Being a peasant, I wanted to talk about farming. More specifically, how Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy depicts a positive view of gender roles through farm life. It’s one of my favorite books, and I looked forward to re-reading it this summer.
From the beginning of the book, gender roles are obvious and seemingly rigid. Here’s a few quotes to illustrate this.
Almanzo did not go into the house. He gave the dinner-pail to Alice, and he went to the barns with Royal. (“Winter Night,” pg 14)
The kitchen was full of hoopskirts, balancing and swirling. Eliza Jane and Alice were hurrying to dish up supper. (“Winter Night,” pgs 23-24)
[Alice] thought it wasn’t fair that she had to go to school while Almanzo gathered sap and ate wintergreen berries. She said: “Boys have all the fun.” (“The Turn of the Year,” pg 113)
Reading these, it’s clear who does what. The girls stay in the home with their mother, cleaning and cooking and weaving and sewing. The boys go to the fields with their father to do the more “fun” work, like breaking calves, filling the ice-house, and shearing sheep. Most feminists, and even many people who aren’t feminist, might find this limiting and stifling. The girls have to stay in the home? What if they don’t want to? Are they really sentenced to a life of baking pies, patching pants, and washing dishes while their brothers and husbands and sons get to have fun adventures on the farm?
Well, continuing to read into the spring and summer of the story, I came to believe that Mrs. Wilder, Eliza Jane, and Alice got the long end of the stick. It’s true that the work Almanzo and Royal did with Mr. Wilder is enchanting to the modern urban reader, but much of it was difficult and potentially dangerous. Almanzo nearly fell into freezing water when it was time to saw ice (pgs. 68-69), had to figure out how to train his calves on his own (pg. 53), and got hit by a falling log when trying to load his bobsled with logs from the timber (pgs. 334-335). The life of a farmer boy was clearly no picnic, despite all the fun. Plus, far more of the boys’ work was done independently; Almanzo learned how to be a man because he had to learn to think for himself, persevere, and be resourceful. By getting to stay home, girls didn’t have to deal with that nearly as much, since making candles or maple sugar just isn’t as dangerous as hauling wood and requires more direct teaching. At first glance, this might make girls seem weak and secluded, confirming postmodern expectations.
However, I think the tin-peddler and butter-buyer’s visits and planting-time showed best how the 19th-century homemakers and farmer girls defy the very stereotypes feminists claim they were trapped by. In “The Tin-Peddler,” Mrs. Wilder shrewdly bested Mr. Brown in bartering for the tinware she wanted (pg.138-139). This shows that homemakers weren’t just sheltered cooks; they were every bit as smart as men. Also, “Early Harvest” shows that fathers weren’t the only ones who made money for the family. When the butter-buyer came, he paid Mrs. Wilder $250 for her top-quality butter, the same price as half of Mr. Wilder’s potato harvest. But the most important point of all this blethering about farming is found in “Springtime.”
Almanzo asked [Alice] if she didn’t want to be a boy. She said yes, she did. Then she said no, she didn’t…
…”Well, I like to make butter and I like to patch quilts. And cook, and sew, and spin. Boys can’t do that. But even if a be a girl, I can drop potatoes and sow carrots and drive horses as well as you can.” (pg. 130)
Alice succinctly states what it’s taken me a whole lot of words beating around the bush to say: the girls and women of the 19th century didn’t find their role limiting or stifling. They didn’t think less of themselves in overseeing the home. Alice, Eliza Jane, and their mother knew that they were strong, skilled, smart women who didn’t need to be like men to contribute to the family. And they did it all while wearing hoopskirts and bonnets, which is rather impressive in itself.
Same with Almanzo. He and Royal and Mr. Wilder didn’t think of Mrs. Wilder and the girls as being inferior to them, even if they didn’t do barn chores or plant corn or butcher hogs. The men respected the women’s role, and vice versa. How much simpler and happier could relations between the sexes be than this? Each gives the other what is due and minds his or her own business. Sounds pretty just to me.
-The Scottish Peasant