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The role of pioneer women

February 13, 2012
By Ellayne Conyers , Marshall Independent

Part III:

Two seasonal jobs that occupied every frontier woman were soap and candle making. Successful soap making required that she carefully collect grease and ashes for an entire year. One day in the spring, the ashes and some lime were put into a barrel and dampened. They were left to sit like that for several days. On soap-making day, a gallon of water was poured into the ash barrel every hour or tow. When the water seeped out a small hole in the bottom of the barrel, it had become lye. Now the woman's skill and experience was crucial. If the lye was too weak the soap would never harden; if it was too strong the soap would also be ruined.

Maria Child explained in 'The Frugal Housewife,' 'If your lye will bear up an egg, or a potato, so that you can see a piece on the surface as big as nine pence, it is just strong enough.' The lye was poured into a pail of grease and boiled for three or four hours until it turned into soap. The soap was then poured into wooden boxes or crocks and left to harden.

Since a woman's work was seldom done when the sun set, making candles was another important job. These could be as simple or as elegant as there was time and money. One pioneer woman described her light as simply, 'a saucer filled with coon's oil with a rag in it.' Better candles required money for wicks and molds. Tallow, made from grease, was melted in a large pot. The wicks were dipped into the tallow, hung up to dry, and then dipped again. In this way, successive coats of tallow were built up over several hours. Hot tallow could also be poured into molds and left to harden into candles.

By the feeble light of these candles, women mended shirts and knitted socks while their husbands made furniture or oiled a harness. Pioneers' lives have often been portrayed as exciting and full of adventure. In reality, they were filled with repetitive chores from sun-up to sundown.

Loneliness and unending hard labor were not supposed to be part of a woman's sphere, but a pioneer woman tolerated them because she believed they were only temporary. She lived in a state of anticipation of a better life. For the present, she would have to move out of her sphere and defer her ideas of domesticity. But she fully planned to regain them in the future. If her home became the busy hub of economic activities instead of a cozy and quiet retreat from the world, it still did not change her ideas about what a home should be. Instead, she worked hard to increase the family fortune so that one day they could move from a sod hut or log cabin into a real clapboard house with an elegant parlor and a clean kitchen.

While they waited for better times, frontier women helped with field work, ran small businesses, took over complete management of the farm while their husbands were away, and generally did many things that contradicted the 19th century stereotype of women as weak and dependent. The fact that they did men's jobs did not mean, however, that women stopped believing in domesticity. Most women did not see doing men's work as 'liberating.' On the contrary, it was a step backward. Whey should they want to do men's work when they had enough of their own to do?

For those women who could temporarily deter domesticity, the pioneer experience as basically positive. For those who could not adjust, the pioneer experience was brutal and dehumanizing. For some men and women, the endless work, the absence of support and guidance from their church, and homesickness for friends and relatives seemed overpowering. They abandoned their homesteads and went back East, they took to drinking, or they simply went mad.

But the majority survived. One way women kept hold of their sanity was to 'civilize' their communities as soon as possible. This meant organizing activities like quilting bees, where they could discuss with other women child-raising questions, gardening problems, and other such concerns. It meant establishing schools, churches, and charities in which women could work actively to promote good morals and culture.

While recreating the life they had lived in the East or in Europe was the dominant reaction to pioneer living it was not the only one. Remember the great diversity of women who lived in the West. For those perennial pioneers who pulled up stakes and moved on to greener pastures every few years, settling down in the perfect new home always remained a dream. For women who settled far from any town and for those whose farms did not prosper, working only in the house and being a moral force in the community was simply impossible. For some, the cult of domesticity did not describe the good life. They wanted something. So they took advantage of the loosely structured western life to become cattle ranchers, doctors, lawyer, actress, miners, and outlaws.

Source: Grace Rollag Papers, Minnesota Historical Society.

All I want to add to this series about the role of pioneer women is, I am so glad that I did not live in that era.

 
 

 

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