Redefining Images of Kansas Women


by Joyce Thierer and Lisa Miles

When teaching from instructional materials about Kansas, or the West in general, we can readily see that historians, film makers, TV producers, and writers of literature often make generalizations about women. These generalizations typically fall into five basic categories or stereotypes, concerning women's proper place from an historical perspective. Like all generalizations, they do not always accurately portray the reality of women's lives. In this issue of Tales Out Of School we will examine these five categories of women and briefly explore the lives of real Kansas women from the pioneer era through 1920 to see whether historical reality matches historical interpretation.

The five stereotyped images of women can be better understood by referring to a pair of models historians have created to describe the perceptions, or ideologies, of women's roles. True Womanhood and the Ideology of Separate Spheres are the two concepts most applicable to the lives of women in Kansas during the pioneer period and early 20th century. These two concepts help us better understand some of the differing angles of vision between the way women and men viewed the world around them.

In this issue we will not examine why or how women traveled to Kansas, nor will we describe the daily lives of these women. However, we do encourage you to explore the following:

  • Stratton, Joanna. Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier.
  • Ise, John. Sod and Stubble: The Story of a Kansas Homestead.
  • Brown, Dee. The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West.

These are but a few of the many books which focus on these issues. Our focus will be upon the intellectual and societal changes associated with the images of women's proper roles during Kansas' pioneering era through World War I.

Regardless of why or how a woman came to Kansas, or her living situation once she arrived, the Kansas woman of the past, just as she is today, was influenced by the society surrounding her. This includes society's perceptions of how a person is expected to act (manners, morals, and gender perceptions of what it means and meant to be born female or male). This idea of gender-typed obligations contains expected behavior for men and women, yet it also includes a few ambiguities. These expected behaviors are passed on from one generation to the next. The basis for these generalizations that existed in early Kansas can be found in the concepts of True Womanhood and the Ideology of Separate Spheres. From these models emerge the five stereotyped images of early Kansas women.

Historian Barbara Welter labeled the Cult of True Womanhood. In the books and magazines of the day, she discovered four attributes of the True Woman. These virtues were considered to be important to both genders, and were used to define "the perfect woman." They are important to our analysis of Kansas women as they were a part of the cultural baggage carried to Kansas and reinforced by Eastern periodicals read here in Kansas.


The four virtuous attributes of the true woman:

  1. PIETY This focused on her religious values through which she assisted God in redeeming sinners, particularly men.
  2. PURITY This focused on a woman's sexuality. It implied sexual purity, and its absence meant she was a "fallen angel." This was a part of the sexual double standard, which required the woman to demonstrate her morals.
  3. SUBMISSIVENESS This focused on a woman's role within society as a daughter, wife, and mother. It was assumed a woman was to submit to the head of the household (unless piety and purity were violated), to be passive, subservient, and dependent.
  4. DOMESTICITY This focused on the role of women within the home. The home was to be the haven from the rest of the world, the "Home Sweet Home" typified by hand-stitched samplers. This was the place to which the man returned after enduring the rigors of the outside world. The woman was the comforter, and marriage and family were her jobs. The home was the woman's proper sphere. It was here that she cultivated moral and social virtue in her children, and here that she created a refuge for her husband.


The Industrial Revolution and all its technological innovations resulted in a major economic transition. The workplace and the home which had previously been the same, now began to separate. As the workplace moved outside the home, male and female spheres of activity also separated. Thus women, still the primary caretakers of the children found themselves assigned to the private, or domestic sphere, while men were forced to follow their jobs into the public sphere. The Ideology of Separate Spheres was developed to explain why this separation was necessary, by defining the 'inherent' characteristics of women. These traits supposedly made women incapable of functioning in the public realm. Women were classified as physically weaker, yet morally superior to men. This concept was reinforced by religious view of the mid-nineteenth century. It was women's moral superiority which best suited them to the domestic sphere. Women were also expected to teach the next generation the necessary moral virtues to ensure the survival of the society. It was this eastern ideal that women in the West strove to achieve.


  • Definition: A set of ideas, originating in the early 19th century with social critics like Alexis de Tocqueville, Angelina Grimke, and Lucy Stone. These beliefs assigned to women and men distinctive and virtually opposite duties, functions, personal characteristics, and legitimate spheres of activity.
  • Consequences: The ideology of separate spheres:
    1. Defined women as "naturally" unfit for economic competition or political citizenship because of their delicate constitution and their more refined moral sense.
    2. Glorified women's domestic activities, particularly the rearing of children, as the cornerstone of American social order.
    3. Implicitly defined white, Protestant, middle-class, American gender arrangements as the "normal' and "ideal" arrangements for all humans. Thus, middle-class values were defined as American values.
  • Implications: Society was divided into two "natural" classes: Men, who would create the American economic empire through individual achievement; and women who would insure social order and moral stability through their domestic activities. In other words, private life would provide the moral foundation for public activity.

The Ideology of Separate Spheres, and the Cult of True Womanhood were developed in response to changes in American society. The revised societal expectations for the behavior of women and men were expressed in the concept of separate spheres. The Cult of True Womanhood was an extension of the Ideology of Separate Spheres, and clearly defined the attributes of the "ideal woman." Both models represented the ideals of white, middle-class Protestants. The desire for these qualities was imposed both internally by the individual herself, and externally by society in general. An appreciation of these models provides a key to understanding the motivations, expectations and behavior of nineteenth, and early twentieth century American women, and the stereotyped categories to which they have been assigned in history books, television, movies, and literature.

It is important to remember though, that ideals do not match reality, generalizations do not match individuals, nor do the realities of one time or era adequately describe another time or era. These stereotyped expectations do not wholly reflect the reality of women's lives. For example, a woman may fit into all or none of the following images. She may even move around, fitting first one, then another.

Writers and artists have tended to place women into categorized behavior roles in order to express their female characters more simply. These roles can be grouped into five vastly generalized, or stereotyped images:

  1. WOMAN AS HELPMATE--This is an adapted version of the Colonial American idea of woman as "helpmeet" of man, both in double yoke to make the wilderness into a farm or home. She worked alongside her husband, sharing the load.
  2. "SUNBONNETED WOMAN"--The first generation of Kansas pioneer women are often placed in this category. This type of woman held eastern ideals of beauty, her fair skin protected by sunbonnet and gloves. One common example of this stereotype is the "Madonna of the Trail" statue, where the woman is striking out across the plains with a wind-blown skirt, a sunbonnet, and children in tow.
  3. These two images are often intertwined within the reality of a woman's life. The two merge together, and combine to form a more accurate picture. Both "woman as helpmate," and "sunbonneted woman" deal with the concepts of True Womanhood and Separate Spheres. These "helpmate" and the "sunbonneted woman" images describe more the type of woman that many women strove to be, rather than the specific individuals themselves. Laura Ingalls Wilder books abound with women who would fit into either, or both of these two groups. It is difficult to find famous women who fit into this category because, as noted woman historian Gerda Lerner has stated, "the history of notable women is the history of exceptional even deviant women, and does not describe the experience and history of the mass of women."
  4. THE CIVILIZER/SUFFRAGETTE/FEMINIST--These women tended to fit the guidelines of the first two images, but in addition, these women were the builders of schools and churches and advocates of social improvement. In this category would be members of the Women's Club movement, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), literary clubs, and Granges. These women were involved in reform movements. They spoke out for the abolishment of the common drinking cup, for reform of schools, and for extending the vote to women, as well as many other issues. Kansas women were at the forefront of the suffrage movement. Kansas women could vote in school elections from statehood on, and after 1887, women could vote in municipal elections.
  5. Here are a few of the notable women who could be placed into this category:
    • Mary Hatten White, teacher, and the mother of William Allen White. Typical of many women, Mary Hatten White is best remembered for being a mother, rather than for her own accomplishments, or ideas. Yet she was so much more than just William Allen White's mother. In 1865, at the age of 35, Mary Hatten demanded, against popular opinion, that black students be allowed in her classroom in Council Grove, Kansas. She was taken to court, but won her case.
    • Lutie Lytle of Topeka, who in 1897, became the first black woman to be admitted to the practice of law.
    • Susanna Salter, 1887, first woman mayor in the U.S., elected in Argonia, Kansas.
    • Others include 'Mother Bickerdyke", Mabel Chase, Annie Diggs, Clarina Nichols, and Carry Nation.
  6. WOMAN DRIVEN MAD/INSANE/DEPRESSED--This category includes those women who were overwhelmed by the harsh physical environment of Kansas, poverty, poor quality of life or a negative home environment. These women were overcome by the challenges of survival, for example, the sheer physical labor of living in a dugout or soddy. They often suffered from poor health due to malnutrition, anemia, repetitive childbirth, and constant child care. They suffered mental anguish due to isolation from a support group of other women. "Cabin fever" was also a problem. Living cooped up with small children during a harsh winter in a cramped cabin took its toll on many women. At this time there were no social agencies to assist in situations of rape and child abuse. Many women succumbed, ending up in mental institutions, or convincing their husbands to return to the east. Some women resorted to alcohol-laced patent medicines, such as Lydia Pinkham's, or alcohol concealed in a prescription.
    • Carry Nation could fit into this category as her temperance reform efforts went beyond what was considered respectable for her time.
    • Katie Bender, the brains of a murderous family in southeast Kansas in 1872, could also fit.
  7. WOMEN OUTSIDE THE ACCEPTED AND EXPECTED "PROPER SOCIAL ROLE OF WOMEN"--Some women got angry and redefined their roles. These women form the fifth category of images. These women lived outside of what society has defined as the expected and therefore accepted proper role for women of that time. Derogatory names are often applied to this group of women as they refused to conform to the Cult of True Womanhood. The most common subgroup of this category were the prostitutes. Because a woman was expected to be pure and ladylike, these women were scorned. Yet, if a prostitute were to marry, she could easily move into one of the above categories. Most of the women in this group supported themselves, had an independent streak, and dared to be individuals. These women were defined in negative terms and labeled as renegades, undesirable, or at the very least, unladylike.
    • Prostitutes and Dance Hall Girls would definitely fit into this category. But even this improper woman needed to conform in some way to the first two models. Especially in literature and films, the image of the "soiled dove", or "fallen angel", with a heart of gold persists.
    • Calamity Jane is an excellent example because she wore pants most of the time, cussed, carried a gun, drank, and preferred men's occupations. Yet she was also ladylike at times, performed women's tasks, and was proud of being a wife and mother.
    • Osa Johnson, the explorer, film maker, and author from Chanute, would fit into this category. Yet this exciting woman was also a devoted wife. It was accompanying her husband, the chief photographer, that she photographed head-hunters in the South Seas, and acted as guard, hunter and pilot.
    • Amelia Earhart of Atchinson, Kansas also fits here. In the 1920s and 1930s she became the most famous woman aviator. Amelia preferred to dress in men's clothing and definitely preferred a man's occupation. Yet she was also a wife, and her husband played an important role in her career.

Stereotyped generalizations are nothing more than a shorthand method used to categorize people, or information in an attempt to define more easily the patterns of thinking within a society. Yet these generalizations are an inaccurate method to understand the real lives of Kansas women. While it is important to know the generalizations or stereotypes Kansas women have been a part of, it is equally important to note that these are merely tools. Thus, use them as you would any other methodology or tool, as a way to categorize data.

The next method for examining the lives of Kansas women as well as men is to examine their perspectives. These different viewpoints are described below in the 'Angle of Vision" chart.

Suggested Reading/Viewing

  • Gardner, Ann. Kansas Women.
  • Thrapp, Dan L. Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography.
  • Notable American Women, 1607-1950, and Notable American Women, The Modern Period.
  • McHenry, Robert, ed. Liberty's Women.
  • Rothman, Sheila M. Woman's Proper Place: A History of Changing Ideals and Practices 1870 to the Present.
  • Cultures of the Great Plains Videos, five tapes by June Underwood. Instructional Media, Emporia State University.