“The great drawback upon the lives of these settlers, at present, is the unfitness of the women for their new lot.”
In Book Marks, an occasional feature at Current, we take fresh cuttings from old books (or about old books). They will often be about writing, education, communication, and the life of the mind generally, though we reserve the right to snap a sprig of greenery that simply tickles the fancy.
With each extended quotation we offer an orienting comment, but that’s not where the action is. The question is whether the words of those long dead may speak to you.
Margaret Fuller, a protégée of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was one of the leading lights of the Transcendentalist movement, the editor of the periodical The Dial, and a staff writer at the New York Tribune. In 1850, nearing the end of a transatlantic voyage from Italy, she, her husband, and her baby were lost at sea off the coast of New York.
But Fuller had successfully completed an earlier voyage, an audacious tour around the Great Lakes with two friends that at the time was unsupported by any of the travel infrastructure we now typically take for granted. She then published a very personal, uncategorizable book containing her reflections on the trip, Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (Boston: Little & Brown, 1844). For the purposes of her research for the book, she was the first female reader admitted to the Harvard College library.
Fuller had fallen in love particularly with the sublime and promising beauties of the Illinois prairies during a swing west from Chicago to the Rock River Valley and back—with the landscapes but also the growing settlements of immigrants (who were taking over after the U.S. military defeat of Black Hawk a decade before).
Unlike other contemporary observers, Fuller noticed and wrote about what such frontier life was like for women and girls and their culture and education. Hear what she has to say:
A pleasant society is formed of the families who live along the banks of this stream [the Rock River] upon farms. They are from various parts of the world, and have much to communicate to one another. Many have cultivated minds and refined manners, all a varied experience, while they have in common the interests of a new country and a new life. They must traverse some space to get at one another, but the journey is through scenes that make it a separate pleasure. They must bear inconveniences to stay in one another’s houses; but these, to the well-disposed, are only a source of amusement and adventure.
The great drawback upon the lives of these settlers, at present, is the unfitness of the women for their new lot. It has generally been the choice of the men, and the women follow, as women will, doing their best for affection’s sake, but too often in heartsickness and weariness. Beside it frequently not being a choice or conviction of their own minds that it is best to be here, their part is the hardest, and they are least fitted for it. The men can find assistance in field labor, and recreation with the gun and fishing-rod. Their bodily strength is greater, and enables them to bear and enjoy both these forms of life.
The women can rarely find any aid in domestic labor. All its various and careful tasks must often be performed, sick or well, by the mother and daughters, to whom a city education has imparted neither the strength nor skill now demanded.
The wives of the poorer settlers, having more hard work to do than before, very frequently become slatterns; but the ladies, accustomed to a refined neatness, feel that they cannot degrade themselves by its absence, and struggle under every disadvantage to keep up the necessary routine of small arrangements.
With all these disadvantages for work, their resources for pleasure are fewer. When they can leave the housework, they have not learnt to ride, to drive, to row, alone. Their culture has too generally been that given to women to make them “the ornaments of society.” They can dance, but not draw; talk French, but know nothing of the language of flowers; neither in childhood were allowed to cultivate them, lest they should tan their complexions. Accustomed to the pavement of Broadway, they dare not tread the wildwood paths for fear of rattlesnakes!
Seeing much of this joylessness, and inaptitude, both of body and mind, for a lot which would be full of blessings for those prepared for it, we could not but look with deep interest on the little girls, and hope they would grow up with the strength of body, dexterity, simple tastes, and resources that would fit them to enjoy and refine the western farmer’s life.
But they have a great deal to war with in the habits of thought acquired by their mothers from their own early life. Everywhere the fatal spirit of imitation, of reference to European standards, penetrates, and threatens to blight whatever of original growth might adorn the soil.
If the little girls grow up strong, resolute, able to exert their faculties, their mothers mourn over their want of fashionable delicacy. Are they gay, enterprising, ready to fly about in the various ways that teach them so much, these ladies lament that “they cannot go to school, where they might learn to be quiet.” They lament the want of “education” for their daughters, as if the thousand needs which call out their young energies, and the language of nature around, yielded no education.
Their grand ambition for their children, is to send them to school in some eastern city, the measure most likely to make them useless and unhappy at home. I earnestly hope that, ere long, the existence of good schools near themselves, planned by persons of sufficient thought to meet the wants of the place and time, instead of copying New York or Boston, will correct this mania. Instruction the children want to enable them to profit by the great natural advantages of their position; but methods copied from the education of some English Lady Augusta, are as ill suited to the daughter of an Illinois farmer, as satin shoes to climb the Indian mounds. An elegance she would diffuse around her, if her mind were opened to appreciate elegance; it might be of a kind new, original, enchanting, as different from that of the city belle as that of the prairie torchflower from the shopworn article that touches the cheek of that lady within her bonnet.
To a girl really skilled to make home beautiful and comfortable, with bodily strength to enjoy plenty of exercise, the woods, the streams, a few studies, music, and the sincere and familiar intercourse, far more easily to be met here than elsewhere, would afford happiness enough. Her eyes would not grow dim, nor her cheeks sunken, in the absence of parties, morning visits, and milliner’s shops.
—Margaret Fuller, Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844; repr. with an introduction by Susan Belasco Smith, Prairie State Books, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 38–40
Jon Boyd is keeper of Book Marks at Current. He is academic editorial director at InterVarsity Press, the saxophonist in an improvisational rock band, a user of manual typewriters, and (with his wife and daughters) a resident of the City of Chicago.