Finding Rural Women

Caroline and Charles Ingalls at the time of their marriage in 1860. "Ma" may not have fully recognized the character in her daughter's books.
Caroline and Charles Ingalls at the time of their marriage in 1860. “Ma” may not have fully recognized the character in her daughter’s books.

As historian Joan Jensen likes to point out, until quite recently most American women were rural women living on farms and in small towns. Yet somehow, historians of American women have chosen to either focus more on urban areas or remove geography from the equation all together.

I came to the field of rural women’s studies as a senior in college. As I collected oral histories of farm women, they told different stories than those in my history books. They had worked hard throughout their lives and they did not question their value or their worth. I devoted the next ten years, and my first book, On Behalf of the Family Farm, to figuring out where these women fit into the narratives of US History after 1945 and second wave feminisms. And now, with American Athena, I’m excited to tackle a similar problem in the nineteenth century.

There are two narratives regarding white women on the Midwestern frontier. The first is one of strength and ingenuity. The story goes that white women found freedom on the frontier as they were unencumbered by Eastern sensibilities and their skills were essential for survival in a “howling wilderness.” This is the story you read in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, wherein the industrious Ma comes up with solutions to even the most dire problems (think oil lamp and coffee grinder in The Long Winter).

The other narrative is one of deprivation, isolation, and misery. The latter narrative is more closely aligned with first hand accounts from New Englanders and more literate travelers who had the means to publish their observations. Take for example Rebecca Burlend’s reaction upon departing a steamboat at Griggs Landing along the Illinois River in 1831 (just as the Jacksonville Female Academy was founded). After migrating from England, Burlend recalled how:

“My husband and I looked at each other till we burst into tears, and our children observing our disquietude began to cry bitterly. Is this America, thought I, is this the reception I meet with after my long, painfully anxious and bereaving voyage?”

-From A True Picture of Emigration, Milo Milton Quaife, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), p. 43

While it is true that men valued women’s homemaking skills, some evidence suggests that the men did not necessarily value the women themselves. During the 1830s, Elizabeth Farnham, a New York-born Quaker traveling through Illinois, recounted a conversation with a newly married farmer who hardly relied on romantic feelings when selecting his new wife. Rather, as Farnham recalled, he said:

“‘I reckon women are some like horses and oxen, the biggest can do the most work, and that’s what I want one for.'”

– From Elizabeth W. Farnham, Life in Prairie Land,  (1846. Reprinted by New York: Arno Press, 1972), 37-38.

Observers from abroad stood aghast at the living conditions of women who married younger, worked harder (farm labor being scarce), and bore more children on average than their Eastern counterparts. In 1832, British writer Frances Trollope noted:

“It is rare to see a woman in this station who has reached the age of thirty, without losing every trace of youth and beauty. You continually see women with infants on their knee, that you feel sure are their grand-children, till some convincing proof of the contrary is displayed. Even the young girls, though often with lovely features, look pale, thin, and haggard.”

– From Domestic Manners of the Americans, ed. Donald Smalley (New York: Knopf, 1949), 118.

While I don’t doubt the validity of Trollope’s observations, I believe the overall truth to be somewhere between Ma Ingalls (who is a fictional character based on a real person, btw) and the misery Trollope described. In Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie, historian John Mack Faragher mined census and court documents that revealed astoundingly high birth rates, as well as an unstable society affected by divorce, death, and abuse; these conditions disproportionately affected white women who were dependent on men for access to land and income. In other words, Rebecca Burlend was not out of line bursting into tears at her prospects in the Illinois River Valley.

On the other hand, the fact that Jacksonville had three institutions of higher learning for women by 1860, and all three enjoyed high enrollments, suggests that there was a segment of society interested in at least educating females, alleviating poverty, and involving women in civil society. Rebecca Burlend cried at the site of the howling wilderness at Griggs Landing, but a mere 30-miles away the JFA was already available for her daughters (we’ve not found evidence that they attended, however).

So far the database we’re creating has suggested that many of the students came from very rural and farm backgrounds, and this begs the question of what, exactly, their parents hoped their daughters might gain. Those depraved women in log cabins that Trollope found so to be miserable actually had an educational institution that welcomed them. Furthermore, the women’s colleges all offered liberal arts educations identical to those offered men at Illinois College. Writing in the 1830s, Christina Holmes Tilson, an author and founding member of the Ladies Education Association of Jacksonville (a group that provided scholarships to women attending the JFA), echoed Trollope in her observations of frontier women and even took her criticism a step further by condemning male heads of as power-hungry tyrants. She wrote,

“If [the men] had slaves the authority was exercised over them; if not, the wife was the willing slave; perhaps not so much from fear as from want of knowing anything to assert.”

– From A Woman’s Story of Pioneer Illinois, Milo Milton Quaife, ed. (Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1919), p. 102

Later in A Woman’s Story of Pioneer Illinois, Tilson recounts a conversation that demonstrated the dire need not only for educational institutions, but the need to simply create an ethos among the people to value women’s participation. She wrote:

“‘If a man had books and keered to read he mought; but women had no business to hurtle away their time, cause they could allus find something to du.’ … Such were Jesse’s honest sentiments, and such was the standard of at least nine-tenths of the inhabitants that were our neighbors.”

– From A Woman’s Story of Pioneer Illinois, Milo Milton Quaife, ed. (Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1919), p. 82.

It is this very conflict that Tilson grappled with in the 1830s that I am interested in learning more about as research continues on American Athena. The concept of feminism did not enter the American consciousness until well into the twentieth century, but the idea that women could contribute to civil society in a participatory democracy is a very old idea and one that we can see playing out in Jacksonville. This project is especially exciting to me because these debates over women’s education and civic engagement are taking place far from Boston, New York, or Philadelphia, and far from the easily recognizable women’s colleges, like the Troy Female Seminary or Bryn Mawr. They are unfolding on the Midwestern frontier where historians have yet to truly explore (one excellent example is Joan Jensen’s Calling This Place Home: Women on the Wisconsin Frontier, 1850-1920 (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2006). My hope is that American Athena will shed some light on how women in the nineteenth century, even in the most trying circumstances, chose to shape their destiny.

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