In the mid 1800s in the large Eastern American cities, some young women were pushing for the right to higher education – and meeting stiff opposition. Some educators claimed that a basic Grade 8 education was all girls could handle. If they tried to study college-level subjects it would overwhelm their fragile minds; being forced to learn Mathematics may even drive them mad. Some educated folks predicted that physical exercise and sports would do permanent damage to a young woman’s internal organs &/or bones.
Meanwhile, out on the prairie homestead…
Teen girls were stooking sheaves, chopping firewood, scrubbing clothes on a washboard and wringing them out by hand…even helping to build the soddies. Life on a homestead meant hard work, no fancy theories allowed.
Old timer Art Bonneau, who grew up near Gravelbourg, SK, told us about the time his father and brothers had gone off to town; his mother was home with him, his ten-day-old baby sister and his invalid grandfather. His mother looked out and saw smoke far off. A prairie fire – and the wind was blowing their way!
What was she to do? Even though she was still feeling the effects of childbirth, she gave Art strict orders to stay in the house with Grandpa and the baby and she rushed out to hitch up oxen to the plow. Then she plowed a number of furrows between them and the smoke to act as a fireguard. The menfolk, who had seen the smoke and headed for home to fight the fire, were relieved to see that she had a good patch of sod turned over when they got there.
I read another account from a woman in eastern Saskatchewan. Her husband had broken his back early in spring and was bed-fast for a whole year. So she did what needed to be done: in addition to taking over all the farm chores she hitched up the oxen to the plow and seeded all their crop land by herself. She was in her eighties and still spry when she told this story, but they had immigrated from Eastern Europe, where peasant women had never heard that strenuous physically activity could ruin them for life.
These are two of the many extraordinary incidents I’ve heard of, but most prairie farm wives didn’t get the chance to be delicate creatures with servants to do all the tough stuff. Even if they’d been society ladies back in England, they had to roll up their sleeves and get with it if they and their families were going to survive.
They often acted as doctors and midwives as needed; some women home-schooled their children. As for math skills, a lot of wives kept the farm accounts. By thrift, careful purchasing and plain hard work they kept the wolf from the door.
We owe our great-grandmothers a lot!