Upper Class Women in the Army Era

The upper class women of the U.S. Army's Fort Vancouver -- primarily the wives of the post's officers -- played a large role in changing the expectations of their gender on the Western frontier.

Although their function as wives, mothers and homemakers remained the same, the upper class women of Fort Vancouver established a kind of “Western Womanhood” unique to the American frontier.

Having journeyed to Fort Vancouver as loyal companions and adventurers, army wives brought with them many values of the east’s American Cult of Domesticity.

Upper class women were viewed to be the civilizers of a primitive western society, as they established homes, raised families, and acted as companions for their enlisted husbands.

With servants to assist them with their daily tasks, officers’ wives and elite ladies organized social events such as tea parties and dances. More discretely, they provided support for one another and lonely soldiers in the isolated environment of the frontier.

Because of their privileged status, these women were able to build a thriving civilian community that changed the landscape of Fort Vancouver.

Despite being held to the cultural standard of domesticity, women of Fort Vancouver’s upper class asserted themselves as strong, independent individuals. Often facing isolation and a lack of experience, a sense of strength and courage was required that directly conflicted with the expectation of female submissiveness. This conflict can be seen in the published poem “A Woman’s Answer to a Man’s Question,” found in the scrapbook of a Vancouver woman:

I require all things that are good and true,

All things that man should be;

If you give this all, I would stake my life

To be what you demand of me.

If you cannot be this seamstress and cook,

You can hire, with little pay;

But a woman’s heart and a woman’s life

Are not to be won that way.

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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