History Friday: Lizzie Johnson Williams – The Anti-Lily Bart

I have always had the sneaking feeling that circumstances peculiar to the Western frontier significantly enabled the successful American struggle for female suffrage. The strangling hand of Victorian standards for feminine conduct and propriety, which firmly insisted that “ladies were not supposed to be interested in such vulgar doings as business and politics” was just not able to reach as far or grip so firmly. There was simply no earthly way for a woman traveling in a wagon along the Platte River, pushing a hand-cart to Salt Lake City, living in a California gold-rush tent city, or a log house on the Texas frontier to achieve the same degree of sheltered helplessness thought appropriate by the standard-bearers of High Victorian culture. It was impossible to be exclusively the angel of the home and hearth, when the hearth was a campfire on the prairie and anything from a stampeding buffalo herd, a plague of locusts or a Comanche war party could wander in. Life on the frontier was too close to a struggle for bare survival at the best of times. No place there for passengers, no room for the passive and trimly corseted lady to sit with her hands folded and abide by the standards of Boston and Eaton Place. The frontier was a hard place, the work unrelenting, but I have often wondered if some women might have found this liberation from the stifling expectations of the era quite exhilarating.

I have also wondered if the men of the West – who had quite enough on their plates already, in just surviving – didn’t find it a relief to deal with a woman who was strong and competent and could hold up her end, rather a bundle of simpering, fluttering helplessness in crinoline. Curiously, the very first American female law officer was a westerner. The first few licensed female doctors gravitated to the frontier west, where the relative rarity of trained medical talent made for a less picky clientele and the first state to grant women the right to vote was Wyoming … in 1869. Later, the struggle for women to gain the right to vote did not meet the fierce resistance in America as it did in Britain. Perhaps the concept did not rattle the masculine cage or arouse a backlash nearly as vicious in Cheyenne as it did in Westminster. Which is curious, since the American west is supposed to be the high holy of aggressive masculinity.

So a woman like Lizzie Johnson could have had the life and career that she did, nowhere else. She was born in Missouri in 1840, and came to Texas with her parents six years later. Her father, Thomas Jefferson Johnson was a schoolteacher and devout Presbyterian, who brought his growing family to Texas. Eventually he set up a boarding school in Hays County, south of Austin and some distance from San Marcos, which drew pupils from the area – and astonishingly, a fair number from other Southern states. Lizzie’s father, known as the Professor, had originally intended it to be a boys school but so many girls applied that it morphed into a coeducational secondary school. The school prospered, and Lizzie (along with her brothers and sisters) taught classes – including bookkeeping. Lizzie turned out to be particularly gifted at mathematics.

This talent would have an unexpected bearing on her later career, which began to blossom in the decade following the Civil War. She taught school in a couple of small towns near Austin before opening her own primary school there in 1873; in a two story house on property she had purchased in her own name. She did more than teach school, though. Complaining of boredom with the same old teaching routine and social affairs in letters to her brother, she had begun to write popular fiction under various pen names for the weekly Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper… and she also did bookkeeping. Her brother John had kept the books for the Day brothers, who had extensive ranching interests in Hays County, and were old neighbors of the Johnson family. There were seven Day brothers; inevitably they were known as the “Weeks.” John never entirely recovered from battlefield injuries incurred during his service as a soldier and when he died, Lizzie took over in his stead. The Professor had kept a small herd of cattle to supplement his income from the school, and Lizzie was now in possession of an income of her own, which she could invest in whatever she chose.

And she chose to invest in real estate and in cattle, about which she became startlingly knowledgeable, for a maiden lady schoolteacher. By the time she opened her own school; she had registered her own brand, owned land and cattle, and was sending substantial herds north to the Kansas railheads. Her life seems astonishingly modern, the farthest thing imaginable from the repressed and constrained fictional women in contemporary novels by serious writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton. She worked at what pleased and rewarded her, and no one – not her father or other male relative had anything to say about her household, her income, and her considerable business interests. Well, her surviving brothers – all younger – might have had a lot to say, but apparently little enthusiasm for attempting any means of control over a formidable woman like Lizzie.

I think of her as the anti-Lily Bart. Another astonishingly modern touch – she married well beyond the age that a woman was expected to have committed in matrimony and it was not for lack of serious suitors. Lizzie was – to judge from contemporary formal daguerreotype portraits in which the length of film exposure made any facial expression except the kind you could hold for some length of time out of the question – a rather attractive woman. Victorian standards of beauty differed considerably from the modern one, admittedly; they favored round-faced blondes and Lizzie was dark-haired and looked rather like Demi Moore. She was no frump either, but dressed elegantly and in the latest fashion. She was courted assiduously over several years by one of the Day brothers and a number of other prosperous men, every one of whom knew her as a woman of property … and moreover, exactly how she came by it. Brains, beauty and business sense apparently had considerable allure.

At the age of 39, this frontier Kate married her Petruchio. He was a handsome and raffish widower with several children, named Hezekiah Williams. Although a retired Baptist preacher and a moderately unsuccessful rancher, he was also a bit of a gambler and drinker. Sensibly, Lizzie married him with the equivalent of a prenuptial agreement in place. She would control her own property acquired before the marriage, as well as anything she acquired in her own name after it.

It seems that Lizzie Johnson Williams chose as well in her marriage as she did everything else, for they maintained a devoted and happily competitive relationship, both in business and in their personal life for thirty-five years. They went up the cattle trail to the northern railheads three times, Lizzie and Hezekiah each with a separate herd; it is thought that Lizzie was the only woman rancher who trailed cattle that she herself owned wholly, in the post-war cattle boom. When she died in 1924, ten years after Hezekiah, her neighbors were astonished to find out that she owned property worth a quarter of a million dollars. She had lived in a modest, not to mention miserly style since the death of her husband. She did not marry into money, or inherit through her family; every dollar of her estate she had earned herself, by teaching, writing and bookkeeping, and parlaying those earnings into land and cattle investments, using her own best judgement. She was a thoroughly modern woman, a hundred years before such women were more the norm.

(Lizzie Johnson is a secondary character in my next book, The Quivera Trail, which will be out in November, 2013. More here – I couldn’t resist including her as a character.)

10 thoughts on “History Friday: Lizzie Johnson Williams – The Anti-Lily Bart”

  1. There were so many women – like the real-life Hallie Lonnigans, Lizzie Johnson, Angelina Eberly, Sally Skull and others – who managed to achieve either a successful partnership with their husbands or a degree of economic independence. The concept of ‘a proper woman/wife can’t do that!’ only held such power because so many women internalized it. Those women who refused that internal shackle – well, the sky was the limit.

  2. Nice story! I was thinking that WW2 was as powerful an influence on female emancipation as the frontier – so many women who built the ships and planes were not going to slink quietly back into the corners.

  3. When I think of these women, I am reminded of my great-grandmother, who died at the age of 98 in 1966. She and my great-granddad homesteaded 160 acres in Howard county in the mid 1880’s when there was very little out there (he was 17 and she was 14 when they married). The Comanche problems were behind them, but there were still plenty of rough characters to make life interesting. Living in a dugout and depending upon dryland farming to make a living was tough. She told stories of how they had to have armed face-offs with cattle rustlers and thieves. One of my uncles told me she and granddad had ended up shooting one bad guy and wounding another.

    She also dipped snuff and could cuss a blue streak when aroused.

  4. Joe I remember a hunting trip in WY in 1976. It was one of those trips where everyting did go wrong, to the point of being a comedy. Anyway in mishap #22, out truck got stuck in the mud and we went walking seeing if we could find someone to loan a tractor (we were naive and/or stupid I think)

    Came across this little house – Mrs Nichols – who with her husband homesteaded in the early 1900s – she led us to the living room where there was a well for the water (that was indoor plumbing in the 1900s)

    She impressed me as one tough old lady!

  5. So by saying that the women in Wyoming were worthy of having the vote in 1869 are you saying that their far more delicate and sheltered Victorian sisters in the east were not. You’re in so much trouble.

  6. I know – LB – but the general historical trend seems to indicate that women in the trans-Mississippi West didn’t have any inhibitions about demanding the franchise, and/or those masculine powers that be didn’t seem to have much heartburn over allowing it to them. That and earning a living independently or in concert with their husbands in whatever enterprise fortune and luck seemed to find them.
    It’s why I love going back to original documents and memoirs – what I find is so much more interesting and complex than the conventional feminist narrative.
    Ah well -F*** ’em if they can’t take a joke, as the traditional saying goes.

  7. It was also the case that the church provided an arena where pre-modern women had a great deal of influence in the community. Many new settlements were products of a church congregation moving west together, especially in the Greater New England northern tier of states, and in such towns many matters of morals and customs were decided in the town church rather than the town hall. In some churches women had formal rights and roles long before they had them under civil law. The Quakers were that way from the founding of Pennsylvania — every congregation had a women’s meeting and a men’s meeting, and both had to agree on any course of action. The Cumberland Presbyterians were the first Presbyterians to ordain women, in the 1880s. I enjoyed the fact that the character Mattie Ross in True Grit was very vocal in her identity as a Cumberland Presbyterian; perhaps it had something to do with her extreme independence and self-reliance.

    The early vote for women in Wyoming was actually not a result of women pushing for it; the men voted it in voluntarily because there was an extreme shortage of women in the territory in the early days and they hoped it would encourage more women to move out. It is perhaps the case that the frontier men were so independent-minded and cussed that they weren’t intimidated by the idea of independent-minded omen.

  8. }}} Living in a dugout and depending upon dryland farming to make a living was tough. She told stories of how they had to have armed face-offs with cattle rustlers and thieves.

    What? Why didn’t they just go to Home Depot and buy what they needed on credit?


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