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Women of the Northern Plains: Gender and Settlement on the Homestead Frontier 1870 - 1930

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Handy-Marchello, Barbara. Women of the Northern Plains: Gender and Settlement on the Homestead Frontier 1870-1930. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005.


The name of the state of North Dakota should have appeared in the title of this excellent book about the lives and contributions of pioneer women from the very beginnings of white settlement to the time of the great depression. As a picture of their lives emerges, readers see clearly how women worked beside their men, carrying half and often more of the work load that supported families and moved the culture and economy of the prairies into the modern era. This is not a family history, though names of pioneering women are scattered throughout. Handy-Marchello made a clear-eyed effort to provide accurate answers to questions, making an effort to discredit or verify the usual answers. She did this by digging into documents kept by government agencies, consulting the huge body of interview reports composed by the Writers Project, and by reading diaries where available.

The book explores such issues as marriage and divorce, abuse, number of births per woman, out of wedlock births, mental illness, health care, education, and status within a social structure that brought its customs and values from elsewhere in the United States or from eastern and northern Europe.

Handy-Marchello was particularly interested in women’s economic work. From the very beginning, they acquired chickens and sold eggs, usually to the small merchants in nearby towns. They milked cows and churned butter, which they sold too or, as with the eggs, exchanged for groceries. Later in this period, creameries entered the picture and women milked the cows that produced the cream to sell. Sometimes they had special skills like sewing (a sewing machine was a major prized possession) or they provided homemaking services for bachelors. The money from these efforts bought food they could not produce themselves--flour, sugar, coffee, salt--and cloth, sometimes clothing, for the whole family. In addition to doing everything that needed doing in the home, most women worked in the fields. The value of this work was often downplayed even by the women themselves when they called it "helping out." The author believes women were less troubled by isolation than the conventional wisdom would suggest.

For many farmers, income from the grain, with its unreliable production cycle and fluctuating prices, was put back into the farm, constructing new outbuildings, buying machinery, or purchasing more land. Again and again, the author notes how invisible women’s economically productive work often was. Though it often enabled pioneering farmers to keep their farms, and though it supported virtually everything related to the home and children, many government agencies and the male farmers themselves saw it as of so little value they did not record it. In part, this may have been because it was traded directly for groceries, not received in cash. Or it was of little value unless the money received for crops did not reach to pay taxes and the mortgage.

Government, working through the North Dakota Agricultural College, sought to improve the quality of agriculture. Government agencies focused most strongly on men, educating them through Farmers’ Institutes and the publication of articles. A program called the Country Life Movement endeavored to define clearly the spheres of men’s and women’s work, and made a deliberate effort to divide labor as it was performed in more urban settings. Information aimed at women assumed lack of interest in or involvement with the fields and large animals (for a long time, chickens were not even a matter of record), focusing instead on “scientific homemaking.” The author believes this movement made it less possible for women to earn money and actually weakened their status.

An especially interesting portion of the book deals with the Ladies’ Aid societies that were a part of every church. The women’s organizations had different names from one denomination to another, but were called generically ladies’aid. Through these groups, which met monthly, women socialized, shared skills, and raised the money that supported many of the church’s needs.

Germans from Russia, who often find themselves excluded or mentioned in only a marginal fashion, will find themselves thoroughly included in this book. Handy-Marchello also takes note of Yankees, who often did not stay on the land very long, Ukrainians, Scandinavians, and smaller groups such as Syrians and African Americans. She is aware of the Indians and frequently mentions their relationships with white settlers.

Near the end of the book, the author talks about farm women of today, and sees them as participating as full partners in the farm enterprise. As they raise children, hold jobs in town, support their schools and churches, drive ambulances,... their lives have many of the same elements women had during pioneering times.

What does Handy-Marchello exclude? I think she should have paid more attention to language and its role in isolating women for many years. Also, she seems unaware of how deeply spiritual pioneer women were. In addition to finding in their church social contact and contributing to the economic needs of their churches, many had active spiritual lives and believed church teaching at the deepest level of their being. They prayed and read and sang and encouraged the spiritual growth of their children. This reviewer wonders how the author could have missed this aspect of their lives.

In bringing an historian’s research skills to bear on the social and economic lives of the women who did the pioneering work of the high plains, she has made a most important contribution. Perhaps

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