of Vacaville, attested, "Yes, we worked; we did things that our high-toned servants would now look at aghast, and say it was impossible for a woman to do. But the one who did not work in '49 went to the wall. It was a hand-to-hand fight with starvation at the first." Women ran boardinghouses, baked food, operated laundries, mined, broke horses, drove wagons, managed farms and ranches, opened stores and schools, taught, fought and nursed. When John M. Murphy died in 1892, his wife, Virginia Reed, of the Donner Party, continued to run his fire insurance business; probably the first woman on the Pacific coast to engage in that business.

And these women continued to be homemakers. Sometimes, they were alone in the home. Robert L. Griswold studied 401 divorce cases filed in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties between 1850- 1890. His findings were indicative of the options open to married women imbued with the Cult of True Womanhood. Over 70% of the cases were filed by women. While desertion was the most common complaint levied against the women, women complained of non-support and excessive cruelty. Griswold argued that the Cult set the tone and model for most women. But these women bore little resemblance to the typical Victorian woman.

They expected and demanded their husbands not only provide them with homes and means, they desired personal satisfaction as well. Dissatisfied women could and would establish extramarital sexual relationships. The record is fascinating. Lew Stevens proved Ann Stevens' adultery by producing her very explicit love letters in court in 1883. Ameile Grosjian, in 1882, divorced Julia Grosjian in Houston, Texas, because of her nymphomania. He fled to California in shame. In 1877, however, Cornelius Paddock was denied a divorce from Ann Paddock. The judge ruled her repeated exhibitionism did not endanger life, render matrimonial intercourse unsafe "and ought not even render it unpleasant to a man of philosophic turn of mind." The judge (who opposed the increasing trend towards divorces) concluded that marriage should have room for a wife's independence, even if that independence is directly annoying to the husband's sensibilities!

Even breaking off a marriage proposal had its dangers. In January, 1850, Mary E. Gates brought suit in San Francisco District Court against Charles A. Buckingham for $20,000 for breach of promise of marriage. On January 26, the jury awarded her $4,000. Other women were not as lucky. Lucinda "the widow", on her overland trip in 1846, was married to a fellow emigrant for exactly ten hours before the marriage was dissolved. On reaching the California river camps, she was married and widowed three times in six weeks. Upon her arrival at Sutter's Fort, September 21, 1847, she declared she had given up on matrimony forever. Dorothy Scraggs had the opposite problem. In a Marysville paper, in 1849, she advertised for a wealthy husband, demanding that $20,000 be settled on her before she would accept the proposal. There is no record of her results.

The Western woman made good use of her independence. By 1851, the San Francisco Ladies' Protection and Relief Society had been formed to provide homes for orphans and relief for victims of fire and flood. Anti-prostitution and anti-saloon societies were formed. Temperance meetings were held in San Francisco as early as January, 1849. Churches grew as did anti-polygamy movements. Some turned to writing as did Louise A. K. S. (Dame Shirley) Clappe, Martha Taliaferro Hunter Hitchcock and the first California poetess, Elualiee Shannon. As quickly as towns were founded, schools, police and fire departments and street crews followed. Although rarely acknowledged, pressure from women initiated many of these improvements. Women also pressured for more liberal divorce laws, property rights and gambling restrictions and got them passed.

It is clear that not all Westerners believed in the Cult of True Womanhood. It clashed with the daily necessities of the frontier. The True Woman, in the West, was more likely to load and fire over her fallen husband's body than to swoon at the sight of blood. And yet, she made serious effort to maintain the image of a lady. The Westering woman modified the Cult to suit her own ideals.

Men and women on the frontier shared common enemies, the hostile land, Indians, bandits and the fragile economy, that bonded them together as interdependent families. In the east, there was no such bonding. Men worried over work, women over social ills. Often, in the east, men and women were at logger-heads. In the west, survival was paramount. If men went on strike at a western mine, the women were on the picket line beside them.

It was this interdependence that brought rewards to the Western woman. She was allowed to vote in local elections and territories granted suffrage long before the East would consider such action. She was elected and appointed to public offices and respected for her efforts. She had a voice in town affairs. Her property and personal rights were legalized and honored.

Was there really that much difference in comparison with the East? Jane Megquier evidently thought so. She came to California with her doctor husband in 1849 to get rich quick. They were successful and returned East in 1851. In 1852, both returned to California. In 1854, they again returned to their home in Maine when the good doctor fell ill. In 1855, Jane was once again enjoying the good life in San Francisco, alone. She never offered to return to Maine when her husband died late that year, preferring to be seen being escorted to all the best plays, theaters and sites with various young men. Such liberality and independence was not seen in the East until well after the Civil War.

It would seem that as women postured, maneuvered and chaffed under the Cult of True Womanhood in the East, the Western woman enjoyed the benefits of life after True Womanhood. Women may have followed the precepts of the Cult as they migrated west but they were quick to modify, even to abandon, those limiting precepts after they arrived on the frontier. They recognized the power their position as a commodity in short supply gave them. Women exploited that power to improve their condition, life and status. At the same time, women were careful not to destroy the cowboy's image of Sunbonnet Sue. Let him have his dreams, they had their independence. They were True Ladies.


Armitage, Susan and Elizabeth Jameson, editors. The Women's West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Berthold, Victor M. The Pioneer Steamer California 1848-1849. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1932.

Griswold, Robert L. Marriage and Divorce in Victorian California. In New Directions in California History, ed. James J. Ruvls. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Hunt, Rockwell D. Personal Sketches of California Pioneers I Have Known. Stockton: University of the Pacific, 1962.

Levy, Joann. They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1990.

Lewis, David Rich. Arogonauts on the Overland Trail. In New Directions in California History, ed. James J. Ruvls. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Margo, Elisabeth. Taming the '49er. New York: Rinehart and Company, Inc. 1955.

Ogden, Annegret. A Southern Lady in Unsafe, Uncivilized San Francisco. The Californians 2 (March-April, 1984): 6-8.

The Pioneer; or California Monthly Magazine, 1 (January, 1854), 50, 108.

Riley, Glenda. The Cult of True Womanhood: Industrial and Westward Expansion, 1816-1837. Chapter in Inventing the American Woman: A Perspective on Women's History, 1607-1877. Arlington Heights, IL: Harland Davidson, Inc., 1986.

Royce, Sarah. A Frontier Lady: Recollections of the Gold Rush and Early California. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932.

Sanborn, Margaret. The American: River of El Dorado. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.

Sherrell, Jean. The Western Baby. The Californians 1 (Jan-Feb. 1983): 14-17.

Smith, Heleva Huntington. Pioneers in Petticoats. American Heritage X (Feb. 1959): 36-39, 101-103.

Sprague, William Forrest. Women and the West: A Short Social History. New York: Arno Press, 1972 reprint of 1940 edition.

Sullivan, Sister Gabrielle. Martin Murphy, Junior: California Pioneer 1844-1884. Stockton: Pacific Center for Western Historical Studies, 1974.

Turbin, Carole. And We Are Nothing but Women: Irish Working Women in Troy. In Women and Power in American History: A Reader Vol. II from 1870, ed. by Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Welter, Barbara. The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860. In American Quarterly, XVIII (1966), 151-74. Excerpt provided by Dr. J Raferty.

Wojcik, Donna M. "The Brazen Overlanders of 1845". Portland, Oregon: Donna M. Wojcik, 1976.

Selected Articles & Papers Copyright © 1998, Jerry L. Parker