Among my favourite girlhood books was the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Late 1800s pioneer life captivated me. Kathryn Adam, a scholar in midwestern women’s history and literature, regards Wilder’s female characters as historical resources that reveal “role expectations and feelings of western women”.
In her essay, Laura, Ma, Mary, Carrie, and Grace: Western Women as Portrayed by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Adam says that Wilder shows us “women engaged in the rigors of homesteading, women building community and culture on the frontier, women working to preserve the family in the face of bitter adversity (…) in a series of vividly realized frontier landscapes.”
Ma Ingalls’s improvising enabled her to create several homes and sustain her family regardless of where adventurous Pa chose to relocate the Ingalls in his quest to advance the family. She navigated patriarchy gently with soft-voiced replies. “Whatever you say, Charles.” Ma believed education was central to civilization and refused to move her daughters too far out on the frontier, away from schools. Wilder writes in her memoir that, “Ma did follow Pa wherever he went, but Pa never went anywhere that Ma wouldn’t follow.” The Ingalls understood that women’s work required skill and contributed to the quality of both family and community. Ma did it all from caring for the dairy and hens to knitting, cooking, entertaining children with stories and music, to extinguishing prairie fires, serving the church and favouring temperance.
Laura Wilder’s love for the prairie seems, to academics, more glowing than typically stated in other pioneer women’s accounts. Although raised with “late-Victorian standards”, Laura preferred wide open spaces and working at Pa’s side. She decried corsets and took pride in loading hay. She regarded herself as the “family rebel” and “naughty”, yet she dutifully sewed and taught school to earn money for the family after her sister Mary went blind.
“Laura’s character, for all her charming rebelliousness and spunk, is thoroughly embedded in the values of the white, American, male late-nineteenth-century—its expansionism, optimism, and economic individualism,” Little House stories reflected her belief in courage, determination, positivity, and family bonds.
Kathryn Adam’s full essay can be found in The Women’s West.
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