Images of the American Woman. From "Heroine of the West" on the Frontier to "Rosie the Riveter" on the Home Front

Seminar Paper, 2018

11 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Images of Women for the Benefit of the Nation
2.1 The Woman as “Heroine of the West” on the Frontier
2.2 “Rosie the Riveter” or Women on the Home Front During World War II

3. Conclusion

4. List of Works Cited

1. Introduction

Throughout America’s history, the American woman has played a major role in ensuring the nation’s moral and domestic well-being. Catherine Beecher in her text A Treatise on Domestic Economy also points to this important role of the woman on the Frontier and her contribution to the success of the Frontier and American expansionism. The women’s sphere was systematically idealized and romanticized, whereas the question of real equality to men was to be avoided. Women were, besides their practical functions as mothers, wives, and housekeepers, the promoters of American values and embodied these values in their domestic sphere. Kaplan related the concept of the domestic sphere of women to its relationship with nationalism and imperialism. Basically, the domestic sphere of women played and still plays a big role in creating the sense of a nation and at-homeness in contrast to the foreign, external world. It can be said that women were basically the ones who mostly held the nation together and helped to keep it together especially in times of conflict or in the case of the Frontier in times of hardship. During World War II then, the focus of women as the backbone of America as a nation was not so much on their role in the household, but as active members of the workforce, as men were scarce on the “home front”. Therefore, it can be noted that American women’s roles had to shift throughout American history, according to the needs of the nation. Both on the Frontier and during major conflicts such as World War II, women were used and abused for the nation’s benefit and not for their own advancement. This can be seen in the images of women during these times, on the Frontier e.g. as the “Heroine of the West”, and during WWII in “Rosie the Riveter”. These images were used to get support for the benefit of the nation and women had to take on the roles that were needed in these moments. It can even be said that women were used as sacrificial material, while their commitments and sacrifices did not necessarily liberate them or at least did not give them complete independence, which is obvious on the Frontier, but even after WWII most men coming back from the war expected women to return to the household, quit their jobs, and a backwards movement to the suburbs began.

To argue my thesis, I will first of all engage with a closer reading on certain aspects of excerpts from Catherine Beecher’s A Treatise of Domestic Economy. Here I will point out how Beecher idealizes the role of the woman on the Frontier, creating an image of women in the domestic sphere that is not at all questioned, but rather encouraged. Then, I will take a look at the image of “Rosie the Riveter” during World War II that became the popular symbol of the strong, working woman who supported the nation during this difficult time. I will connect my findings to indicate women’s lasting role as the backbone of the nation and how their role shifted according to what was needed, but always to ensure the well-being of the nation and never primarily to benefit their own advancement.

2. Images of Women for the Benefit of the Nation

2.1 The Woman as “Heroine of the West” on the Frontier

In order to demonstrate how women’s roles had to adapt throughout history to meet the nation’s particular needs during a specific time, I will first take a more detailed look at the image of women during the time of the Frontier, as supported through Catherine Beecher’s writing. In her book A Treatise on Domestic Economy, For the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School, Catherine Beecher tells women and mothers how to organize their lives to be more efficient as housekeepers. She points to a certain image of women, their special roles on the Frontier and their importance for the country. Beecher encourages this very particular role of American women on the Frontier and attempts to advise them how to better fulfill this role. In the excerpt on “Difficulties Peculiar to American Women”, Beecher establishes the uniqueness of American women in general and how well aware they are of their special roles:

No women on earth have a higher sense of their moral and religious responsibilities, or better understand, not only what is demanded of them, as housekeepers, but all the claims that rest upon them as wives, mothers, and members of a social community (44).

Beecher indicates that American women have far greater moral and intellectual responsibilities and especially on the Frontier they have to face more hardships than any other woman in the world. American women, therefore, cannot be delicate beings, they have to be strong. She even quotes Tocqueville saying that the American woman, while having to go through the difficulties of Frontier life with their husbands, still stayed courageous and tough (46). Tocqueville also points to the mother’s sacrifice on the Frontier: while her children are full of life and strength, the mother seems tired in her effort to turn wilderness into a home where “’[a] hundred steps beyond it, the primeval forest spreads its shades, and solitude resumes its sway’” (47). The woman on the Frontier is presented as doing all of this willingly, not questioning her difficult position, but seeing it as her duty to give all she can for the family’s well-being to create a sense of at-homeness in a seemingly uncivilized, lonely place. According to Beecher, therefore, the American woman on the Frontier in her attempt to perform her duties as well as her Eastern counterpart, is a true heroine (47).

But for Beecher, the question of the equality of the sexes is not even to be considered, she still sees women’s place in the home, which requires just as much intelligence as the seemingly more important tasks men have to do (155-156). She even compares the woman and her domestic sphere to an empire, in which she reigns and from which she also influences the “greatest nation on earth”, while still being able to have leisure time (157). In her advice for a plan on how to become even better in her domestic role, Beecher highly stresses women’s moral duties. This plan should first and foremost be based on Christianity and religion, bodily needs should never be considered more important:

Every woman then ought to start with the assumption, that religion is of more consequence than any worldly concern, and that, whatever else may be sacrificed, this shall be the leading object, in all her arrangements, in respect to time, money, and attention (158).

Women then also have to spend some of their time helping others and doing charity work, as intellectual and social interests are to be considered more significant (158). The complete image that Beecher presents of a woman is that of a pious and virtuous model, who has to step in for the moral and religious interests not only of herself, but also for others. God and religion have to come first for women and God has even divided time the way he did in order to help women perform their duties (159-160). So, women do not only have to keep order in their households, but they also have to keep up a moral order and arrange their lives accordingly. No time must be wasted on useless things, before the needs of everyday life and of women’s “social, intellectual, benevolent, and religious, duties” are not met (167). Therefore, it is important that these habits of strict order and system are formed in girls from an early age on (167). This training in youth will prove valuable to her in later life, so she can be as efficient as possible in her role as wife, mother, and housekeeper.

Beecher presents an image of the American woman during the westward movement that cannot be separated from her gendered domestic sphere. For Beecher, a woman’s role was being a wife, mother, and especially a moral authority. A woman’s greatest task was to ensure the well-being of her family, to provide for her husband and to educate her children, as well as to tend to her moral and social duties. This was expected of a woman and Beecher very much supports this and in no instance questions this definition of women’s roles. Quite the opposite, Beecher with this writing, offers a seemingly better way of performing this role, of making women even more efficient in their performance of their role. The woman on the Frontier, therefore, is presented as this religious, moral authority, who, despite the hardships she has to endure, never forgets her duties. The “Heroine of the West” knows her place, knows her duties and performs for the benefit of not only the family, but of the entire nation. The secondary literature on the time of the westward movement confirms that women mostly readily accepted their role in their domestic sphere. As Riley explains in her book in which she compares the female Frontier of the prairie and the plains, women did not leave behind their “ideal of domesticity and femininity” when going west, they actually tried to recreate the ways of living that they had known before and tried to “reestablish what they thought of as civilization” in every aspect of their lives (54). Women in the West took up the role of “shapers of culture” and “cultural conservators” (72). They brought with them certain cultural prerequisites that they tried to preserve and pass on to the next generations. Riley also points to the relatively equal focus of women’s tasks on the Frontier, which were always strictly gendered: “They managed or helped to manage their families and households; they also acted as the conservators of family, religious, racial, and ethnic traditions” (195). In comparison to the men on the Frontier then, women’s tasks were very similarly limited all over the Frontier, while men were not concerned with the domestic side and had many opportunities on the Frontier for advancement, women were mostly confined to the “home and hearth” (75). Women stayed at home, while the men in their lives ventured out for new land or participated in exhibitions (200). Men could also spend far more time doing what they wanted as long as they sufficiently provided for their families (Sprague 40).

While without the contributions of women, the Frontier and the spreading of the nation and of a feeling of unity might not have been successful at all, their sacrifice and effort was not really appreciated. Sprague also points to the importance of women on the Frontier. According to him, had women not met the various demands on the Frontier, the “phenomenal development” would hardly have been possible (29). A woman was the religious, moral figure, she was the one who was able to create a home for the family in the wilderness. The woman on the Frontier was idealized as a symbol of civilization. She socialized and cultivated wilderness and educated her children in values. Cynthia Culver Prescott also confirms this female role by saying that the common imagery focused on motherhood and that it was a woman’s duty to be self-sacrificing and to create a comfortable home to raise her children in: “She taught sons and daughters to be upstanding, moral young men and women and raised her sons to be upright citizens” (34). Women did all of that without even really being asked whether they wanted to go west. Sprague explains that women were so crucial for creating values that one might ask why men did not make more serious efforts in making women’s lives more tolerable (65). There is one example of a young wife whose response to the question of whether she regrets leaving her home and family was: “’Wherever he goes, that is my home’” (31). This shows the submissiveness to their husbands and women’s willingly filling their ascribed positions in the home. It was their duty to make a home homely for their family and to raise the next generation and through that they also, whether knowingly or not, brought American values to the new parts of the nation, they basically turned it into a part of the nation. It can be said that women made the Frontier experience work, they were crucial to keeping up morality on the Frontier and were big contributors, if not solely responsible for the nation’s feeling of unity by creating a sense of at-homeness and spreading of values, despite living in the remotest areas. Amy Kaplan also suggests that women in their domestic roles in creating a sense of a civilized home in contrast to the uncivilized and alien beyond the home, play a big role in defining “the contours of the nation and its shifting border with the foreign” (582). Kaplan even says that domesticity can be seen as female’s “counterforce” to men’s territorial conquest (583). In that sense, American women’s role was indispensable in the creation of a sense of nationality. Kaplan then goes further and links women’s domestic role to American imperial efforts (582-583).

2.2 “Rosie the Riveter” or Women on the Home Front During World War II

As the United States entered World War II, women again had to bear a lot of the weight of the nation and to do that, something else was now asked of them than what they were encouraged to do before. An entire industry of advertising sprang up to make women believe “that the nation’s health and ultimately its peace would depend on their efforts” (McEuen 8). But now it was not only appealed to women in terms of their social and moral duties in the home, but also in the public sphere. Probably the most famous image of and for women during World War II, was “Rosie the Riveter”. The poster of the fierce-looking young woman with the rolled-up sleeves symbolized women’s workforce that was much needed at the time:

When men left to serve in the armed forces during World War II, their absence created a labor shortage throughout the United States. By 1943, government officials and industry leaders looked to women workers to contribute to the production needs created by the war. (Brock et al. 1)

The image of “Rosie the Riveter” was then used to actively encourage women to leave their domestic sphere. Where before women were criticized for joining the workforce, especially during the Great Depression, when jobs were scarce, now during World War II, the nation was in desperate need of women’s help in the workforce (Hartmann 20-21). This again very clearly shows how women always had to take up the role that needed to be filled at that moment. When jobs were scarce, women were confined to their domestic roles, when workers were needed, the government turned to women to meet the demands of the nation. Women now were asked to change their thinking about themselves, the country needed them to be “unconventional, to take on new functions and responsibilities […]”, leaving their “traditional roles was portrayed as patriotic duty” (Knaff 1). The poster of “Rosie the Riveter”, created by J. Howard Miller with the line “We can do it!” tells women that they are a part of a bigger effort. It is now on them to redirect their strength towards a bigger cause, to help the nation win the war and work towards peace. Another image of Rosie shows an “angry” Rosie with the line “It’s our fight too” (Knaff 73). Here one can see that the government in its effort to mobilize women for the workforce also used psychological appeals. The tasks that women had to perform in their new roles in working in the war industry were producing ammunition using tools “formerly new to them” (Brock et al. 15).


Excerpt out of 11 pages


Images of the American Woman. From "Heroine of the West" on the Frontier to "Rosie the Riveter" on the Home Front
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Advanced Academic Writing
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Rosie the Riveter, Catherine Beecher, Frontier, WWII, Home Front, Portrayal of Women, Domestic Sphere, Heroine of the West, America, American Women, Treatise on Domestic Economy
Quote paper
Katharina Gerhardt (Author), 2018, Images of the American Woman. From "Heroine of the West" on the Frontier to "Rosie the Riveter" on the Home Front, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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