30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on June 21, 2006
I read somewhere that a statistically large number of prominent Americans were born in 19th century Kansas. That was perhaps a result of the hard, but ultimately rewarding pioneer life that is described in these pages. Kansas and the West a century ago were in the vanguard of social innovation and progressive politics in the U.S.
Author Stratton re-discovered the oral histories of 800 Kansas pioneer women collected by her great-grandmother in the 1920s. She has taken this mountain of material and organized it into 15 themes in 15 chapters, giving background on each theme and quoting the pioneer women. For example, one chapter details the long journey to the frontier of Kansas undertaken by many of the women and their families. Blizzards, fatal disease, fear of Indians and other dangers greeted them. Other chapters describe the social life of the pioneer women, the education of their children, frontier churches, and the famous Kansas crusades for suffrage and temperance.
It would also be interesting to read some of the 800 oral histories. The author doesn't tell us where they are or if they are available to the general public. Certainly they should be made available as they are irreplaceable primary sources
The role of women on the frontier has been a popular subject of women writers for two or three decades now. This is one of the better books on the subject -- and one that can be enjoyed by readers of either sex.
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2005
As Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s says in his forward to Stratton's Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier our historical record is built upon "important" people. People who leave records of their lives. For years, women, for the most part, left no such records (Unless of course, they were infamous, Americans seem able to recall the names of Lizzie Borden and Typhoid Mary without trouble.) In Pioneer Women, Stratton attempts to rectify this historical oversight by presenting scores of memoirs written by women who inhabited and helped push Kansas along from being a synonym for a luckless hardship filled land (We need to look no farther than Baum's using it for the earth-bound, twister-prone setting for his book, The Wizard of Oz) to a state whose women urged farmers to "raise less corn and more Hell" politically (13).
Stratton's introduction to her book is excellent, providing us with an unusual example of proto-womanism: a rich woman, Lilla Day Monroe (Stratton's grandmother) worked to preserve the words, thoughts and experiences of the hard-scrabble settlers who were the first Anglos to arrive in Kansas. Monroe, publisher of The Kansas Woman's Journal and the first woman in Kansas to be admitted into practice before the Kansas Supreme Court in 1895, began collecting the stories of pioneer women in the 1920's. It was a job that soon mushroomed into an almost insurmountable task. Monroe kept with the project, even at the expense of her health, using the women's experiences to document the growth of Kansas from frigid forbidding land to birthplace of the Temperance movement and stronghold for Suffrage.
The tone of the memories is jarring. In a very matter of fact way, they tell stories of rescuing dead bodies from wolves, children narrowly escaping all sorts of looming death and wars fought over abolition, along with their descriptions of everyday life as a pioneer. Exotic to the late Twentieth century reader, even though they occurred little over a hundred years ago, the stories remind one how young this country really is.
The chapters build upon one another to form a narrative history of Kansas. In the first chapter, "To the Stars Through the Wilderness", the memories are of death along the trail to Kansas- the small weather worn stones marking the graves of those who didn't or couldn't survive the journey westward. The hardships of travel are detailed, the freezing blizzards and the stress of so many strangers being crammed into the narrow confines of a Conestoga wagon. Chapter Two details the building of homes once arrival was made, containing instructions on how sod houses were constructed (and the unwelcome co-tenants of these homes, such as bull snakes that showed up in rafters) and slowly we begin to see the changing of the prairie, the plowing and inhabitation (51). Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, the only time we hear of any pioneers getting help or supplies from back-East is within the gentle fun poked at the wealthy Englishmen who came to settle a thousand acre tract of land in the early 1870s and continued to receive canned food from the old country (229). The legacy of disdain for the civilization back East, still found today in the West, is clear in these recollections.
We are treated to long discussions of how lonely it was on the prairies, but more interestingly, we begin to see how the settlers all worked together. Their sharing is a far cry from our media-drawn image of the rugged individualist, one man going for years without seeing anyone else. Stratton opens Chapter 3 with a quotation, asking "What was the work of a farm woman in those early days?"(57). The answer quickly becomes evident: What wasn't? Inequality was not an option since it was literally do or die when it came to helping men with the plowing, planting, gathering of wood, and helping with livestock, in addition to their traditional feminine role.
Part Two details the problems the settlers had after homestead completion. Stratton presents memoirs that portray fires, wolves, and most interesting, the grasshopper plagues (102) that tormented the pioneers with Biblical ferocity.
Part Three details the few small opportunities for pioneer women to work outside the home. We also see the impact of religion, depicted by the ladies as much more laid back, less fundamentalist, than would be expected by the contemporary reputation of the Midwest as the Bible Belt.
By Part Four, the frontier cabins have joined together to form frontier towns. With the banding together comes a whole new set of problems. Drunken cowboys and pioneer justice which consisted, as portrayed by Stratton's writers, of lynching the guiltiest looking fellow presented previously unheard of problems that now demanded attention. At the same time, the wild cattle drives of Texas longhorns flattened homeowners' crops and led to a growing animosity between settlers and cattle drivers.
Finally in Part Five, Stratton's writers create a vivid and disturbing picture of the horrors that went on in Kansas during the Civil War. Burning, looting, and the murder of civilians are the images that predominate. The section ends with Kansas finally enough at ease with itself to start working on issues of Suffrage and Temperance (Kansas was, after all, the first state to institute Prohibition). No longer having to worry about bull snakes falling into their beds, Kansas women wanted the logical extension of the side by side work they had done with the men in the settling days, equal voting rights. Kansas women would have just as much trouble extracting those rights from those in charge as they had eking out an existence from the unforgiving prairie.
If there's a fault to Pioneer Women, it's the very nature of the writing. Memoirs, as Stratton notes (25-26), are suspect because they tend to be colored by time. Sometimes the stories do seem a bit stretched, like one woman's recollection of sitting out a fierce blizzard in a Prairie Clipper, calmly slicing up mince pies that she had brought from home (40). It seems like the prospect of freezing to death in a strange land would have produced a more emotionally charged atmosphere. Also, as Stratton herself notes, there is no ultra-marginalized voices - prostitutes or slave women. There were also topics that the women would not discuss, due to decorum. In discussing Indian raids and her own experience of being taken captive by Native Americans, Anna Morgan adds a terse, "There were many things that I have not spoken of" (125).
Stratton stays away from comparing the women's recollections to that of "official" history, probably to reduce confusion on the part of the reader. However, these are minor complaints, and ones that Stratton addresses in the foreword. They do not discolor the beauty and importance of her collection of long silenced voices from the Kansas frontier, but as Stratton herself writes, ". . . the legend wears its Sunday best."(222).
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2013
Although I am certain all of these things really happened, I do feel that the writer had bits and pieces of the hardships of the lives of these people. Their deep love of the land, and even of the way they were living, are almost avoided. it is more of a womens sufferage writing. Not all of life was hardships, but much of it was pleasant, and these women took great pride in the work that they could do, in their housekeep chores, and had great love for their families. They were not all abused underdogs. Housekeeping in those days was hard work. So was what the men did. None of us work that hard anymore, male or female.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2007
Anyone wishing to experience what Pioneer life [on any frontier] was like for their Grandmothers, Great Grandmothers, etc. and their families, this is a must read! There are interesting descriptions of how the Kansas Pioneers built their Sod Homes on the Great Plains. [Pages 54-55]. The description of the Great Blizzard of New Year's Day 1886, that my Grandfather weathered and loved to tell the story [mid Page 92], was an accidental verification I had sought for years. Family researchers might glean some everyday 'Pioneer life' tidbits, tweeked to fit their state's history, to enliven their family stories. Afterall, all of these amazing Pioneer women experienced the same happenings of their day!
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 24, 2007
In a world where history is written by the winners, we often don't find accounts of history from a womans' perspective. This is a compilation of 800 verbal histories of women that lived through all the well documented times. It paints an intimate picture through the voices of the remarkable women that helped to build this country. The book is well written, with good flow. The chapters are formed well, and it ushers the reader smoothly through time. It would be a worthwhile read for a re-enactor. I bought the book at a local goodwill, and can't imagine giving it up. It has a permanent home in my library. I only wish there was a complete, unabridged, publication of the verbal histories available.