The Little House on the Prairie and its autonomous mamas.

This is kind of an overview of the Little House On the Prairie books, hereafter LHOTP, as is common when discussing them online.  I recently read the original eight book series and it was truly astonishing how much autonomy and independence Laura’s mother and Almanzo’s mother had.

There is a fascinating phenomenon in which this cultural bedrock of Americana is being transmitted solely through (mostly Frontier-American) women and Frontier-American men are basically ignorant of a major piece of where their women’s beliefs about home and family are coming from.

So Ma and Mother are these women who have a huge span of responsibility and authority, along with far above average native talent and skills in the homemaking arts of their eras, but this has not become codified as any sort of serious norm for housewives/SAHMs.  Caroline Ingalls was a truly astonishing cook, with a high level of natural understanding of chemistry and plants to be able to cook on an unreliable stove with inconsistent heat and a nearly random selection of ingredients sprung on her at any point in time.  She was also a truly above average hand sewer.  Mrs. Wilder was a weaver and a food processor extraordinaire, whose skill with cloth and butter making accounted for much of that family’s cash income and nearly all their clothing and linens.

And Mrs. Wilder’s workspace is arranged and designed to suit her, so she can be the most highly productive she can be for her family.  Almanzo’s child’s eyes view of her weaving room is very insightful, you see a little boy who expects a grown woman to have her own separate space that Father doesn’t have any input into, beyond making it to her specifications.  You see a little of this in how Almanzo sets up the house for Laura when they marry.  He assumes it’s important for her to have things set up so she can be as effective/efficient as possible.

This was actually an interesting subtheme in a lot of early 20th century writing, because men were still building a lot of the houses directly and the whole notion that you needed to make the wife-offices, so to speak, tailored to your own wife’s skills was one that crops up in a lot of the women’s writing of those early decades.  Like, you were supposed to get a spec list out of her and then make it happen.

It’s interesting that the Frontier-American subcultures who are most into LHOTP as a world and worldview tend to not allow the wives and daughters and sisters the sort of free hand that was clearly not at all outside the norms of the era (late 19th century).  There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the desire to believe there is no skill in domestic arts precisely because of the increasing arrival of mechanization and automation.

A lot of other things about LHOTP struck me as I was reading, but this one, that the two main mamas were badasterisk but also very lightly headed by (some) modern standards despite not at all being psychically of one accord with their husband’s desires and wishes was one of the bigger ones.



19 thoughts on “The Little House on the Prairie and its autonomous mamas.

  1. When I started trying to learn how to keep house I remember the realization that the people around me were not dealing with the domestic sphere as an area of physical work with limits and requirements that do not differ from physical reality in any other area of life. People can even be aware of food safety rules at work and educated about health and hygeine but somehow magically, your house is different and the rules don’t apply there.

    I agree that this is directly related to whether a subculture honors the position of a woman at home. Trying to keep house around people who respect you, follow your rules, and ask permission to enter your space is doable even under grotesque American conditions. Trying to do it around people who view you as a semi-visible maid whose communication of boundaries is perceived as bitchy egregious nagging is going to make you crazy.

    And I want to clarify that I’m not talking about marital conflict here or just about your husband’s attitude towards your space and your work. I’m talking about things like the time my landlord walked into my pristine kitchen, without asking, and dumped a bucket of dirty water into my gleaming kitchen sink, and reacted to my look of horror as if I’d done him an injury. That’s just one little story but I’m sure other commenters will have others – it’s not the single incidents, it’s being surrounded by people who want the results of your work and will shame the #$%$# out of you if you don’t do it, but are completely disconnected from the idea that clean houses, healthy children, and nice communities require a ton of housewife work.

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  2. “it’s being surrounded by people who want the results of your work and will shame the #$%$# out of you if you don’t do it, but are completely disconnected from the idea that clean houses, healthy children, and nice communities require a ton of housewife work”


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  3. What I remember most about Little House on the Prairie was what leaders the women were. Gentle perhaps, but they really set the tone for what was going to be “civilization,” practicing faith, having good table manners, watching your language. They were respected as the hub of the home, almost pedalized as the ‘spherians would probably say.

    What strikes me as interesting is that is always how women have led, we set the tone, the standard, and so you show some deference to women, you wipe your feet when you come in, you strengthen and encourage her. That’s the part of women’s lives that our modern culture seems to be trying to erase.

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    • Well to be totally fair, modern women bear a lot of responsibility for this situation. As a group, not talking about anybody here, but as a group we stopped restricting sexual activity to marriage and we stopped restricting marriage to worthy men.

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      • If you read advice sites, you will see many a sad case of women whose husbands are long-term unemployed, and the wife works full-time, and there are children who are in school or daycare full-time or almost full-time, and she is also doing almost all of the housework/family logistics/giving a @%$# about the children’s needs for things like baths, clothes that fit, dentistry, poster-boards, clothes that fit, etcetcetc. This is apparently happening quite a bit. I don’t always agree with this blog regarding questions of frugality or just how much husbands need to be providing financially for people to manage a decent family life (though I do agree that without some kind of help, domestic arrangements are susceptible to disarray unless the husband is a very willing sharer in domestic tasks, at least until there are children big enough for chores), but this stuff boggles the mind.

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  4. …we stopped restricting marriage to worthy men.

    Yes, I’d say this comprises a large part of the current problem. Men bear some responsibility too, as there were plenty of unworthy women marrying. Feminism ushered in the way to make it easier for men to get these women into bed.

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      • You don’t think that birth control and divorce law reform are under the same umbrella as feminism? Even though men benefited from the former much more than from the latter, I saw them as part of that entire philosophy.

        To the OP, I agree that the infantile way that women have been treated in post-modernity, and the way this has been preached as a necessity on the far Christian right in conjunction with upholding the frontier woman as ideal, you’d get the impression that not many of these people have any idea what Ma Ingalls life was really like.

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        • No, that’s just not historically the case. Feminism is a political and social ideology. Birth control is a technology. Divorce law reform was primarily a male legal project, countered by feminists as often or more often than it was supported by them.

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          • Here’s a historical fact–John Milton (yes, that John Milton) was a big advocate of divorce reform.

            In Milton’s time, divorce was becoming legal in England for adultery and abandonment (not sure about the timing), but Milton wanted to extend that to incompatibility.


            So, basically, Milton wanted a very modern version of divorce law.

            “In June 1642, Milton paid a visit to the manor house at Forest Hill, Oxfordshire and returned with 16 year-old bride Mary Powell. Mary found life difficult with the severe 35 year-old schoolmaster and pamphleteer, and she returned to her family a month later. She did not return until 1645, partly because of the outbreak of the Civil War.

            “In the meantime, her desertion prompted Milton to publish a series of pamphlets over the next three years arguing for the legality and morality of divorce.”



            • Yes, and divorce law interacts with married women’s ability to own property. Married women in England did not have equality with single women in regards to property rights until *1893.*

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            • If you read Milton on divorce, his thoughts on masculine headship will be quite familiar to anyone familiar with Christian “patriarchal” movements like the Quiverfull people and the Christian side of the manosphere. I say “patriarchal” because, as our host has noted here plenty of times, it’s a fake version of patriarchy where the husband has near-absolute power to require wifely submission–and, in Milton’s reading of scripture, to divorce his wife if she isn’t the perfect help-meet who remedies the brooding loneliness of his MASCULINE GENIUS with perfect(ly submissive) companionship–yet the husband is the master of his domain and pretty much doesn’t have to answer to any higher political or ecclesial authority except his OWN PROPHETIC SOUL and its very special understanding of scripture in the freedom of the Spirit, or something.

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