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Strong Pioneer Women: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Western Classics

by Rachel McGinnis

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867 in Pepin, Wisconsin, the daughter of Charles and Caroline Ingalls.  This prolific American woman had a number of occupations throughout her lifetime, ranging from a farmer to a schoolteacher, but it was her writing that caused her to become a staple of western culture.

From ages sixty-five to seventy-six, Laura authored the Little House series, which chronicled her life as a western pioneer as she traveled through the Dakota territories, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Missouri, which now houses the Laura Ingalls Wilder home and museum exhibit in Mansfield.  Previously, her stories were often mistakenly perceived as an autobiographical telling of her childhood, yet they are now considered historical fiction by contemporary critics.  Although drawing on her personal experiences as an early settler, certain aspects of her life have been altered in the stories to better suit Wilder’s purpose when composing the books to acclimate readers with the pioneer experience.  Wilder’s portrayal of western women, which is unique when compared to the typical female depictions in Wild West and Calamity Jane stories, is perhaps one of the most profound aspects of her novels.

Historically, women in western literature were separated into several stereotypical categories.  Two such groups defined the pioneer women, namely the silent and courageous or the despondent and desperate.  Each group defined a very distinct sect of women, yet it was typical for women in both groups to appear reluctant to travel into the American west as a rugged pioneer.  Ole Edvart Rolvaag’s novel, Giants in the Earth, is an example of such women.  Females in this homesteading novel are reluctant, helpless, and fearful.  Beret Hansa, for example, is often paralyzed with fear and eventually becomes obsessively religious as a reaction to her life as a pioneer.  Another woman, Kari, goes insane due to the loss of her son who was buried in the prairie without a coffin or funeral service.  These women embody the desperate and despondent stereotype and are incredibly distinct from the females in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels who are capable, helpful, and strong.

Other instances of women in stories concerning life in the Old West reveal alternative stereotypes that are exceptionally unflattering to the female gender as well.  Joan Jenson and Darlis Miller explored the historical literary tradition of female pioneers and found that the gender in its entirety can basically be grouped into four categories: gentle tamers, sun-bonneted helpmates, hell-raisers, and bad women.

Gentle tamers, as defined by Jenson and Miller, are civilizers, ladies, and suffragists.  They are portrayed often establishing the social and cultural standards that reshaped the West.  They brought morals and manners to the wild men that had rushed westward in an eager attempt to claim the prime farming land first, causing them to forget the restraints of polite society largely because they lacked a female influence.  Improving abominable male behavior with their feminine presence, these women are depicted as beautiful, chaste entities that men revere and place on pedestals.

The sun-bonneted helpmates of men found in the stories of the Old West were responsible for performing routine chores and appropriated the man’s work if their husband or father was unfortunately away.  They endured the difficulties and hardships of civilizing the western half of the United States with little or no complaint, yet it is clear that they did not gain a great deal of satisfaction from this sort of lifestyle.  In the unsettled West, the sun-bonneted helpmates were forced outside their domestic element.  They were compelled to abandon their carefree, whimsical lifestyles in which their basic needs were provided for, exchanging this for a difficult existence in which only by completing daily chores were they able to satisfy their needs.  The fact that these women were able-bodied and competent added to the success of their male counterparts and enabled the family to survive in the harsh western frontier, yet this sort of woman was reluctant and unhappy.  She too was unlike the satisfied, strong women of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels.

Hell raisers, another common female stereotype, were the outrageous cowgirls of the Old West.  These women could shoot, rope, and herd as well as any cowboy on the plain, yet were considerably more scandalous because they lacked manners and a supposedly feminine concern for propriety.  This selection of females shunned the role of a woman as a pillar of morals and manners, choosing to continuously violate the standards of proper society with their clothing, behavior, and activities.  They were the Calamity Jane’s and Bell Star’s of the time period, fighting in violent battles and well educated on how to use a gun among other things of which women were typically ignorant.  Clearly, Wilder’s women did not have a flagrant disregard for morals and manners, as seen in her book series.  In fact, these women had a genuine concern for propriety and lady-like behavior unlike the hell raisers of other western-based literature.

The final woman in literature is simply referred to as the “bad woman.”  This sort of female creates an association between men and sex, raw human nature, and desire.  She was most often portrayed as the prostitute or dancing girl that was found in the saloon or dance hall.  Contemporary versions of this woman often depict her as sloppily dressed and potentially drunk, continuously carrying a flask somewhere on her person.  Her only purpose in literature was to temporarily provide a man with a somewhat feminine retreat from the treacherous outdoor environment and illustrate the carnal, raw attitudes of the Old West.

Nevertheless, historically accurate depictions of the women in unsettled western territory illustrate a different sort of woman.  Following the Homestead Act of 1862, women could claim land as long as they adhered to certain stipulations–build a house and live on and improve the land for five years to earn the full title to the land.  Upon completing the five-year stay, in which six months of each year were spent on the property, the woman was given the full title to the land.  In 1907, it was recorded that 11.9% of homesteaders were women.  Records also indicate that 42.4% of these women successfully cultivated their land for five years and earned the title, more than the 37% of men that succeeded in completing the same task.  Additionally, the literary compositions of women during this time, namely their journals, letters, and other private documents, indicate that, as western pioneers, they had a number of chores and tasks that were absolutely necessary for them to complete to ensure survival.  They were responsible for tending gardens and poultry, cooking meals, sewing, and bearing and educating their children.  A western woman’s contributions were directed toward the family economy, as opposed to the male’s economic contributions, which took place primarily outside the home.  Nevertheless, typical literary presentations of this gender clearly do not do justice to the hard work and tenacity of these successful female pioneers.

With the stereotypical images of women dominating western literature, it is easy to discern why Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels are crucial to the depiction of female pioneers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The females found in her novels are strong, able-bodied pioneers that contribute considerably to the survival of their families, with the most prevalent example being Lauras mother, Caroline Ingalls, in Little House in the Big Woods.

In this book, the first novel of the series, Caroline is most often illustrated completing some sort of household chore or task with her schedule being,

“Wash on Monday,
Iron on Tuesday,
Mend on Wednesday,
Churn on Thursday,
Clean on Friday,
Bake on Saturday,
Rest on Sunday.”

The Ingalls mother is not a dainty, simple-minded young woman who is merely the helpmate of her husband, nor is she a wild cowgirl, bad woman, or gentle tamer.  Through the tasks she completes and the considerable amount of responsibility she has acquired, Caroline Ingalls is illustrated as an essential element to her family’s survival.  The author’s portrayal of this woman breaks the stereotypical mold of western pioneer women as either a helpless, depressed female or an unmannered heathen.  Laura Ingalls Wilder authored a woman that is both a lady and a pioneer and clearly, as seen in the journals of actual female pioneers, a more accurate depiction of a hearty western woman.

One of this remarkable woman’s most important duties, a chore that she repeatedly completes in the novel Little House in the Big Woods is preserving food for the family to consume throughout the winter.  On a number of occasions, such as when Pa Ingalls butchers a pig, she becomes an instrumental asset to her family.  Not only does she salt and preserve the majority of the meat, Caroline is shown using every piece of the animal, from head to tail making headcheese, sausage, lard, hams, and salt-pork, clearly indicating that she is a resourceful and capable woman.  She is also shown smoking venison in a hollowed-out tree and making cheese, soap, sugar, and syrup, each of which is a drawn-out, difficult process.

Caroline Ingalls provides for her family in a number of ways other than food preparation.  She sews a variety of clothing ranging from mittens and thick socks to summer dresses and bed sheets.  In addition to these everyday elements, this woman also uses braided oat straws to make hats for her husband, herself, and her children.  In fact, Laura often recalls her mother sewing by the light of the fire as easily as she remembers her father singing and playing the fiddle as she falls asleep.  Caroline is also responsible for her daughters’ everyday educations as well as the cultivation of a religious understanding given that they lived too far from town to attend either school or church.  Finally, Laura’s mother serves as a nurse to her family, such as when she soothes cousin Charley’s numerous beestings with a muddy salve.  Clearly, she is an intelligent character who has an intimate knowledge of the land, its resources, and how the raw materials can be turned into something useful.  Not only is Charles Ingalls, the rugged male settler, a capable, knowledgeable character; his pioneer wife is as well.

An additional difference between the women of the Old West literary traditions and that of Caroline Ingalls is her attitude and strong state-of-mind.  On a number of occasions, the author describes Caroline Ingalls as happy or laughing, such as in Going to Town and Dance at Grandpa’s.  In moments of despair, however, such as in Two Big Bears, in which Charles does not return home by the anticipated time, Caroline latches the door, assures her daughters that their father will return, and quietly awaits his arrival.  She does not swoon, dejected that her husband has not returned.  Although various accounts of western women encountering difficulty often result in their going mad or failing to fully recover, such as the heroines in Giants in the Earth, Caroline continues to complete the necessary chores.  At one point, she even goes out to milk the cow, Sukey, which was typically her husband’s responsibility.  Additionally, when she unexpectedly encounters a bear at the barn instead of the cow, she cool-headedly returns her daughter and herself to the safety of the house.

Later, in the Little House series, most notably in By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder depicts the character she created, Laura, coming of age and realizing her responsibilities and place in the pioneer world, even at one point going into the field with Charles and assisting her father with “man’s work.”  She, similar to Caroline, becomes a strong, capable pioneer.  Although the stereotypical women of the Wild West stories are notorious fixtures in American literature, the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder redefined these archetypal images.  Instead of women that were either overtly sexual or meek, women were more accurately rendered as hearty, rugged, and resourceful.  They were instrumental to the development of the western frontier and, through these stories, we are better able to appreciate their worthwhile and necessary contributions to the development of the western frontier.

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