THE UNAPPRECIATED ROLE OF THE WOMAN IN FRONTIER HISTORY
Richard G. Santos
I recently wrote what I taught for years, that is that U. S. history textbooks are written in black and white perspectives from the East Coast point of view. The multi-cultural, multi-lingual essence of Texas and the U. S. Southwest is at best overlooked if not belittled. Moreover, the textbooks are male oriented and the role of the woman and ethnic minorities are ignored. In a patronizing manner, women who excelled in politics, business, arts and entertainment are given short biographical sketches ignoring the fact they are the exception and not the norm.
I first faced this contradiction in 1971 – 76 when serving as the first Ethnic Studies Director and instructor at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. As Department Head I informed the administration I wanted to hire a woman to teach a course on The Woman. The Sisters of Divine Providence told me I could not do that as “the woman is not a minority”. I was terribly upset (to say the least and being politically correct) as I did not expect that from nuns. Much to their chagrin, I got around the issue by posting a class on The Woman to be taught by me under “Special Topics”. On the side, I hired Ms. Lupe Anguiano to teach the class. Hence, I opened each session, took roll, attended class and paid her salary from my paycheck. Times have changed and the role of the woman in history, culture and the family has gotten academic acceptance but still excluded in the textbooks.
I also used to tell my students that the teaching and writing of history was not limited to memorizing names, dates and events. To study and write history one must look at the totality of human-social-scientific, linguistic and cultural evolution. Ideally, a historian is nothing more than a reporter of past events. Unfortunately, the role of the woman in history, anthropology and sociology is lacking. This is even more evident in the lack of studies and writings regarding the woman on the Frontier (meaning West of the Mississippi River). Yet, then and now the woman is a child’s first doctor, teacher, provider, peace-keeper, financial manager and keeper of the Faith and culture. Take the nomadic hunter-gather Native American culture of South Texas. The men were the hunters, priests, warriors and frequently, but not always, the “medicine men”. The women were the gatherers, weavers, seamstresses, nurses, and misleading, all-encompassing “keepers of the home” a phrase that minimizes their role as organizers and preservers of the home and family.
The woman in the Spanish Colonial, Mexican and early U. S. historical periods of South Texas and New Mexico were all of the above plus, gardeners of fruits, vegetables and herbs (i.e. medicinal and spices), took care of a family’s domestic live stock (milk cows, goats, chicken, etc), doctor-nurse-midwife-curandera (herb healer), and the unpaid, unappreciated laborer. The frontier woman had to ride a horse, fire a weapon and defend the home-ranch-farm with or without a husband or mate around. If a widow, she had to do all the
above plus raise a family. The frontier woman and many today are still the keepers of the Faith and culture as many men step aside when it comes to religious instruction and participation as husbands silently delegate that responsibility to the wife and mother of their children. The woman then and now
was and remains the key element in regard to the culture of the home. Today, however, a woman’s education, and socio-economic status of the family unit, has a great impact on what she bequeaths and passes on to her children. Not to be ignored or over-looked, the religious affiliation of the family unit today also impacts on the role of the woman.
As to the social role and expectation of the woman, it is interesting to note that up to the 19th Century, women usually married by 12 years of age. Empress Carlota of Mexico (wife of Emperor Maximillian) introduced the quinceanera through which young ladies were presented to society ready to marry at 15 years of age. The U.S. followed the 19th century European tradition of introducing young ladies at 16 years of age. The coming of age debutant balls introducing young ladies to society varied thereafter but never exceeding 21 years of age.
Today the quinceanera, “sweet sixteen ball” and debutant ball are no longer seen as presenting daughters for marriage but rather merely a coming of age
party-social gathering-celebration. Yet the role of the wife-mother has remained practically unchanged and unappreciated.
As a sidebar, I personally am fed-up with hearing and reading the same old articles and seeing the Casasola photographs of the women soldiers (soldaderas) and “Adelitas” of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Tell me about General Carmen Reyes. What was her background, family life, battles won and lost and accomplishments before, during and after the revolution? How does she compare to Joan of Arc? Also, how does the generala compare to her contemporary rebel leaders? Why is she still an unknown a century after the fact? The Mexican Revolution is not my area of expertise but if it was I would not hesitate digging into the Archivo de la Defensa in Mexico City as well as the history and archives of the revolution in Michoacan and Jalisco.
The same applies to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Yes she was a great writer-poetess and I have enjoyed and still enjoy her literary output. However, she was a num leading a shelter, cloistered life exposed only to the elite upper socio-economic circles of Mexico City during her life. She never married, never had or raised children, never had a husband or had to deal with neighbors (other than her fellow sheltered nuns). She does not represent or present the woman of her lifetime. So how did her worldview compare to that of Maria del Carmen Calvillo ranch owner-manager-cattle baroness of Bexar in the early 1800’s? Nuf zed as I hope I got some of you angry enough to do something about the unappreciated role of women in history.
Zavala County Sentinel …………….. 21-22 September 2011