chapter
Introduction
Pages 20

An African-American boardinghouse keeper, a Northern Paiute activist, a California writer, an Ursuline nun, an African-American mail driver, a Chinese immigrant, a Chippewa-Cree basketball player, a Wyoming writer, and a rural Anglo club founder challenge our assumptions about women in the American West, and illustrate the narrative complexity of western and women’s history. Nine biographical essays herein present the lives of women on the northern plains, in the intermountain West, the Pacific Northwest, and California. Each of the women profiled offers a window on gender relations in these regions during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Taken together, their lives reveal interweavings of race, gender, and class as plural sources of identity, and as unstable categories of power and privilege. For many western women’s historians, however, biographical portraits have been suspect. Too often they echoed an old conceptual trap, the study of notable women. If historical significance were defined only in terms of exceptional women whose deeds merited biographical study, then the lives of ordinary women would go unexamined. Much of western women’s history, then, has cast a wider net, exploring patterns in the lives of women grouped by cultural identity, region, or era, to create a gendered analysis of the American West.1 Implicit in these studies is a rejection of the heroic model of western history in which the American West bred remarkable individuals who lived and died larger than life.