Category: Ethnography and Areal Anthologies
Uncommon Common Women: Ordinary Lives of the West
By Anne M. Butler andamp; Ona Siporin. 1996. Logan: Utah State University Press. x + 138 pages.
Reviewed by Amy Slade, Owensboro, Kentucky
[Review length: 423 words • Review posted in 2001]
Ann Butler and Ona Siporin combine fiction, social history, and photographs with the art of storytelling in order to take a closer look at the lives of women who settled the American West. Using social history and primary records as the backdrop, Butler and Siporin give life to the experiences of various women and their everyday struggles and triumphs, advocating that students of history and culture move “beyond the arena of yesterday’s governments and public figures to a more inclusive worldview that considers the impact of lesser-known people in the emergence of a society’s heritage” (viii).
Written for general audiences and academics, Uncommon Common Women attempts to inspire readers to learn more about western women. The technique of combining primary documents and accounts of personal interest, which are then woven into a storytelling performance, demonstrates some of the ways ordinary women of diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds gave voice to their lives in the American West.
Celebrating the experiences of ordinary women who transformed the Western frontier, Butler and Siporin look past stereotypical images—such as the unmarried schoolmarm or the prostitute with a heart of gold—to consider women of the prairies and their experiences living in sod houses and harsh environments; the journeys of immigrant women and their experiences in a foreign land; the impact of westward settlement on indigenous women; and the social and economic fortunes and misfortunes of prostitutes and female prisoners. Chapters such as “Women of the Prairies,” “Immigrant Women,” “Indigenous Women,” “Women of the Schoolhouse,” “Women of the Criminal World,” and “Women of the Fort and the City” examine how women of various ethnicities, interests, and occupations adapted and survived despite racial, class, gender, and religious adversity.
In the women of the west, Butler and Siporin see both shared and distinctive elements: a common experience of being female, combined with individual histories, backgrounds, and geographic settlement. They write: “In recognition of this universal truth—that all women, despite their uncommon lives, are bound together in the commonality of womanhood—are found the threads of unity for modern women of every class and race” (122). It is these stories that make up the silent western history—narratives of the movers and shakers of families, communities, and states. Butler and Siporin have looked deep in the social history of the West and illuminated one of its dark corners by examining the experiences of women from diverse ethnic, cultural, social, and economic backgrounds and sharing those experiences in order for others to gain a broader understanding of the American Western experience.