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Feminine Frontier Days

SUNDAY BRUNCH

July 05, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

The Wild West and wild, wild women, madams and gun-toting outlaws. That's the stereotype. Wrong, says historian Gloria Lothrop: Of the 1 million women west of the Mississippi by 1890, the vast majority were wives and helpmates with important societal roles.

Lothrop, who holds the W.P. Whitsett chair in California history at Cal State Northridge, will discuss "The Not-So-Shady Ladies of the West" at 2 p.m. today at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.

Her talk will precede a screening of "Johnny Guitar," the 1954 Joan Crawford film which is the first in the museum's film and lecture series, "Reel Western History."

Crawford plays an ex-dance hall girl who runs a saloon in a small town, and fights to keep her land and business from a corrupt railroad. Museum programs associate Jeffrey Barber says he chose the film because it illustrates that "women in the West made significant contributions."

Indeed, says Lothrop, they were essential as companions, homemakers and childbearers. "The frontier was no place for a bachelor" and commerce in mail-order brides was brisk.

Another role of women, says Lothrop, was "to keep the ties alive with the parent culture. There was often the fear that the frontiersmen would be, in a sense, brutalized by the environment--think Grizzly Adams--and women were expected to maintain the amenities."

And, she adds, "as the frontier was moving, shifting from one location to another, as towns were established, someone had to be responsible for the social services, the education, the Sunday schools. It's been said that women were the city builders of the Wild West."

On Aug. 2, the film will be "Giant," the 1956 epic which tells the story of two generations of a Texas family and the rise of the oil industry. It stars James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Before the screening, James Williams, director emeritus of the California History Center and author of "Energy and the Making of Modern California," will talk about the history of oil in the West.

On Sept. 6, a 1955 James Stewart film, "The Far Country," the story of the Alaska Gold Rush of the 1890s, will be shown. A talk about the mining frontier and contemporary issues in mining will be given by Robert Spude, a program manager for the National Park Service and secretary of the Mining History Assn.

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All programs are at 2 p.m. in the Wells Fargo Theater of the museum, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park. Admission is $4 for members, $5 for nonmembers. Program information: (213) 667-2000.

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