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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Friday, May 27, 2011

Didn't Burn Their Bras ( If They Even Wore Them)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: Women Soldiers and Patriots of the Western FrontierShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon: Women Soldiers and Patriots of the Western Frontier by Chris Enss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is amazing to discover the number of women who defied society's restrictions to make their own way in a world in which the term women's liberation did not exist. Most of them were not of the affluent families of society and many of them were alone in the world to be sure but some were not renegades but women of principle and courage who could not stand silent despite the current concept of the proper place of women. This book provides condensed biographies of twelve such women. They are as diverse as any group living today and their exploits were as diverse as the paths taken by modern women. All of them in this book lived in the unsettled wilds of the American West populated by Natives, whom the US Government was determined to subdue.

The first three ladies were involved in the Mexican Wars to determine the future of present day Texas and New Mexico. One, a survivor of the Alamo, another a voice for the people both Texan and Mexican at Goliad, which a friend of mine says should be remembered more than the Alamo, the conditions and loss of life there being far worse than the mission in San Antonio.Each of these were Hispanic but the third woman was a wife of a cattle driver on the Santa Fe Trail and she traveled it with him and her brother-in-law, an American spy in New Mexico.

Another trio--these Native American --are also featured. Winema, a Madoc, who brokered peace among her tribesmen, other tribes in the area and the Army but died far from her native home;Lozen, an Apache shaman who rode with Geronimo; and Sarah Winnemucca, a Piute who helped the American Army subdue the Bannock Indians and went on to travel to Washington DC to plead the cause of her people with President Hayes and Congress.

Then there were Army wives, including Elizabeth Custer, never one of my favorite historical characters, but who must receive credit for earning respect for wives traveling with their officer husbands. Until her taking her place with Armstrong any wife who traveled with the Army was considered in the way and distracting to the mission, simply a camp follower.

One of the most interesting women was Charlie Hatfield who eloped at 14 and was widowed by a small time river rat and left with two children by the time she was 18 or so. She put her children in a convent school, dressed as a man and spent a large part of her life tracking down and killing her husband's murderer. She panned for gold in California, served in the Civil War, ran a bakery-saloon--interesting combination among other enterprises before returning to life as a wife and mother.

Of course, no book about stalwart Western women would be complete without mention of Calamity Jane. But here Jane is not the hard drinking, foul mouthed oxen team driver we are used to hearing about but rather a nurse to small pox victims in their isolated tents.

But, as interesting as these women's lives were, my two favorites are Cathy Williams, who, after emancipation, chose for her path the life of a Buffalo Soldier and Juliet Nichols who served as lighthouse keeper on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay and who, for 20 hours and 35 minutes used a hand held hammer to loudly tap 2 times every 15 seconds on the bell that would warn ships away from the trecherous rocks below.

I've read the works of Ann Seagraves about the Soiled Doves and other Women of the West in her readable series and I've read Vanished Arizona by the wife of an Army officer during the time of the Indian wars. This book certainly continues the stories they tell about women who, despite the possibility of being ostrasized and losing the respect of other women and men of the time, did what they deemed necessary to survive and succeed in harsh circumstances, often without any support from others.

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