In the early 1920s, Lilla Day Monroe, a 19th-century suffragist, lawyer and publisher, collected personal reminiscences from 800 pioneer women about their lives in the early days of the Kansas Frontier, intending to compile them into a book. She died in 1929 before completing her task, and the 800 autobiographies were filed away in the attic of her Kansas home.
Fifty-five years later, Monroe's great-granddaughter, Joanna Stratton, discovered the manuscripts, recognized their worth, and set out to edit them into the book her great-grandmother had envisioned. The result is an extraordinary history of the 19th-century frontier with a perspective long missing the movies, novels, TV shows and history books that chronicle our national heritage. This is the Old West seen through the eyes of the women who (writes Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the introduction) "have constituted the most spectacular casualty of traditional history. They have made up at least half the human race; but you could never tell that by looking at the books historians write."
Although the men who dominated both the frontier and its history displayed almost ritual discrimination toward women, nature made no such distinctions. Pioneer women -- and children -- contended equally with men against implacable, relentless natural forces: wind, drought, floods, blizzards, cyclones, wolves, rattlesnakes, insects, disease, prairie fires and plagues of locusts. They also fought and endured the catastrophes that men inflicted upon each other: border wars, outlaws, horse thieves, drunken brawls, "the persecutions of nature accompanied by the scourge of man," as Schlesinger aptly puts it.
Yet in addition to the ravages of man and nature, the pioneer woman bore the burden of childbirth, childraising, managing a home that was often no more than a primitive sod hut or dugout, caring for livestock, growing, preserving and preparing all food for the family, making all their clothes, tending all ills. As valiant as any man in the violence of battle with wolves, fire, Indians, or pro-slavery and abolitionist guerrillas, she withdrew with no honors to milk the cow, nurse a baby, cook meals, make soap. The reminiscences of "Pioneer Women" describe in detail the prodigious daily accomplishments of frontier men and women, the endless struggle for sheer survival in a harsh, inimical land. The book also recalls the excitement, mischief, hard work and terror of a prairie childhood and the generosity, warmth and mutual concern that linked neighbors separated by miles of wilderness.
Joanna Stratton skillfully weaves the voices of these long-forgotten women into the context of history: the opening of the Kansas frontier, the journeys west, the Indian wars, the breaking of the sod, social life, education and religion, the great cattle drives, civil war, statehood, the temperance and suffrage movements. With simple eloquence, these memoirs recall the griefs, tenderness, faith, tenacity, loneliness and courage of the women who set out not to conquer the West, but to make it home. The unassuming daily heroism of their lives enriches a history long dominated by the loud and the murderous.
"Pioneer Women" provides valuable insights into pivotal elements in our national character. The women who wrote these memoirs had little opportunity today being voiced with increasing concern. The heart of these questions is the premise on which this country was founded. What pioneer women suffered, and failed in the intensity of toil and struggle to trace to its source, was the violence that characterized American culture from its very beginnings. The everyday brutality and common aspect of death so immediate in pioneer life have swollen now to global proportions. To a nation numbed by technological comforts as it fumbles with tools of universal destruction, "Pioneer Women" is relevant beyond the limited goals of feminism or equal rights.
The wresting of a continent from its inhabitants, the destruction and depletion of soil and forest, the murderous enmity between differing economic and philosophical factions were acts of violence begun in the coastal colonies and carried west by the settlers. (Not surprisingly, such violence increased with distance from civil authority and with availability of alcohol, which then -- as now -- tended to dissolve any vestiges of civility or restraint.) The breaking of the prairie sod to force it to yield "civilized" crops was as destructive and futile as attempts to "civilize" and displace the native population of the land. Both these acts of violence were responsible for much of the privation and suffering the pioneers endured. The violence so prevalent in movies and television today has its roots firmly in our past, and is but a shadow of what the women and children of these memoirs experienced daily.
In this context, the massive temperance and sufferage movements spurred by pioneer woman toward the end of the 19th century was inspired by far more than shrewish virture. As the voices in "Pioneer Women" suggest, widespread resistance to destructive male dominion and the alcoholic irresponsibility and violence it fostered. (Enough men joined that resistance to vote it into law.) The scale and passion of this resistance grew in proportion to the grief and suffering both men and women endured.
The strength of the women who championed these causes was born in the "warmth and grit" of the generations who speak in "Pioneer Women." They fought, toiled and suffered not for glory or for principles, but for their lives and the lives of their families, having accepted without question the traditional leadership of those who led them into jeopardy. As that leadership -- and the violence that perpetuates it -- brings us nearer to the abyss, the authority is finally being questioned by Americans of both sexes.
"Pioneer Women" reaffirms priorities abandoned by the nation in its reckless career to power: the priorities of family, communal generosity and individual integrity preserved against all odds over centuries of violence. These sturdy, cheerful voices from the past offer a glimmer of hope that history need not repeat itself. Lilla Day Monroe could not have known how desperately we would need those voices today.