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No Step Backward: Women and Family on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier, Helena, Montana, 1865-1900.

No Step Backward: Women and Family on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier, Helena, Montana, 1865-1900 In No Step Backward Paula Petrik examines the lives and activities of women in Helena, Montana, from 1865 through 1900. The monograph focuses on the subjects of prostitution, divorce, female suffrage, and women's social roles. Throughout the book Petrik weaves a number of themes that are prominent in frontier history and in women's history. The gender ration, the coming of the railroad, and the "cult of true womanhood" all play central roles in Petrik's understanding of Helena's evolution and of women's contributions to the town's development. Petrik argues that the gender ratio largely determined the economic and social opportunities of women in Helena, that the railroad transformed Helena from a free-wheeling, open community into a reform-minded and stable community, and that married women in Helena wished to conform to the "cult of true womanhood" but found it initially difficult to do so. Overall, Petrik's findings confirm the conclusions of Julie Roy Jeffrey and Glenda Riley that white women in frontier settlements did not find the West a liberating environment.

Petrik documents specific economic activities of women in a frontier environment, but the limits of the opportunities she describes were narrow. Through the 1870s, men outnumbered women in Helena by a ratio of 4 to 1. Women could pursue legitimate service occupations or augment family income by taking in boarders, and they could do so without fear of losing their claim to a "middling" social status. Petrik also finds that a few of Helena's first prostitutes became substantial property holders. Although some prostitutes married, owned property, and gave up the trade, they failed to gain entrance to the small circle of middle-class society.

The relationship between prostitution and the population characteristics of early Helena is clear, but Petrik is less successful in analyzing the economic impact of the town's demography on other women. In 1870, 20 percent of the adult women in Helena were wage earners, a work rate that was not notably different from the employment patterns of other urban women. In Helena the leading female occupation, after prostitute, was that of servant. Although light industries such as textile and garment factories were major employers of nineteenth-century women, women who lived outside manufacturing centers encountered occupational opportunities much like those in Helena, and they also were concentrated in the service sector. In Helena, as in other towns and cities, female work rates increased as time passed; women's economic opportunities broadened and diversified as the frontier and the importance of mining receded.

As Helena expanded and stabilized economically and demographically, women's opportunities also enlarged in areas aside from employment. Petrik is at her best in tracing the relationship between urban development and women's familial, social, and civic activities. Expansion brought women of the "middling sort" greater possibilities of employing household help, increased prospects for female companionship, and the means to carry their "civilizing" influence into the community. In addition to demonstrating that urban growth increased women's social opportunities, Petrik's book eloquently documents the variety of personal lifestyles that women pursued in a single setting. She conveys the day-to-day concerns of wives and mothers in a manner that brings the women of Helena's past to life.

Julie Kirk Blackwelder is professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She is the author of Women of the Depression: Caste and Culture in San Antonio, 1929-1939 (1984).
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Author:Blackwelder, Julia Kirk
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1990
Words:570
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