Women of the West


Diverse women lived in the American West and participated in the making of its history. Diaries, letters, and oral histories tell us that these women—Native American, Hispanic, black, Asian, and white—experienced life on the frontier differently as they sought to use the land and its resources. Because women struggled to live on the frontier within the constraints of their own cultures, each group offers a different perspective on our study of the region. As a result, a history that includes the lives of different women in the West gives us not only a clearer understanding of the region but also gives the story of the West the depth that it deserves. We are going to look at two groups of women—Native Americans and white women—to understand the lives and experiences of these women as well as what happens when one group has power over the other. Using the classroom as an historical laboratory, students can use primary sources to research, read, evaluate, and interpret the words of Native American and white women.


  • Students will be able to create a model to be used to evaluate the validity of historical evidence.
  • Students will examine primary documents and use factual references in the documents to construct a history of Native American and white women in the American West.
  • Students will critique secondary accounts of women in the West and the history of the West.
  • Students will be able to determine the differences and similarities in the experiences of Native American and white women in the American West.

Activity One

Divide the class into at least four groups and assign the following websites to each group:

Native American Women

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

White Women

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Develop a model for analyzing the primary and secondary documents:

Use one document as a model. As a class, begin a discussion about a strategy for identifying information in the websites. The strategy should focus on the formulation of questions the students might ask in order to identify relevant information. Questions regarding the family, work, and culture will help the students begin to understand some of the experiences that these women had in common, as well as the circumstances that accounted for differences in their lives. Questions may include the following:

  • Where and when were these women born?
  • What were their family histories?
  • What historical events affected their lives?
  • What common experiences did they share?
  • What roles did women play in their respective cultures?
  • What kind of work did the women perform?

Ask the students to critique the sources and identify bias. To help clarify the contextual conditions that could have influenced the women’s perceptions, ask students to develop and answer questions about the author's purpose, status, and regional location.

Have the students write a model for analysis that will help them read the documents and histories of Native American women and white women in the West.

Activity Two

  1. Using the model for analysis, have groups critically read their assigned documents. Ask the students to use their models to read the accounts and to evaluate information found. Each group should compile the information gleaned from the assigned document.
  2. Using the "jigsaw" approach to group work, shift the members of the groups so that each new group has a representative from each of the original groups. The task for these groups is to share information from the documents.
  3. Ask the whole class to consider all the information that has been discussed in the individual groups. Identify the elements of experience that define the lives of Native American women and white women in the West. Develop historical questions about Native American and white women in the West—for example—questions concerning change over time, compare/contrast, and cause and effect. Students can be assigned an essay based on their questions.

Activity Three

  1. Plan a Native American Women’s Rights Convention with students as delegates. Research the issues appropriate for activists who support Native American women’s rights.
  2. Write resolutions for consideration at the convention.
  3. Develop a process such as parliamentary procedure for passing resolutions.
  4. Elect a chairperson and other officers needed to carry out the convention in an orderly and effective manner.
  5. Hold the convention.

Activity Four

  1. Plan a campaign to win the vote for women.
  2. Select a Western state and research the issues that women would use in such a campaign. Remember that the campaign must appeal to women as well as to men who vote and hold office.
  3. Plan the activities for state campaign. These might include parades with placards, rallies with speakers, petitions, and dinners.

Activity Five

  1. Explain to the students that quilts often were created to tell the story of an individual, family, or culture and that the class is going to create a quilt that focuses on the life of a Native American woman or a white woman.
  2. Select the life of one woman from the documents. List the major events of her life. Or ask students to combine information on several women to get make a composite picture of the typical life of women of a particular background.
  3. Ask students to design a quilt that creates a lasting image of a Native American or white woman’s life.

Extension Activities

Research art of the West.

Essay: To what extent do the images of the West portrayed in art accurately portray life in the West for Native American and/or white women?