Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Going west for a cure

Living in the Shadow of Death_cover

More from Sheila M. Rothman’s “Living in the Shadow of Death”: In the early 1800s, tuberculosis was often romanticized as spiritually uplifting, ennobling even. Therefore, men with TB often went on strenuous journeys to the West Indies or the American South as part of a religious quest; they used their suffering to get closer to God.

But in the late 1800s, it was the mountains and deserts of the West that exerted the strongest pull on consumptives. Americans and Europeans believed the American West was a pure, wholesome Eden where fresh air and outdoor living could work miraculous cures.

With few exceptions, women consumptives were not released from the proscribed roles for women at the time and were expected to stay home and keep up with housekeeping chores and raise children as best they could despite suffering from a debilitating and fatal disease.

Rothman said that was the women’s choice and physicians deferred to them, but I wonder how many women did it because it was expected of them while they secretly longed to sail to the West Indies or hop a train west, as the men were doing.

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