Sexless as the Bees? Part II: Back to the Little House


[1917 photo from my wife’s collection of her great-grandmother, who migrated from Denmark to homestead with her sister in Montana for six years.]

When you’re writing outside of your expertise (which I do a lot here), it’s nice to have someone who knows more than you tell you you’re on the right track. So I was thrilled that my post on Susan Hanssen’s misreading of the complementarianism of the Little House series drew a comment from Melanie, a historian who specializes in Laura Ingalls Wilder. Melanie agreed with me that Hanssen “missed the historical reality of life as a pioneer or homesteader. That reality was more all-hands-on-deck than male/female division of labor than many people today will realize.”

Further, Melanie pointed out that “Any number of Wilder’s own writings, and thousands of non-fiction and first-person accounts of the era will demonstrate just how many women were doing a ‘man’s job’ on the frontier.” I’ll get to some of those writings in a bit, but first let me remind you what we’re talking about: Hanssen, a professor at the University of Dallas, argued that Little House in the Big Woods, the first book Wilder’s Little House series, illustrates the “complementarity of man and woman” celebrated at the Vatican’s recent Humanum colloquium. We should all read the books to our kids, Hanssen says, as a “preemptive strike against our de-formative culture.”

Before I go on, let me say that I absolutely agree that the series is great for families. Like I said, my wife and I have been reading the books to our daughter at bedtime, and it has been amazing watching her transfixed by the stories. Sometimes she even acts them out as they’re being read to her. And I love the novels’ deliberateness, the attention that Wilder gives to daily tasks that range from making bullets to boiling maple syrup. I’ve had a busy few months, without much time for my own pleasure reading, so I’ve looked forward to these nightly moments, which re-center and settle me as much as they do her.

But I disagree that Little House in the Big Woods has much to do with the vision of complementarity that was evoked by the Humanum colloquium, or that’s typically spouted by the American religious right.  That complementarianism—whatever its proponents say—isn’t just a celebration of men and women, or even of manhood and womanhood. It’s a weaponized complementarianism, one which takes the gender differences that show up in large populations and statistical averages and tries to turn them into arguments against feminism and gay marriage.

And I don’t think that Laura Ingalls Wilder is the right author, or that Little House in the Big Woods is the right book, to enlist for that cause.

In the first place, while Wilder does talk about “men’s work” and “women’s work,” she spends a good part of Little House in the Big Woods pointing out the arbitrariness of those categories and the capability of her characters to transcend them.

For example: as Hanssen points out, Wilder introduces readers to Pa’s gun almost immediately. “Pa and his gun are essential to the family’s survival,” she writes, because the big woods are full of bears and other dangerous creatures. In fact, there are lots of stories about bears in the novel, including one funny one in which Pa runs wildly with a heavy stick towards a tree stump, thinking it’s a bear.  But there’s only one actual encounter with a bear in the main narrative, and it happens when Pa is in town selling the furs he has collected over the winter. Laura and her mother go out at dusk to milk their cow—they see what they think is the cow behind a gate, and Ma slaps the creature to get it into the barn. She realizes then that the creature is actually a bear. Ma calmly tells Laura walk to the house, waits until she sees her daughter is safe, then walks behind her until they are close enough to run to the house. Then Ma picks up Laura, and rushes her to safety. In this story, the mother is the protector: calm, collected, and brave.

This is the point I was making in my last post: country life doesn’t exacerbate the differences between men and women—it shrinks them. As I said then, a woman in the country has to know what to do when she comes across a rattlesnake. Or a bear.

And Hanssen is correct that Laura notes her mother’s aesthetic sense, her attention to detail, which Hanssen suggests is stereotypically feminine. But it’s hard for me to see how it’s very different from the impulse that leads Pa to make a shelf for Ma:

One of the little boards he shaped in a lovely curve, and around its edges he carved leaves and flowers and stars, and through it he cut crescent moons and curlicues. Around the edges of the smallest board he carved a tiny flowering vine. He made the tiniest shavings, cutting very slowly and carefully, making whatever he thought would be pretty.

little house

I’m no Wilder expert—I leave that to Melanie—but I did dig a little bit into her nonfiction writing, and you see the same themes there. Wilder wrote for the Missouri Ruralist from 1911 through 1924, and several of her columns deal with questions of gender roles and women’s rights. On July 20, 1917, for example, she reported on the Wilson Stock Farm in Wright County, Missouri, which was run by a woman whose husband could not leave his medical practice in the city. Wilder is positively effusive about Mrs. Wilson’s abilities as a farmer: “Not only has she saved what was then put into the place but she has more than trebled the original investment. Other tracts of land have been added to the first small piece until there is now, to be exact, 997 acres in the Wilson farm. This land was purchased for $10 and $12 an acre and is now easily worth from $30 to $50 an acre” (“And a Woman Did It” 116).

In 1916, while describing the Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Wilder tells of a woman she knows who kept the accounts for her household, turned a profit, was “promoted to the position of farm accountant (without salary).” She went on investigate shortcomings in the farm budget, “So now she has become a sort of farm adviser with whom her husband consults on all matters of farm business.” Wilder’s point is that this woman is really doing “man’s work.” “The fact is,” she writes, “that while there has been a good deal of discussion for and against women in business, farm women have always been business women and I have never heard a protest” (“All in a Day’s Work” 48-50).

Elsewhere, she writes, “Women are successful lumber dealers, livestock breeders, caterers, curators, bacteriologists, pageant managers, cable code experts and besides have entered nearly every ordinary profession.” And: “Women are running trains, they are doing work in factories, they are clerks, jurors, representatives in congress and farm help” (“New Day for Women” 149).

And against the notion that protecting women is strictly men’s work, she writes about Russia’s all-female “Battalion of Death,” and says that during World War I, “In all the allied countries women are filling places of responsibility and danger, doing hard, unpleasant work to help in the struggle to ‘make the world safe for women’” (”What the War Means to Women” 146).

Hanssen is right about a couple of things: Wilder does celebrate “women’s work” and put it on an equal plane with what’s traditionally called “men’s work.” She also definitely writes about family as a place where everybody has a role, and where complementary gifts come together for everybody’s benefit. But that kind of complementarianism doesn’t need any defense, because nobody really objects to it.

Remember Rachel Hope Cleves’ book Charity and Sylvia? In it, Cleves quotes William Cullen Bryant, writing in 1850 about his aunt and her wife:

I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations, and how one of them, more enterprising and spirited in her temper than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife attends her invalid husband.

Now, modern readers might bristle at the notion that, in a lesbian relationship, one woman necessarily plays the male role and the other the female. But the larger point is that Bryant is describing in this (historical) couple a relationship every bit as complementary as the (fictional) one at the center of Wilder’s Little House books. Cleves fleshes out that complementarity throughout her book—it’s really a must-read. But that complementarity is also something we can in any healthy couple today, gay or straight, even the ones that don’t map well onto traditional gender roles. I’ve mentioned, for example, the way Rob Tisinai writes about his marriage—but I’m sure any reader can think of examples from his or her own social circle.

The fact that the Vatican colloquium was conceived as, and has been used as, an argument against those couples shows that its message isn’t as beautiful or good (or true) as Hanssen paints it.

And Wilder’s very good book doesn’t deserve to be associated with it.

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