They all appeal to me because l like strong heroines in my books. They usually end up saving the hero rather than the other way around. Women have always done what they had to do to care for their families, and here they’ve all defied convention to chart their own course.
My favorite of the lot is Bethenia Owens Adair. She married at fourteen (I’m constantly amazed at the fact that so many girls were married at that age and even younger). The marriage was a failure, though, and she was one of the rare women to get a divorce in that time. “It seemed to me now that I should never be happy or strong again. I was, indeed, surrounded with difficulties seemingly insurmountable; a husband for whom I had lost all love and respect; a divorce, the stigma of which would cling to me all my future life, and a sickly babe of two years in my arms, all rose darkly before me.
She was eighteen and could barely read or write. She moved in with her mother and father and started school while her younger siblings took care of her son. At the end of the first four months’ term, she reported she had finished the third reader and made progress in other subjects. The world began to look brighter again and she sought work in “all honorable directions, even accepting washing,” which was one of the most profitable occupations among the few considered “proper” for women in those days. She was determined to earn her own livelihood and that of her child, and she found she had a hunger for learning. Now educated in the basics, she decided to teach other children. “Of my sixteen students, there were three more advanced than myself, but I took their books home with me nights, and, with the help of my brother in law, I managed to prepare the lessons beforehand, and they never suspected my incompetency. She earned enough money to earn enough money to get a room for herself and son and further her education.
To make a long, fascinating story short, she became a very successful milliner, but more change was coming. She’d always had a fondness for nursing and started assisting neighbors and friends with their illnesses. She asked a doctor friend for the loan of medical books and finally decided to go to medical school. She expected opposition from her family but she wasn’t prepared for the force of it. They felt they would be disgraced and her son claimed she was doing him “an irreparable injury.” People sneered and laughed derisively but Bethenia was one determined lady.
She took stagecoaches from Washington state to Philadelphia where she matriculated in the Edectic School of Medicine. Upon her return she was mocked and ignored by other physicians, but she persevered and started building a small practice. One of her specialities was an “electrical and medicated baths.” But always eager to learn, she enrolled at the University of Michigan which was a “mixed” school. She attended the full two years and graduated, then worked in hospital and clinical work in Chicago for several years before heading back home and becoming a family doctor.
There was a love story. She married but she remained a practicing doctor for the next twenty five years. There are harrowing stories about venturing out in storms in the middle of the night but she never refused a call for the twenty-five years she practiced after graduating from the University of Michigan.
There are any number of other tidbits in the story. Her son became a doctor as well, probably making them one of the first mother/son physicians in the country. She farmed as well as practiced medicine. She was very active in women’s rights.
An amazing woman, but only one of many in settling the west.