The Lesson of Laura Ingalls Wilder

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by W.F. Price on January 24, 2011

We hear a lot about how if only men would “man up,” take the reins and stop acting like overgrown children, women would magically fall in line and reveal their inner sainthood, which is only kept corked in by those awful men all around them. This is a recent slant on the old myth of women’s inherent purity that has been floating around since the Romantics made a splash in Western thought and literature. For some time before the sexual revolution, men’s depravity was a given, and for the most part women did behave well and behave as ladies. Today, however, now that women’s liberation has been achieved through the economic and legal subjugation of men, it’s getting a lot harder to make a case for female purity and blamelessness.

Nevertheless, scores of people are still trying to do so, with ever more improbable explanations for the rampant promiscuity, lack of consideration for children and family and outright cruelty that has come to characterize Western – and particularly English speaking – women. These explanations always attempt to expose some manner in which ordinary men are responsible, and the solution is always more of the poison that got us in this mess in the first place. Christian churches will demand that men indulge their wives and daughters, never faulting them for anything and working like oxen to provide for their every appetite. In fact, if a wife goes off the rails, the husband is always considered to be at fault in some manner, and more sacrifice is demanded of him. Maybe he wasn’t “ambitious” enough, perhaps he had lust in his heart, or maybe he just failed by not being in the upper 5% of the income bracket that would allow his wife to lead the life she demands without having to take a job herself. The list goes on and on; the feminists make pretty much the same arguments, but with a different twist. There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between these social conservatives and feminists, because when the song and dance is over the finger is always pointed at the ordinary stiff.

To provide a contrast, I’m going to draw upon an American cultural icon — one that people over the age of 30 or so should all have some familiarity with. Although very young adults and children may not know who she is, Laura Ingalls Wilder, née Laura Elizabeth Ingalls, was an important chronicler of life on the frontier of the American Midwest. The popular TV series Little House on the Prairie was based on her stories, and I watched many episodes while growing up. My mother and sister both read the books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, as did millions of other Americans, most of whom were women. Most of the stories concern life on the prairie as a farm girl, which was full of hardship and struggle with the forces of nature in the northern states of the Great Plains. Mrs. Wilder drew inspiration from her childhood, and viewed the hard work and cooperation that helped her family prosper as a source of pride.

Laura's parents

Laura’s father was a bit of a wanderer – the quintessential American pioneer – who moved from one state to the next to work the land, finally settling in the Dakota territory in 1879. She hailed from the American yeomanry, that class of sober, industrious people who lived by the word of the Good Book and formed the stable bedrock for the foundation of America’s powerful, prosperous society. These were not the wild Indian fighters, cowboys and prospectors that occupy so much of the popular imagination due to their colorful and dramatic lives, awash in whiskey, perfumed by the acrid, brimstone smell of gunsmoke and driven by a lust for gold. No, their gold grew out of the rich, black soil of the Great Plains, sowed by sober hands of husbandmen.

This was the environment Laura grew up in. It took a great deal of work, and she was expected to contribute to the household to the best of her ability. From a young age she had physically demanding chores, including milking cows, fetching water from the well, cooking, cleaning and anything else she could do to help out. Winters were bad in Kansas when she was a little girl, but in the Dakotas they were far more severe. Her father had no sons, so all the girls did their best to pitch in. Laura began teaching before the age of 16, helping children learn their reading, writing and arithmetic in a one-room schoolhouse. She didn’t particularly like it, but her family needed the help, so she did her job without complaint.

Almanzo Wilder

At about this time, a young settler named Almanzo Wilder took an interest in her. The 25-year-old farmer saw something he liked in the bright, hard-working 15-year-old girl, and when she reached the age of 18, they married.

Almanzo was a handsome man, and it looked as though the young couple had a bright future. But life is not always gentle, and shortly after the couple married both were stricken by diptheria, which left Almanzo crippled. Then their baby boy died shortly after birth, drought ruined their crops, and they sank into debt. The first years of marriage were a terrible trial, and the healthy, promising husband Laura married had become an invalid who couldn’t support a family. In 1890, five years after they married, they had to move back in with her parents so that Almanzo could recuperate and the young couple could survive. Once Almanzo recovered most of his mobility (he never fully recovered), they started over; Almanzo took jobs as a laborer and Laura worked as a seamstress to save up enough money to buy more farmland.

Laura as a young woman

Eventually, in 1894, they were able to buy 40 acres of wooded land on a hill near Mansfield, Missouri. They lived in a tiny log cabin without windows, selling wagonloads of cordwood in town to get by as they cleared the land acre by acre with axe and saw. Supplementing their income with jobs in town, the diligent work eventually started to pay off. It took nearly 20 years, but by middle age the couple had achieved a degree of prosperity and respectability, and could count themselves among the town’s middle class. It was at this point that Laura began to write, first for an enthusiastic local audience in the Ozarks, and then for the wider regional audience, which appreciated her farming expertise as well as the interesting stories and opinions she shared. Her column was titled “As a Farm Woman Thinks.”

Laura as a writer

Laura Ingalls Wilder may have been a remarkable woman, but she was far from extraordinary for the time. What really set her apart from other farm wives was not her grit or determination, but her talent for writing, particularly her skill in writing about lives they could relate to. Looking back from today, it is amazing to think that the patience and determination with which she faced her travails characterized most of society. But it is a fact that she was popular not for being a superstar of one sort or another, but rather the kind of woman that midwestern families knew and relied on. They appreciated her for her love of their way of life, and her advice in helping others succeed and prosper in the face of formidable obstacles.

For his part, Almanzo was fortunate to have a wife like Laura. But then again, he was far from alone in this blessing. She did what any man of the time would have expected of a wife. Certainly, Almanzo had no intention of falling ill and spiraling into debt in the first few years of marriage, but these things happen, and rather than guilt, he felt more appreciation for the sacrifices his wife made, and as soon as he was able he pulled the family back up from the skids. In the beginning of his marriage, Almanzo “failed” in a many ways. Because they rarely spoke about intimate matters in those days, we can only imagine the frustration and sorrow the young family faced during those hard times. From the evidence, all we can see is that they overcame it together. The young couple must have taken their wedding vows seriously — what an odd concept!

Today, despite the huge increase in comfort and prosperity, a young couple like the Wilders in their first few years of marriage would be out of luck. Preachers would be hollering at Almanzo that he “isn’t a real man” because his wife has to work to support him (oddly, preachers seem to think telling their female congregants that their husbands are losers will prevent divorce — are they stupid, or evil for that?), Laura’s friends would all be telling her to dump the loser and move on as a single mother, and even her parents might do their best to shove them apart. Laura probably would have divorced Almanzo to live an unfulfilling life as a single mother and schoolteacher, and Almanzo would have a diminished life as a noncustodial parent working lousy jobs just to pay his child support and keep himself fed and clothed — he’d certainly have no motivation to do any more. All that potential the couple had would be squandered by the combined onslaught of social conservative and feminist man-blaming, which is really nothing more than social pressure pushing women away from constructive family roles as wives and mothers. And of course, if it all finally turned out to be a big tragedy for the young family, all the righteous types would smirk and say “see, it really is your fault Almanzo, because you are an inferior man, and didn’t deserve Laura.” Then they would set about “changing” men to make them better, because something must be wrong with men for this to be such a common occurrence.

Laura at 70

If the wreckers of the modern American family had the kind of social influence they do today 200 years ago, the United States would have been stillborn. There would be no superpower with enough wealth and bounty to feed this clamorous horde of parasites. Fortunately for the Wilders, they didn’t really get going until after both were dead. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this is what we have to contend with.

After achieving prosperity and comfort, the Wilders lived long, happy lives. Almanzo died at 92, and was followed eight years later by his wife, Laura, who lived to 90, dying in 1959.

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