Getting an education

My project of reading the “Little House on the Prairie” books to my daughters continues. We are almost through the 5th book, although we did skip the second one, Farmer Boy – I wanted to stay focused on the main story.

The 5th book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, opens sadly. The family have all been ill with scarlet fever, and the eldest daughter, Mary, has lost her sight.

… and Mary was blind. She was able to sit up now, wrapped in quilts in Ma’s old hickory rocking chair. All that long time, week after week, when she could still see a little, but less every day, she had never cried. Now she could not see even the brightest light any more. … Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word.

In the late 19th century, what this meant for Mary was that she simply could not get an education. Caroline Ingalls, Mary’s and Laura’s mother, prized education. In On the Shores of Silver Lake, the Ingalls family is on the move again, but Caroline insists that the family must settle near a town, so that the girls can be educated. More than that, she wants her girls to be teachers. Laura rebels against this, in her mind, but then realises:

She could not disappoint Ma. She must do as Pa said. So she had to be a school teacher when she grew up. Besides, there was nothing else she could do to earn money.

Later on the book, Ma makes a great discovery, when Reverend Alden comes to visit.

“…I don’t know whether you and Brother Ingalls know that there are colleges for the blind,” [the Reverend Alden said.] “There is one in Iowa.”

Ma took tight hold the edge of the dishpan. Her face started Laura. Her gentle voice sounded choked and hungry. She asked, “How much does it cost?”

“I don’t know, Sister Ingalls,” Reverent Alden answered. “I will make enquiries for you if you like.”

Ma swallowed and went on washing dishes. She said, “We can’t afford it. But perhaps, later – if it doesn’t coast too much, we might somehow manage, sometime. I always wanted Mary to have an education.”

There’s so much to think about in these passages about education. First, that education was so highly valued, and seen as critical to the girls’ success in life. So the lack of education for Mary was a tragedy, and the news that there was, after all, a way that she could be educated, a great ray of hope.

It’s hard to know whether this is really how Ma reacted to this news, or whether Laura, or perhaps her daughter Rose, read these emotions back into the story. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder drafted the Little House books, and is rightly accounted to be the author of the books, her daughter Rose had a substantial hand in editing them.

Laura Ingalls Wilder had just the one child, Rose Wilder. Rose was a brilliant writer and thinker, but Laura and her husband had no money, so Rose could not have the college education she yearned for. Perhaps Ma’s longing for a college education for Mary is in fact Rose’s own desperately held, and eventually denied, desire. But Ma certainly wanted her daughters to be educated. The books don’t explain why, but my guess is that she knew that if they had an education, the girls could at least support themselves through teaching. As Laura said, quoted above, there was nothing else they could do.

Nothing else they could do.

That’s the other thought that astonishes me. When I read that passage to my girls, I got them to stop and think about it. Just 130 years ago, in the land of the free, women had no choices. There was nothing else they could do. To be sure, the Ingalls girls would have been constrained by social conditioning in any case – no working in the fields or in bars for them – but nevertheless, they had pitifully few choices.

And that’s the difference that feminism has made to me, and to my daughters. We have all the choices we want, provided we have the education to make those choices real. And any education we want is open to us, because feminists fought to ensure that women could go to university, could go to medical school, could be lawyers, scientists, accountants, teachers. Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in a marvellous, expanding world of new frontiers, but a world that was incredibly constrained in terms of the choices women could make. My daughters and I do not. And for that, I thank feminism. And my mother.

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One response to “Getting an education

  1. It always struck me as painful that the Ingalls had to use one child in order to get an education for the other. What a bunch of dead ends they were caught in. No wonder going ever further west appealed to Laura.

    It’s interesting that Pa doesn’t seem to resent his daughters for being daughters, when it’s clear that having a son would’ve helped him a lot. Laura seems to get frustrated at not being allowed to help him more.