Histories concerning women in the west do not adequately show how women used religion to shape their lives and communities. While some do present women as crusaders and critics, they do not reveal the extent to which women of faith used their ideals to shape the physical and moral aspects of their communities. What follows is an examination of how women justified their efforts in community building through the prism of religious values, how they applied these values to their efforts, and how, over time, they expanded their roles to include political activity. Finally, histories concerning women’s efforts to change their societies often fail to fully consider the roles men played in carrying out these goals. As in older histories wherein men appear to be the only actors in great events, the contributions of men are often missing from these narratives. What is often absent is recognition that men and women cooperated in establishing communities, and in this case, actively applied religious belief to their construct. Here, their efforts are addressed as they relate to the actions and goals of women, goals which were, more often than not, joined in purpose.
Examining this topic is particularly promising with regard to pioneer settlement in the Texas Panhandle between 1875 and 1920, since many studies concerning social expectations and developments for women in the United States help illuminate their experience and primary source materials for the region and time period are more readily available. Additionally, scholarly studies concerning religious life, cultural expectations, reform movements, and life in the west form an additional basis for understanding the society in which women functioned during this period. County, church, and personal histories have helped in understanding how societal expectations in these growing communities differed from those in older, more established cities and towns. Finally, letters, journals, organizational records, memoirs, newspapers, and other primary sources have been used to discover the values of individuals and groups during this period. Such records were often preserved by middle and upper-class women and donated to archives and libraries throughout the panhandle.
The years between 1875 and 1920 confine this study to the period of early, mostly Anglo, settlement in the region. By 1875, White and Latino settlers were making permanent or semi-permanent settlements in the region. This was made possible by the removal of Native American populations defeated in the Red River War. By 1920, the period of early settlement had ended. At this time the economic, cultural, and political nature of life in the panhandle was beginning a new period of substantial change. Women had won universal recognition of their right to vote, the United States had just emerged from a world war and was only beginning to grapple with its consequences, and the oil and gas industry was about to become a major force in the region and state. For these reasons, 1920 is a logical endpoint for this study. As with any research, there are limitations that must be addressed.
This study focuses primarily on White Protestant women who were literate and who left personal records detailing their experiences. These include Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, The Christian Church Disciples of Christ, and Church of Christ, principally. Christian Scientists, though present in the panhandle during this period, are not specifically addressed due to lack of data regarding women’s efforts in their congregations. Some Catholics are also included. The cooperative efforts to build churches and assist one another in providing support for religious observance were common during this period, a reality that early settlers mentioned often in their recollections.
Because of the nature of these records, minority groups, the very poor, and other marginalized groups are not included in any significant way. Women who participated in extralegal activities to support themselves are part of this group. In some cases, women who did not leave written records were written of by others who valued their contributions and recognized that, though their efforts were humble, they participated in important ways. Indeed, records detailing these efforts illuminate the experience of women who focused mainly on life in the home but also supported the causes other women publicly championed.
For religious women who settled the Texas Panhandle between the 1870s and 1920, their efforts to build moral communities reveal that, though the circumstances they encountered were new to them, their actions were guided by a continuation of older values, not a reinvention of those values. The experiences of the frontier certainly offered greater freedom in expressing those values and accepted a broader scope of acceptable behavior, a characteristic of frontier life shared in varying degrees with earlier generations of pioneer women, but their core beliefs continued to inform their actions through the process. Women used their understanding of their roles as moral guardians of civil society to justify their actions during this period of settlement, both in building physical and societal structures, and in extending the influence of Christianity. Later political efforts were likewise connected to these values, which they utilized in seeking and acquiring greater political power. Finally, men and women cooperated in advancing the moral and religious goals apparent in women’s activities through this period. Women in this region and at this time were in a remarkable position to shape their communities, a position they used to the fullest.