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
of the great depression. As a picture of their lives emerges, readers
see clearly how women worked beside their men, carrying half and
more of the work load that supported families and moved the culture
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
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
customs and values from elsewhere in the United States or from eastern
and northern Europe.
Handy-Marchello was particularly interested in women’s economic
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
women milked the cows that produced the cream to sell. Sometimes
had special skills like sewing (a sewing machine was a major prized
possession) or they provided homemaking services for bachelors.
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
in the home, most women worked in the fields. The value of this
was often downplayed even by the women themselves when they called
"helping out." The author believes women were less troubled
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
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
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
and women’s work, and made a deliberate effort to divide labor
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
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,
were called generically ladies’aid. Through these groups,
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
this book. Handy-Marchello also takes note of Yankees, who often
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
Near the end of the book, the author talks about farm women of
and sees them as participating as full partners in the farm enterprise.
As they raise children, hold jobs in town, support their schools
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
attention to language and its role in isolating women for many years.
Also, she seems unaware of how deeply spiritual pioneer women were.
addition to finding in their church social contact and contributing
the economic needs of their churches, many had active spiritual
and believed church teaching at the deepest level of their being.
prayed and read and sang and encouraged the spiritual growth of
children. This reviewer wonders how the author could have missed
aspect of their lives.
In bringing an historian’s research skills to bear on the
economic lives of the women who did the pioneering work of the high
plains, she has made a most important contribution. Perhaps