Go West Young Man/Go Rest Young Ma’am

It is important to remember that words have power, and calls to action may not always be straightforward or trustworthy.  It is also important to remember that looking at history through the eyes of gender relations can be just as limiting as the old way of doing things within the discipline. The lot of women in the pre-twentieth century Western world is one that is often (deservedly so) derided for its lack of choices, respect, and power; however, was the lot of all men necessarily that much better?  To be clear, I’m not trying to excuse the treatment of women, but I wonder if all men were indeed treated equal.

To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at America circa the mid to late nineteenth century.  This time and place has the unenviable distinction of playing host to the infamous “rest cure.”  If you are unfamiliar with this particular process, I suggest you check out Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, but I’ll give you the short version.  Women (and occasional men) who were considered too nervous, to excited, or too mentally active (apparently Charlotte Perkins Gilman liked to read and write) were confined to a room for days, weeks or months on end with no company, no diversions, and only bland food (Charlotte Perkins Gilman speaks of being served bread and milk).  The idea was to apparently “cure” women of their excitable natures by boring them into submission.  All a husband needed was a doctor (or to be a doctor himself) to prescribe this supposed “cure,” and he could quite legally lock his wife away until she was “properly” docile and submissive.  Luckily it seems that this was not a particularly popular practice, but the fact that it was a possibility in the United States of America is downright terrifying.  Women still had some limited recourse after the fact at least.  This was done to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and her rather emphatic response was to divorce her husband and to write a book exposing the mental harm that the practice could inflict on an unsuspecting woman.  The result was The Yellow Wallpaper.  This is certainly a dark time in the history of gender relations in the United States, but it may be more of a symptom of a larger societal trend than an outright attack on the female gender.

At about the same time that women were being prescribed the rest cure, a certain portion of the male population was being prescribed something entirely different, but potentially just as detrimental to their well being.  The call of “Go West Young Man” encouraged the young, the foolish, the proud, and the desperate to go “out West” to seek their fortunes.  This call played on the American tradition of exploration and discovery, but was that all the call sought to do?  Many of these young men did indeed find their fortunes—or at least a new life—in the West, but many more of them unfortunately only found an early grave.  These men (both young and not quite as young) tended to be rough and lacking in all but the barest of the social graces.  They were exactly the kind of people needed to “tame” a dangerous frontier with limited supplies and periodic warfare with various Native peoples.  The survivors of this lifestyle became mountain men that led wagon trains of slightly less rough settlers (both men and women) and sent furs back east until they couldn’t anymore; they became gun slingers that made a name for themselves before they went down in a blaze of glory; and they became cattlemen who founded unruly towns (such as Tombstone) before they became pariahs once Eastern “civilization” followed them and decided to take over.  The point is that life in the West—particularly on the leading edge of the wave of settlement and exploration—was dangerous.  The call of “Go West Young Man” was basically calling on men to become cannon fodder in the war to “civilize” the West.  Those that survived this war found themselves to be relics that were expected to vacate the premises once true civilization arrived to take over.

A case can be made that Eastern society was attempting to civilize itself by getting rid of the outlying elements—those men and women that refused to conform to the late Victorian society that America was attempting to copy from Europe.  Women who had too many emotions and too many ideas were apparently aberrant in such a society, and so society sought to tame them.  The call to “go West” was not directly as closely towards women (although a few followed it anyway) because wives were valuable so long as they could be properly controlled.  Young and unruly men, on the other hand, could be most useful in taming the untamed frontier.  If they died in the process, then at least Eastern society would not have to deal with them anymore.  As far as the people “back East” were probably concerned, it was a win-win scenario.

While it’s entirely possible that this is an overly pessimistic look at late Victorian American society, it is certainly one way that the culture of that time can be interpreted.  Fortunately at least a few of these young men grew and thrived in the West, and at least a few of the women (like Charlotte Perkins Gilman) were able to escape.  However, it is a time and a mindset that should give us pause.

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