Gender Roles in Laura Ingalls Wilder´s "The Long Winter"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

16 Pages, Grade: 11



1 Introduction

2 Frontier Women
2.1 Women´s Tasks
2.2 Caroline

3 Frontier Men
3.1 Men´s Tasks
3.2 Charles
3.3 Almanzo

4 Girls´ Preparation for their Future
4.1 Laura
4.2 Carrie
4.3 Mary
4.4 Conclusion of the Ingalls` Girls Preparation for their Future

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Men and women had definitive roles and tasks at the American Frontier. The image of gender roles at the end of the 19th century is depicted in Laura Ingalls Wilder`s novel The Long Winter.

It tells us the story of the Ingalls family`s hard time during blizzards during a hard and long winter. Besides Charles` and Almanzo`s efforts, the “strong, able-bodied [female] pioneers […] contribute considerably to the survival of their families” (McGinnis). The Long Winter “with its domestic ethos and its clearcut models of gender” (Romines 1997, 146) is a concrete example to illustrate the gender roles at the American Frontier.

In this work the roles of frontier men and women are exemplified by Caroline`s, Charles` and Almanzo`s tasks and lives. Moreover, the girls Laura, Carrie and Mary Ingalls are being prepared to take over the gender roles adopted by their parents.

2 Frontier Women

2.1 Women´s Tasks

Being a frontier women means to have duties, it means to work in the household, to care for the family, to work in the barnyard and in the field.

The Women on the frontier had to do the chores in the house; they had to provide food and clothing for their families (cf. Riley 2). Family and child-care was a demanding responsibility. Frontier women had to feed, clothe, bathe, train and protect their families, which were generally very large. Few records reveal that the couples did not make any effort to control fertility. Luck and abstinence seemed to have been the most widely used means of family limitation (cf. Peavy 81).

Mothers raised their children in the ordinary fashion of the prairie. Children were trained in adult tasks in order to prepare them for their future because childhood was short. Usually the oldest were taught to mind the younger and to manage simple household tasks while the mother was working in the fields. In unfortunate cases, this preparation was to replace the mother´s duties. If the mother died in an accident, the oldest girl took over the housework and childcare until the father married again since remarrying, if it was to keep the family together, was self-evident. Sometimes more than one woman lived in a household and shared the housework (cf. Peavy 97).

Additionally to the housework, women had the task to preserve religious and ethic traditions in the family. Therefore, they served as family historians; they produced family Bible records and artwork like wedding or mourning pictures (Riley 2). Besides her responsibilities as a wife and mother, the frontier woman worked in the barnyard, where she had a variety of tasks: Milking cows, gathering eggs, gardening produce, maintaining food sources, preserving food for the winter, harvesting, drawing water from a well or hauling it from a creek, bringing fuel into the house to fire the stove for cooking and washing. Dairy products provided food and money which women generated by selling surplus like butter, eggs, meat and calves. The barnyard production contributed to the economic stability of the Great Plains towns, hence, women who lived near a large town could count on a steady market, particularly if settlement in the area was increasing (cf. Handy-Marchello 1996). Another task outside the house was the field work which required turning 160 acres of grassland into a productive farm. This meant that all, men, women and children had to be involved. Older boys or women helped the men breaking the sod and planting crops. While men were plowing, women usually manoeuvred the horse equipment. Women had to mow and rake hay and shock and tie bundles of grain by hand. Moreover, they drove the oxen to the river for water. Sometimes they had to walk miles to have a scythe sharpened at a neighbour who owned the only grindstone. Besides, they removed rocks from the field that would otherwise block the plow (cf. Peavy 93/94, 100).

Apart from the work at home, there were some acceptable female occupations for frontier women. They could work as milliners, shop clerks domestic servants, nursemaids or teachers (Riley 2).

In their leisure time, if they had one, they could eligibly attend school or take over church functions. Furthermore, they could join women´s organizations or participate in family-centred social activities. Horse riding was another activity of women but they had to ride the horseback sidesaddle (Riley 2), rather than astride because that did not conform to the cultural norms.

In summary, women “commonly appeared helpmates to men and civilizers of the new, raw western societies”. Those who did not adjust to these images like prostitutes or pseudo-men -for example the women rejecting the norm by riding astride- were criticised and even scorned. Seeking more education than it was usual for women at that time or questioning the right to vote were also disapproved issues (Riley 8).

2.2 Caroline

“´Ma` Ingalls embodies the virtues of the traditional domestic women […]” (Adam 95). She handles the housework: She cooks daily meals, makes bread, keeps the house clean, sews, washes and dries her families’ clothes and she raises four daughters. Caroline feels responsible for everything happening in the house, even for the cold of the winter. “I`m sorry, Charles,” she apologizes to her husband. “I can`t seem to get the house warm.” (Wilder 129)1. In The Long Winter she is always at home. Consequently, she is not involved in politics or business. She stands outside the rough world, therefore, her husband brings the news from outside.

Charles and Caroline have a happy marriage. Caroline endeavors to please her husband. When Charles wakes up, breakfast is waiting (39), when he is working outside, she prepares him hot meals and the family waits for him before they have dinner (44) or she sends Carrie with ginger-water to the field to surprise him with a refreshment (8). Caroline follows Charles wherever he goes and does whatever he says but Charles equally never goes anywhere and never does anything that Caroline would not want. This relationship is demonstrated when Charles proposes leaving to search for a man whose stored wheat would facilitate the families in town to survive the long winter. “Yet, while Wilder situates Pa as a traditional masculine figure in a patriarchal culture, his power is not absolute” (Mancino 83). Caroline declares “You don`t go hunting for that wheat” (245), she does not allow him to leave his starving children. Her husband has no chance to disagree because she directly adds “I won`t hear any buts.” (245) (cf. paragraph: Adam 100).

As a mother she clearly shows a protecting instinct: Seeing that her daughter Laura helps her father where- and whenever she can, she wants to be sure of her welfare and asks “Is the work too hard for her, Charles?” (9). That she despises Indians, is in my judgment, -to some extend- also a part of her protective habit, she is afraid of them (64). Likewise, when they settle in town in the first place the Ingalls put up curtains (68) to guard them from stranger`s glance.

Caroline always worries about appearance. She does not like to see her daughters working in the field, for the reason that only foreigners do that and they are Americans (4). She has rules for clothing: Even though Laura thinks she will go to town with “her Sunday hair-ribbon und perhaps Mary´s freshly ironed sunbonnet”, Ma decides for her that there is no need for her Sunday hair-ribbon on a week day and that she should wear her own bonnet (16). Similarly, Laura has to wear flannels even when the weather has turned warm because “this is the time of the year to wear flannels, and [she] would catch cold if [she] took them off.” (84).

At home Ma is the authority; she instructs who has to do what: “Hurry up and get the work done. […] Laura, you go to the corn-patch and bring me a green pumpkin. I`m going to make a pie!” (31) or “Come, girls! Wash up the dishes and wipe the stove and sweep while I make the beds, and then settle down to your studies. When we`re done I`ll hear your recitations, and then I have a surprise for supper!” (253). According to her principles, work has to be finished to “have an easy conscience” (126). The housework is not her obligation alone; she shares the domestic tasks with her daughters, which is at the same time in order to prepare them for their future. But of course, sometimes Ma gives them the chance to enjoy their childhood: “Run along, girls. This one time I`ll do your housework” (133). Furthermore, she regularly awards them for the completed housework or studying exercises: “Straighten up, Laura and Carrie! Do your lessons briskly and then we`ll have an entertainment” (228).

Caroline Ingalls has a “personal goal -the education of her daughters- “(Adam 100). She reads to them, teaches them bible verses and practices with them to memorize these verses. On Sunday lessons Ma and the girls say each the verse they have learned in that week and then the older verses, afterwards the others repeat the verses (128). Caroline is glad about moving to town since this means that her children have the possibility to acquire more education by going to school, ”now is the time for the girls to be getting some schooling” (74). Preparing Laura and Carrie for school pleases her; she is proud of her children and compliments them “You look very nice” (76). Additionally, she praises them for their success in lessons (229).

She educates her children not only in terms of schooling, but also in morals and attitude. She teaches to think positive “All`s well that ends well.” (93) and to be grateful: “Let`s be thankful for the little milk we have […] because there`ll be less before there`s more.” (125/126) or “Never complain of what you have. Always remember you are fortunate to have it” (243). Her comments help the family to keep calm and show patience in difficult situations. Especially to Charles who is concerned about the weather conditions, she reacts cheerfully: “Never mind. Supper´s ready”

(35), or else she raises hope, “here we are in town where we can get what we need from the stores even in a storm” (97).

She has creative ideas to gladden her family. She surprises them and arranges atmospheres like “a happy supper that Laura wanted it never to end” (36).s


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Gender Roles in Laura Ingalls Wilder´s "The Long Winter"
University of Marburg
The Frontier in American History
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Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter, Gender Roles, American Frontier
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Nermin Bastug (Author), 2011, Gender Roles in Laura Ingalls Wilder´s "The Long Winter", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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