Extraordinary Women

pat2Browsing through my western library in search of a tidbit for today’s blog, I found one of my favorite books, “Women of the West” by Cathy Luchetti. I’m not sure where I bought it, but I suspect it came from one of those bins in Barnes and Noble where you can find wonderful gems at very reasonable prices.I like this particular book because it features eleven women of the west and devotes enough time to each that you really get to know them. The stated purpose was to tell the stories of forgotten women in the west, those whose stories are not generally known in history. The author wanted to include the strongest, most poignant and most diverse stories along with a vast selection of photographs. She succeeded in both.Among the women included are a nun who taught Indian children, a rancher who was left a widow and managed a ranch, a member of the Paiute Tribe who became a translator for the U.S. Army, a teacher who followed her husband’s dream of establishing a vegetarian settlement in Kansas, a black woman who faced discrimination. A very diverse lot, to be sure. Most of the stories are told through their own words in letters and journals.

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.



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13 thoughts on “Extraordinary Women”

  1. Well, now! That’s just awe-inspiring. Thanks for sharing about her today, Patricia.

    Sounds to me like she took great strides, against the odds, to dig herself out of the despair and loathing of life to become sucessful regardless of the naysayers who could have trampled her dreams. Instead, she paved the way for so many women to be more than was expected of them and to achieve their goals, so long as they put their minds to it.

    Her story truly inspired me! I would love to hear about the other women in that book, too. We truly need to know more about the determination, strength and perseverance of the women of the west. Makes me wonder what they would think of women’s roles in society now.

  2. What a wonderful story, Pat. As a divorced woman I walked some steps down the same path, but I had my education to help me. Her story of coming all the way from nothing is truly inspiring. And you were inspired to pick up that book. Thanks for a great blog to start the week.

  3. Stories with strong women are some of my favorites and I think that story shows what a difference an education can make in a person’s life.

  4. Bethenia was a woman to admire. She sure had a lot of courage and inner strength to follow her dream no matter how people criticized. I wonder how many of us today would give up and kowtow to popular opinion. I’m not sure I’d have what it takes although I’d like to think I do.

    Excellent topic, Pat!

  5. I am constantly amazed at what women have done in the past despite taboos and restrictions. I could never make up some of their wonderful stories. Florence Nightingale is another one of my heroines. Do any of you have a real life historical heroine?

  6. Wow, I love this story of Bethenia! She’s my kind of heroine, too. I’m constantly amazed in my research how threatened a lot of men were, when women expressed interest in getting an education. I’m glad she persevered and thanks for telling us her story, Pat.

  7. What a strong woman and so young! God blessed her
    with the determination to bring her to the goals
    she sought! And for her son to also become a
    doctor is an offshoot of her own strength!

    Pat Cochran

  8. What a great post! I love to study the women who made the West come alive. Thanks for sharing; sure makes me want to add that book to my collection. Best part of research, a great library to reread. Think I’m off to Barnes and Noble online to order. Phyliss

  9. It never fails to amaze me that these women survived everything they went through. I don’t know if I would be strong enough.

  10. Hi.
    Re: Owens-Adair. Like so many biographical accounts, this one (and others, such as that included in Maverick Women)skim over(or skip entirely)a number of “uncomfortable” facts about Owens-Adair which make her VERY HUMAN, but, as most humans are, quite flawed.
    1. Her “love story” (2nd marriage) also ended in divorce (and no wonder–although “optimistic” Colonel Adair was a happy sort, he was a financial drag) Bethenia banished him back to the farm and later divorced him, too. So much for love. Why was this woman drawn to “inferior” men?
    2. Owens-Adair complained quite often in letters to her estranged college-aged son, “Georgie”, that he should write more often to her. He, at one point, told his mother he was going to burn all her letters she sent him. Why, we might wonder? Could it be she was simply too overbearing for the boy? Her letters contain hints that she was a real “control-freak.”
    3. Finally, in spite of outraged opposition the pioneer-era doctor–as outspoken advocate of Eugentics–was directly responsible for the sterilization of close to 2,700 (mostly “insane”) people in Oregon, between 1917 and the 1980s. The Governor gave a public apology in 2002.
    Two-thirds of the victims of Bethenia’s Eugenics Law were women. So, one might argue that the saddest irony of all for this woman’s rights advocate is that she helped sabotage the “rights” of women who often were misdiagnosed or driven mad by the physical or psychic abuse they suffered, usually at the hands of men.
    Rich Mole, Calgary AB

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