The Women Who Conquered the West

Review: How the West was won — and lost — by women: A new history revises the record

It could be argued that the West has always been a female-driven story, full of female pioneers like American Indian tribes, early railroad builders, pioneers who took on the toughest jobs and pioneers of love (and women’s rights issues). In the last century, women have conquered the west, but not without an epic saga.

From the time the U.S. Army was first organized, according to historian Susan Finkbeiner in her book, “The Origins of the West,” women were key members of the land-grant colleges that developed the university system. From the University of Nebraska that was founded as part of the Great Platte River Survey, Finkbeiner points out, women were the first full-time faculty members and, from 1863 onward, they took the lead on writing about the land.

By 1921, women were running most of the land-grant universities in the country, and from their ranks emerged the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, poet and historian Maya Angelou. Angelou wrote her winning book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” to support efforts to get African-Americans the right to vote and to give voice to their people’s struggles, she said. Angelou was born into the black community, her father a sharecropper, but her mother’s dream led her to pursue higher education, to write, and to join the fight for social justice.

“I’m a very optimistic individual, and hope-filled and optimistic in my outlook on life,” Angelou told the New York Times in 1988. “You have so many opportunities for people. Why not use your talents? Why not see them?”

It didn’t happen for Angelou and other women of color, Finkbeiner says, because they were not always welcomed by the university’s white, male administrators, who did not want to upset the patriarchal system with minority women.

“The question was never, ‘Why didn’t they have access?’ It was, ‘Why did they have to use a separate entrance?’ ”

Women’s Studies

But change was coming, and by the early 20th century, women’

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