There are two idealized visions of the role of women in the Old West. One is captured in a statue in Albuquerque called “Madonna of the Trail” and placed there and in 11 other states by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the late 1920s. They depict women who supported their husbands and fathers, who made homes for their men, raised their children, nourished and comforted them.
The other vision is of tough, independent women, many living without men or even families of their own. They ran ranches and created businesses, wrote books and painted pictures. They ran government agencies and private institutions. They campaigned for women’s suffrage and equal rights. They educated the next generation and saved villages from forest fires.
These are the kind of women described in “True Stories of Frontier Women: 1860 to the Present,” a new book by Dixie Boyle of Mountainair, who has written several books overlooking the past from her towering lookout atop the Cibola National Forest fire tower on Capilla Peak in the Manzano Mountains. Perhaps her view of thousands of acres of forests and plains, with wild animals her most intimate neighbors, has given her a special perspective on where women have come from and how they made the journey.
The book’s dedication and opening chapter are devoted to the late Dorothy Cole of Mountainair, who lived the region’s history as the daughter of pinto bean farmers and who helped salvage and interpret much of the region’s salient information as the informal “historian of Mountainair.”
“I do not want the history to be forgotten,” Cole said before her death in March. “The way to truly preserve history is to keep telling it, writing about it, and sharing it.” That is also Boyle’s mission.
Boyle especially celebrates women pioneers motivated by “a desire for independence, a thirst for adventure and a break from the Victorian mores of their era.” As well as other perhaps less noble but equally intriguing women wanting “to hide from their pasts or with hopes of making a quick fortune.”
Outnumbered 25-1 or sometimes more by their male counterparts, women in the Old West had to be
“as tough as their men,” Boyle writes, as they sought “unconventional opportunities” denied to their Victorian relatives in the East. Some were rodeo stars, saloon operators, madams or prostitutes, but they were “judged on their own merits and not those of their husbands, fathers or brothers.”
Boyle herself could have been a subject for her book. Her mother and grandmother moved to Mexico during the Great Depression. Boyle grew up on a ranch, worked as education director of the Adams Museum in Deadwood, S.D. and lived in the Black Hills of Wyoming before working at a fire lookout in the Manzano Mountains.
Although women had to struggle harder and suffer more in the Old West, Boyle looks back on the frontier days with nostalgia. “Many times throughout my life” she writes, “I have felt I was born at least a hundred years too late.”
Perhaps the difference between the old days of women pressured to play subordinate roles to men and modern times with their march toward equality is less than it seems.
Here is the conclusion of the New Mexico section of a national report written only last year and titled “Status of Women in the States 2015”:
“Women in New Mexico have made considerable advances in recent years but still face inequities that often prevent them from reaching their full potential. Since the 2004 “Status of Women in the States” report was published, the gender wage gap in New Mexico has narrowed, a higher percentage of women have bachelor’s degrees, and women are more likely to work in managerial or professional occupations. Yet, as in all other states, women in New Mexico are less likely than men to be in the labor force and more likely to live in poverty. Women also continue to be underrepresented in the state legislature.”
In most categories New Mexico ranked no better than mid-level among the 50 states and received grades of between C and D. If current trends continue, the report states, women’s pay in New Mexico will equal that of men—in 2056.
Boyle will have a book signing and lecture Dec. 3 at the Quilt Show sponsored by the Manzano Mountain Art Council at the council’s building on Broadway in Mountainair. The 3:30 p.m. lecture will be preceded by a reception and book signing starting at 1 p.m.