Women of Alaska: Daring and Resilient

Kate at Alaskan BorderThe history of women in Alaska is fascinating. When gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, a hundred thousand people from all over the world flocked to Skagway, Alaska, headed for the Klondike. Only thirty thousand made it over the mountains. A small fraction of them were women, and their stories are often overlooked in history.

That’s me at the border between Alaska and the Yukon. I like to think I’m standing at the top of the world.

Skagway was a remarkable town because of the freedom that women had to pursue their goals. At the start of the gold rush, it’s estimated that only 2 to 4% of the population was made up of women. The percentage climbed quickly. By 1900, just a short four years after it began, women made up roughly 20% of the town. Because the land was uncivilized and lawless before they arrived, the women of Alaska had fewer constrictions than their sisters in the lower states. They owned their own property, ran businesses and shops without the help of men, and some even traveled to the Klondike and struck gold on their own.

Hooray for Alaska! Women weren’t coddled–unless they wanted to be. There were the prostitutes who earned their living, but there were many more law-abiding, hardworking women who opened jewelry stores, sandwich shops, cafés, laundry houses, and even those who tried their hand at casinos. Women knew how to look good in a corset and gown, but many also knew how to chop wood, balance a ledger, hire and fire workers, and get a house built. Many of them became wealthy in their own right.

Over the years as I’ve researched and written my Westerns, there are other things about the Wild West that I’ve found fascinating. For instance, when the Western frontier first opened up, the average ratio of men to women was roughly 10 to 1. Women were cherished and respected because they were scarce. Consequently, a married woman who was being abused by her husband wasn’t as afraid to get a divorce and leave him. She would be quickly snatched up by a kinder man, and she and her children would be well taken care of. Therefore, the divorce rate in the West was slightly higher than the Eastern seaboard. Depending on the state, women had more freedom in property rights, voting, and marriage. It’s that freedom that I love to write about.

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