"The writing of modern history has resulted in a viewpoint that is nothing short of that of a stag party," wrote Marielouise Janssen-Jurreit in her book, "Sexism, the Male Monopoly on History and Thought," a bestseller in Germany that has been published this year in the United States. "The history of woman is ignored, hushed up, censored in the most literal sense of the term."
"Historiography," she wrote, "serves in the self-celebration of man: it is the record of his deeds and the glorification of male values." In 31 history and social science texts used in German secondary schools in 1973, for example, Janssen-Jurreit found only one sentence on women's suffrage, and it was listed among such reforms as the eight-hour day.
History has been written by men, about men, and for men. The history of women has, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, "been a spectacular casualty of traditional history." This is what makes "Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier," such a wonderful book for American women. Here are the voices that we never heard in our history books; here are the lives, and their utterly extraordinary accomplishments, that we never knew about. In the early 1920s, Lilla Day Monroe, who was the first woman admitted to practice before the Kansas Supreme Court and who managed the successful state campaign for women's suffrage, began collecting reminiscences of the survivors of the Kansas pioneer days. She intended to compile an anthology of their memoirs. "These stories," she wrote, "are the record of the woman side of pioneer life.
"They picture the deprivations, the cruel hardships, the sacrifices, the dangers as no other history ever has done or could do. Histories have to do with the political, the official governmental side of civilization. . . . The world has never seen such hardihood, such perseverance, such devotion, nor such ingenuity in making the best of everything as was displayed by America's pioneer women. Their like has never been known."
Lilla Day Monroe's collection of 800 reminiscenses--catalogued, typed and indexed by her daughter--was discovered in an old filing cabinet in the attic of the family home in Topeka by her great-granddaughter, Joanna Stratton, in 1975. Stratton, a native of Washington, was visiting her grandmother on a semester break from Harvard.
Out of these memoirs, Stratton has put together the story of how these pioneer women lived. It is the story of families living in dugouts and sod huts, of the way the women fed and clothed their families when nature destroyed their crops and left them destitute. It tells how they were often left alone weeks at a time to guard the homestead and protect the children from rattlesnakes, coyotes, blizzards and torrential rains, cyclones and the 16-month drought that drove a third of the pioneers back East. It tells the story of how they handled illnesses and childbirth, often with the help of only a husband. It is the story of Mrs. A.S. Lecleve, who, as Stratton writes from the memoirs of her daughter, "did not have even this much." She went into early labor at home alone with a 4-year-old and an 18-month-old. "So my brave mother," wrote the daughter, "got the baby clothes together on a chair by the bed, water and scissors and what else was needed to take care of the baby; drew a bucket of fresh water from 60-foot well; made some bread-and-butter sandwiches; set out some milk for the babies. And when Rover had orders to take care of the babies he never let them out of his sight, for at that time any bunch of weeds might harbor a rattlesnake." At noon, she gave birth to a boy.
It is the story of women fighting prairie fires alongside men and coping with the millions of grasshoppers that ate their way across the state in 1874, devastating that year's crops and ruining livestock. "They invaded our homes," recalled pioneer Mary Worth, eating food, crawling into beds, devouring furniture, clothing, utensils and parts of cabins. "Young children screamed in terror as the creatures writhed through their hair and down their shirts," Stratton wrote.
The history of the West is the history of men who tilled the soil, ran cattle drives and fought the Indians. The names that passed into legend are the names of men: Wild Bill Hickok, Gen. Custer, Jesse James. Thanks to women such as Lilla Day Monroe, her daughter and her great-granddaughter, the peril and misery, the courage and determination of the pioneer woman is now being passed on. To the men writing history, her story didn't belong.
But what a story it is.