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Women in the West

Narratives that reference expansion west during the second half of the nineteenth century often focus on the rugged landscape, untamed wilderness, and hearty men who took control of the untamed Great Plains. Missing from these narratives, however, are the vital contributions by women of all ages. While the works of Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder were written in the early twentieth century, they reflect upon common experiences amongst young people that merits consideration as key primary documents to understanding social and cultural life among settlers in the Great Plains. While the role of women generally has not been emphasized by historians of the period, it may be due in part to the perceived importance of political and economic history over the day to day functioning of families in the west. In this essay, I will examine Willa Cather’s My Antoniaand the novels Little House on the Prairieand On the Banks of Plum Creekby Laura Ingalls Wilder to focus attention on the role of women in the west, and argue that women in the west had the power to create homes and social spheres in hostile landscapes to ensure the happiness of those in their families. These works also provide insight to interactions that settlers had with other cultures, providing a more complex view of these relations, which provides additional support as to their importance as primary sources in examining farm life in the nineteenth century.

While Little House on the Prairiewas published in 1935, it mentions details that shaped the western experience, and adds detail as to how women aided in the work. This book covers the migration of the Ingalls family from Wisconsin to Kansas, after the family patriarch, Charles, received information that the United States government would soon force the indigenous people out of that area. On the journey, while crossing a creek, the water level rose quickly, which frightened the horses, and mud trapped the wheels of the wagon in which they were travelling.[1]Charles asked his wife, Caroline, to take the reins of the horses while he ran into the water to soothe them. Tasked not only with driving the wagon, but also with calming her three young children, Caroline showed remarkable courage in getting her family to safety. This early encounter shows how the journey was an effort conducted by a family, and not a male farmer pulling a reluctant or complacent family west. When the family arrives to Kansas, they unload their wagon and begin building their house near a plot of trees. This was especially important in the West, as lumber was a scarce and therefore costly resource. The family could hardly have built the house without the help of Caroline. As the parents attempted to raise a log for the walls of their home, they dropped the heavy log, and it landed on Caroline’s foot, resulting in a sprain.[2]The family was forced to wait to finish construction until her foot healed, showing how central women were not only in homemaking, but also in manual labor. This serves as a contrast to the perception that men were the breadwinners and sole manual labor sources in the west.

My Antonia similarly features the depiction of women as necessary forces of labor in ways that ultimately may have saved their family. After Antonia’s father died, shortly after they settled in Nebraska, the majority of the farm labor was done by Antonia and her brother, Ambrosch. They were the two oldest siblings and the ones most capable of physical labor. Some seasons, Antonia was even able to act as a hired hand on neighboring farms, although this was lamented by Mrs. Steavens who said that Ambrosch hired his sister out “like a man.”[3]James Burden’s grandmother also grieved for Antonia, saying “things would have been very different with poor Antonia if her father had lived.”[4]This statement, while enforcing the expected gender roles of a young woman, also shows how vitally important women were in families when tragedy did occur. If Antonia had been unable to work, her family likely would have struggled much more than they did. The farmers who hired Antonia liked her, treated her well, and preferred her company to Ambrosch’s and he was seen as crude and harsh. James had moved to town with his family and his grandmother, still upset that a young girl like Antonia was doing manual labor, arranged a job for her with the Harlings. There, Antonia would be able to continue to provide income to her family and learn how to be a proper homemaker. While Antonia did enjoy her work with the Harlings, she left their employ after a few years, eventually having a child out of wedlock.[5]Despite the cultural shame surrounding the birth, Antonia was able to marry Anton Cuzak, another Bohemian, and raise a family with him. Anton admitted to Jim that he had little experience with farm work and preferred the city himself, but when farm life became difficult Antonia helped the family push through. It is possible that without Antonia’s experience working the land as a young girl, her family would not have been able to prosper, as Anton had little farm experience.[6]Antonia preferred the country herself, even though townspeople had encouraged her to work in the city as a young woman. Antonia’s experience with farm work demonstrates the importance women had in settling west, where she was able to support the family she was raised in and the family she raised due to her knowledge.

Although Antonia preferred the country to city life, she did learn to be an effective homemaker, as did Laura and her sister, Mary, in The Little House on the Prairie Series. While homemaking might seem to be a less important role than farming, this is likely due to the devaluation of women’s labor. Cooking, cleaning, setting up home, sewing and mending clothing, and child rearing were jobs that needed to be completed, and ensured the effective functioning of a household. These were also not exclusively gender based activities, as Antonia’s father made hats for her and her sister Yulka out of rabbit skins.[7]However, Caroline, the mother of Laura and Mary, is most commonly portrayed sewing, knitting, and cooking. Mary, being only nine years old kept her quilting materials in her box with paper dolls, showing the transition between childhood and adult work.[8]The two Ingalls daughters also made important decisions for the family when left in charge of the home. After they were left to manage the house and their youngest sister while their parents went into town, Laura and Mary boldly decided to take more firewood into their house during a blizzard.[9]This was a small action, but shows young girls took practical actions to assist their families to avoid disaster. On a separate occasion, when a neighbor’s herd of cattle began to eat the hay that Charles had stored for winter, the sisters tried to scare the cattle off and preserve the food that was to be saved for their livestock.[10]While they were ultimately unsuccessful, the girls demonstrate knowledge of the functioning of their family, and take steps to preserve their property. These incidents highlight that girls under ten years old were able to care for the family in short instances, serving as important members of a successfully functioning family unit.

These books provide varying information on ethnic others in the Great Plains, from European immigrants to Native Americans, which serves to provide context and depth to the reader’s understanding of the experiences on the Great Plains. In Little House on the Prairie, Charles had decided to move the Ingalls family west after receiving word from a contact in Washington that the land in Kansas would soon be opened to white settlers. He sought to get ahead of the others who would move there once the Natives were expelled from the land. The Ingalls built their first house west of Wisconsin in front of what they thought was a path formerly used by Native Americans. This was an inaccurate assumption, as the Natives must have been out of the area at that time, and returned soon after the family settled. The Ingalls first interacted with the Natives when they entered their newly built home, and Caroline was left to host them.[11]The two men took all the tobacco and ate much of the cornmeal, which could harm a family that lived on a tight budget and four days away from town to purchase more. While this initial interaction seems negative, Charles tells the family of the interaction he had while hunting for a panther. An indigenous man had communicated to Charles that he had killed the panther, and there was no use continuing the search.[12]This shows Natives as a helpful community. The book shows varied responses to Native encounters, with one neighbor, Mrs. Scott stating “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” which was contextualized by her understanding of massacres by Natives in Minnesota.[13]Ultimately, the Ingalls leaves their house in Kansas once they receive information that government soldiers would soon arrive on the behalf of the natives. To the Ingalls family, this means conducting the same actions, setting up home and a farm, in a new location within a short span of time. The Natives are not blamed by Charles for this, but neighbors do express resentment. These encounters are demonstrative of the mixed feelings towards Natives, and the consequences of the interactions. Little House on the Prairieshows nuanced interactions between the two groups, which lend insight as to what people felt toward the indigenous community and why. As an increasingly industrial population sought to develop and tame land, they naturally came into conflict with the rightful residents of the land who did not maintain the same goals.

These works examined here, by Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder, serve as valuable information of the lived experiences of the first young generation Americans who settled in the Great Plains. My Antonia, Little House on the Prairie, andOn the Banks of Plum Creek capture the grit often associated with life west, but also explain how families of all types sought to make the new landscape work in their favor. These attempts to create a home in an unfamiliar environment show how integral women were to the functioning of Western Societies. While women are not traditionally associated with success in the west, these books prove that without the help of women, the experiences of men were far inferior could be unsuccessful. The work that women did went far beyond cooking and keeping house, women served as laborers on farms and helped build the homes in which they would reside. These books, especially Little House on the Prairie, also detail the nuances of interaction with Native Americans which are clearly complex, even though the accounts are written from the perspective of a child. Ultimately, these books echo concepts of industrialism, willingness to work, and aims for success so often associated with migration west, while adding the importance of family and community to the narrative.

[1]Wider, Little House on the Prairie, 19-20.

[2]Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, 19-20.

[3]Cather, My Antonia, 60.

[4]Cather, My Antonia, 63.

[5]Cather, My Antonia, 117.

[6]Cather, My Antonia, 141-142.

[7]Cather, My Antonia, 20.

[8]Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek,123.

[9]Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek,288.

[10]Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek,72.

[11]Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, 123.

[12]Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, 236.

[13]Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, 191.

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