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 Home > Mrs. Cheney

Office of Lynne Cheney
November 2, 2001

Mrs. Cheney’s Remarks at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame
As Prepared
National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame
Ft. Worth, Texas

It’s a great honor to be here among so many outstanding Texans and a particular honor to be here at an event that commemorates Gloria Tennison, whose accomplishments in business and philanthropy are an inspiration to us all.

I’ve been thinking about history more than usual of late, and your kind invitation turned my mind to the story of women in the West. I sometimes think that we can’t begin to imagine how difficult their lives were. I have an aunt in Wyoming to whom I am very grateful because she passes information along to me about what life was like for my foremothers. I got a letter from her just a few weeks ago, and I thought I’d read just one sentence to you today. It’s about my great grandmother, Allie Lough, and it goes like this: “She had broken her arm before, and rebroke it when her husband was kicked in the chest by a horse and died.” So few words and they capture so much pain and grief. Her arm never healed properly. I can remember from when I was a little girl the way she would hold it against her side. That arm never was right and her life never was easy.

Allie Lough’s daughter, my grandmother, Mary, had five children, and for several years she raised them in a tent in the Wyoming oilfields. There was no indoor plumbing, of course, and not much protection against the winter winds that whip across the Salt Creek field. Mary worked when she could because money was always in short supply. When she was young she worked in a post office located in a dugout in Price Creek, Colorado. Later, when I first knew her, she was a seamstress at the H & G Dry Cleaners in Casper, Wyoming. At least that was her paid job. In her unpaid capacity as grandmother, she made wonderful clothes. I particularly remember a red strapless formal she made me when I was sixteen. She had sewn yards and yards of ruffles onto it, and it was spectacular. I wore that dress the first time I went out with Dick Cheney. In fact, that dress may be the reason he kept asking me out.

These were tough women, my foremothers, and I suspect many of you in this room have similar stories. And you are privileged--we all are privileged--to know the stories of Texas pioneers like Mary Maverick, who demonstrated such resilience.

But women found something besides adversity in the West, and that is my real theme today. I want to talk about the freedom that women discovered in these vast and open lands, and I want to illustrate my theme by talking about two women who, like Mary Maverick, left behind that most wonderful of legacies--written records of what their lives were like.

The first woman I want to tell you about is Evelyn Cameron, a well-born Englishwoman who came to Montana with her Scottish husband Ewan in 1889. They came hoping to build a fortune by running horses and cattle on the prairie, but as in so many stories of westward migration, they didn’t find that pot of gold. Evelyn found something else, though, a life that appealed to her immensely. There were no social classes as there had been in England. Instead there was a spirit of equality. There were no pretenses. Instead there was hard, invigorating work. Evelyn wrote to a niece in England, “Manual labour . . . is all I care about, and, after all, is what will really make a strong woman. I like to break colts, brand calves, cut down trees, ride and work in a garden.”

Hard work, she firmly believed, was the cure for sadness, the remedy for heartache. When a young friend’s letter to her indicated a perilous emotional state, Evelyn Cameron invited her to come visit. “I have so many stock chores to do that I do not feel in a position to entertain a guest,” she wrote, “but I know you won’t mind that and you can help me pitch hay, feed chickens, etc. These are the tonics that will make you feel the world is not such a bad place after all.”

The friend could not come, a fact that Evelyn much regretted. She wrote, “What lovely pure exhilarating air this is in Montana, it would cure many nervous and other ills if it was only given the chance.”

Now, I do not mean to understate the hardship of life on the high prairies. The winters were formidable, and the isolation could have physical as well as psychological consequences. One of the most harrowing descriptions in Evelyn Cameron’s diary is of a toothache so painful she finally had to do something about it. “Ran wire round [tooth] . . . , her diary reads. “Hung by [wire] from rafter but it broke. Put stronger wire round the tooth, joined ends again to rope which [I] threw over rafter. Stood on trunk [and] let self down easy. This pulled the tooth out.” She describes running into the house to show her husband the tooth--and then, she writes, “Breakfast [I] got merrily.”

For a woman with this irrepressible spirit, the West was an amazing place, and Evelyn Cameron wasn’t content to record it only in words. She took up photography and took thousands of wonderful pictures of friends, neighbors and their children and of the wildlife of the high plains, many of which have been gathered in a book I recommend: Photographing Montana by Donna Lucey. But, as Lucey points out, it is two pictures of Evelyn herself that illustrate what the West meant to her. In one she is sitting in front of a stone house in Britain on a well-groomed horse in precisely tailored clothes: a long skirt, a jacket nipped at the waist, a derby on her carefully done hair. In a later Montana photograph, as Lucey describes it:

She is informally posed on a riverbank, with hills in the distance. . . . The horse is unclipped. Her skin has been browned by the sun and wind, and her hair has been carelessly pulled back into a ponytail. A nondescript, boxy jacket and a formless hat squashed on top of her head complete her riding outfit. In her lap is a bear cub.

Evelyn Cameron never found her fortune, but she was, without doubt, a fortunate woman.

The second woman I want to talk about was a widow, the mother of a little girl. She had no formal education and worked as a washerwoman in Denver, but she had mighty aspirations. She wrote to a friend of her plans to see the cliff dwellers’ homes and “to live right there until I caught the spirit of the surroundings enough to live over their lives in imagination.” She wanted to see the old missions and go to Alaska and hunt in Canada. And she didn’t get to do those things, but she did get to move to Wyoming in the early part of the twentieth century. She got a job as a housekeeper for a rancher who promised to advise her about land and water rights as she homesteaded. One thing led to another and she married Mr. Stewart and led a life that was full of hard work and satisfaction.

When her husband couldn’t find help, Elinore Stewart ran the mowing machine for him. “I have done most of my cooking at night,” she wrote at one point, “have milked seven cows every day, and have done all the haycutting, so you can see I have been working. But I have found time to put up thirty pints of jelly and the same amount of jam.” Having worked so hard, she decided to take a day off, which consisted of saddling up, putting her toddler on the horse behind her and heading out. “We followed a stream higher up into the mountains,” she wrote in September, 1912:

and the air was so keen and clear at first we had on our coats. There was a tang of sage and of pine in the air, and our horse was midside deep in rabbit-brush, a shrub just covered with flowers that look and smell like goldenrod. . . . Presently about noon we came to a little dell where the grass was as soft and as green as a lawn. The creek kept right up against the hills on one side and there were groves of quaking asp[en] and cottonwoods that made shade, and service-bushes and birches that shut off the ugly hills on the other side. . . . We caught a few grasshoppers and I cut a birch pole for a rod. The trout are so beautiful now, their sides are so silvery, with dashes of old rose and orange, their speckles are so black, while their backs look as if they had been sprinkled with gold-dust.

For women with Elinore Stewart’s spirit, the West offered so much. There was sadness and there were tragedies, to be sure. In one of her letters, Elinore Stewart talks about “a dear little child who has joined the angels,” and how she dressed him and helped make his casket. Some two years later she finally tells the friend to whom she writes that the baby--his name was Jamie--was hers. “Little Jamie was the first little Stewart,” she wrote her friend. “God has given me two more precious little sons. The old sorrow is not so keen now. I can bear to tell you about it but I never could before.”

But the overwhelming impression that Elinore Stewart’s letters leave is of great responsibilities well-fulfilled and of fewer constraints than women experienced in more settled parts of the country. It makes a great deal of sense, if you think about lives like Stewart’s and Margaret Cameron’s, that it was in the West that Americans first recognized that women as well as men were created equal. Women got the right to vote in Wyoming Territory in 1869. In 1893, Colorado extended suffrage to women; in 1896, Utah and Idaho; in 1910, Washington state; in 1911, California; in 1912, Oregon, Kansas and Arizona--and all the while, women seeking suffrage in the East were frustrated at every turn.

Now I feel obliged to note that Texas women had to wait until 1918 to be able to vote in state primaries, but if the lone star state was a little slow in getting started, but has definitely made up for it since by providing us with outstanding leaders such as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Congresswoman Kay Granger.

As the examples of these two women make clear, women in the United States today are leading us at the highest levels, and while we look to a future in which there will be more achievements, I think it is safe to say that right now in no country in the world are women freer to live their lives as they choose and contribute as they will. And one of the origins of this freedom, I think it is also safe to say, can be found in the lives of pioneer women in the West. This is a fitting thing to remember, given the National Cowgirl Museum’s effort to preserve the memory of what the lives of women in the West were like. And it is a fitting thing for us to have in mind, given the great struggle our nation is involved in today. The United States is a land where women are free, and we are defending the freedom of our daughters as well as our sons against a foe that has decided that women do not even deserve to go to school.

Thus it is that we defend America, as the President has said, “assured of the rightness of our cause.” And we also defend this beloved country of ours, again in the President’s words, “confident of victories to come.”

Thank you so much for having me here with you today.