The Advancement of Women in the Gold Rush

Were Gold Rush women seeking gold, or something much more valuable?

The Gold Rush is generally viewed as a male dominated period. But the few women present in the Bay Area during this time had great, if not greater, success, breaking many barriers and standards set upon them in the past. Women exercised unprecedented freedom and power economically and socially. Their scarcity has given them the capability to pick and choose their male partners, a convention that is normally associated with men.

The gender imbalance allowed women to look beyond just a man’s wealth. As a result, they were harder to please. One woman in the Bay Area mining scene of 1849 described her frustrating experiences with men, stating “the more I see men, the more I am disgusted with them” and declaring that “they are worse too, in California, than anywhere else.” You cannot blame her. The men epitomized the rowdy characteristics of the Wild West. Most were single, young, naive, and looking for adventure. When they did not have their hands in the dirt, they were involved with gambling, taking advantage of prostitution, and were basically like college fraternity boys (minus the khakis and popped collar). Although there was a huge gender ratio difference in the women’s favor, most of the men, though sufficiently wealthy, were just not responsible enough for women to be attracted to.

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Different fashion, same attitude

The huge skew in the ratio of men to women in the gold rush is important to note. Although many women were undocumented for various reasons, there was still a huge gender ratio discrepancy. Evolutionary psychologist Kanazawa can explain this discrepancy by the different gender roles and expectations. In order to survive in the ancestral environment, men needed to be more aggressive and competitive, traits that are still present today. Men had to be risk-taking and travel great distances while hunting so as to provide resources for the family. The man’s role was to utilize his energy for hunting food and protecting the family. Women, in contrast, tend to be more caring and nurturing, expending considerable energy on their children. Kanazawa’s reasoning is that because women only produce a limited number of eggs (in contrast with the indefinite production of sperm in a man’s lifetime), they are much more invested in the limited children they can raise. Evolutionary psychologists also suggest that the mother always knows whether a child is hers, whereas the father cannot be certain whether he is the biological parent of a child (known as paternity uncertainty). Because of this uncertainty that the men face, they are said to be less motivated to be invested in childrearing (just imagine paying college tuition for a child who isn’t yours). These different inclinations have led to a difference in gender roles. Therefore, it was mostly the men who left the home and travelled long distances in order to make a fortune. Women accordingly stayed in the house and took care of the children. Essentially, the man’s role was to be the breadwinner and the woman’s role was to make sure that the bread went into the mouths of their children.

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That awkward moment when…

However, the few women who were able to hop onto the Gold Rush wagon made a significant impact. As JoAnn Levy’s They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush shows, women had a civilizing influence on men, bringing a sense of order and society. Women helped with the establishment of churches, schools, hospitals, charities, and fundraisers. Some of the women’s roles included boarding house keepers, missionaries and actresses, church builders, schoolteachers, and even mule riders. But women also made money by cooking, sewing, cleaning, ironing, washing, dancing, pouring drinks etc. And women did surprisingly well doing so; many earned as much, if not more than, the average miner. Basically if women had even the slightest experience with cooking (say, dumping some meat and potatoes in boiling water and serving them on a slab of wood), she was in business. No need for Iron Chef competitions, no need for Gordon Ramsay recipes. That’s how unsophisticated and lazy the mining men were.

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A perfect portrayal of the varying roles

Because women were so few, there was great demand for them. The women knew this and thus were able to be quite nitpicky with their husbands. One such woman created an advertisement for herself, placing very high standards. She demanded a man who was educated and had a savings of $20,000 (around $600,000 in today’s money). She disregarded her age and her appearance, two things that are, by evolutionary standards, crucial for mate selection. Yet because women were so valued because of their scarcity, she was able to ignore these aspects about her when trying to obtain a husband. Another huge progression was women’s ability to divorce, which they took advantage of to a great extent. Because of women’s scarcity, judges may have very well been willing to accept divorce files in efforts to try and increase the pool of women who were single. By her own digression a woman could simply jump from one man to the next, enjoying what each man had to offer her.

The Gold Rush certainly displayed a transcending of standards. Women were able to assume jobs they normally would not have been able to possess. They wielded an unusual amount of freedom, especially with the ability to divorce. Women had the freedom to obtain as much wealth as men and were also guaranteed the right to their own property, freeing them of the dependency on their husbands (another instance in the progression of women can be found here).

One man during this period admitted “We look upon woman as the only agent that can rescue us amid the… quicksands that surrounds us.” Although not as many men are willing to admit this so freely, women had indeed kept the men restrained.  Gold Rush women were the unsung heroes in the Bay Area. They dug deeper and struck a different treasure: equality.

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Gold Rush women leading the way to prosperity
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