The Association of Pioneer Women of California was not part of the women’s movement in the 1960s, but the current exhibit at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley is bringing a feminist approach to balancing the narrative by sharing portraits of unidentified women whose stories were never recorded. Along with girls’ and women’s belongings such as quilts, dresses, books, hairbrushes and handheld mirrors, dolls, and hats, are the striking silence of indigenous, Asian, Black and other non-white settler women’s photographs.
Though the record is woefully incomplete, these settler women’s words are as poignant and potent today as when they were first set down on paper. Thanks to the efforts of many volunteers and paid staff of The Society of California Pioneers, the handwritten entries were transcribed and can be read and savored in this searchable online database. Each entry includes the woman’s name, personal and family information, and details about her life’s journey.
“The men on board seemed to lose their heads completely,” wrote Kathleen Cole in 1854, an Irish woman traveling on board a ship that survived a storm before reaching the Isthmus of Panama. With her mother Mary Butler Cole, Kathleen noted that the men “cursed and fought for life preservers, forgetting all about the women and children. The women wept and prayed in silence. They were much more composed than the men. One big German woman from steerage put on a pair of life preservers and walked up and down the deck with a large market basket on her arm which contained all her belongings. She was ready to jump overboard at any moment.” Kathleen Cole wrote that when the storm died down the passengers helped the ship’s crew to put things back in order, despite many of the crew becoming drunk and argumentative. The crew broke into passenger trunks and stole their valuables. “My mother,” Kathleen Cole wrote, “lost everything.”
It did not seem to matter if the path was on the sea or over land, these women persevered as they saved themselves, their family members, and strangers alike. A journalist named Bayard Taylor wrote in 1849 that the women arriving into Sacramento off the overland trail “appeared to have stood the hardships of the journey remarkably well and were not half so loud as the men in their complaints.”
Though women were resilient and adapted well to the hardships of their lives in the West, plenty of institutions sought to put them in their place. These “Commandments to California Wives” instruct women as they condescend: “Thou shalt not ‘put on airs’ of self-importance, nor indulge in day-dreams of extravagance, nor allow thy vanity and love of dress to turn thy head, and unfit thee for the sober duties of life, or make thee merely an expensive toy and walking advertisement of the latest fashions.” The to-do list goes on to warn women about their value: “Thou shalt not believe thyself to be an angel – all but the wings, nor over-estimate thine own and under-estimate thy husband’s value; because the scarcity of thy sex leads men to bow, almost in worship, to silk or calico made into woman’s garments. Neither shalt thou be intoxicated by the personal attractions and flattering attentions of men with finger-rings, fine apparel and prancing horses . . .” In other words, you may be a rare gem in this male-dominated world of the frontier, but don’t let that go to your head.
The exhibit runs through May 22, 2022 and is sponsored by Soroptomist International.