Frontier Theory for Women

Almost twenty years ago the late historian David Potter pointed out that one of the most influential interpretations of the American experience was based upon a fallacy. He was referring to Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous hypothesis that the frontier was the  key influence in the making of the character of the American people. Thmer’s argument was that because the United States evolved in a region of unsettled land, the conquest of that open land made Americans, among other things, individualistic, active, believers in progress, and democratic. Yet, as Potter observed, the Americans who acquired these traits in the course of cutting down forests, plowing up the tough prairie sod, fighting the Indians, and founding new governments constituted only half of the population. Women engaged in none of these activities. The frontier and the West in general, Potter implied, must have been a quite different experience for women than it was for men.