PIONEER WOMEN: Voices/from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna Stratton

PIONEER WOMEN: Voices/from the Kansas Frontier

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While rummaging in the family attic in Topeka, Joanna Stratton came across several drawers of yellowing folders containing the life stories of 800 Kansas pioneer women that had been carefully collected in the 1920s by her greatgrandmother, then a lawyer and ex-suffragette. Stratton recognizes the weaknesses in the material: almost all the women are white middle class; the stories are based on memories and often colored by a nostalgia that she herself is prey to. She does, however, succeed in welding these personal histories into a collective saga. The most interesting segments deal with aspects of pioneer life specific to Kansas: the construction of dugouts and sodhouses, fighting off the grasshoppers, life in boomtown Abilene, the tension surrounding the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the outbreak of Civil War. Throughout, the women emerge as physically and emotionally strong. There's Clara Hildebrand, pioneer bride, who before agreeing to marry and move to Kansas made certain the word ""obey"" was left out of the pact: ""I had served my time of tutelage to my parents. . . I was going west to try out as a wife and homemaker."" And Florence Bingham, who moved to a ten-acre tract outside Abilene where her husband gave her a horse to ride so she wouldn't get trampled by long-horned cattle. But Abilene was still a rough town, and Frances Poor, who with her husband moved there in 1870 to work on the Texas cattle drive, remembered how ""quite often a person would be shot down in the night, carried away and no one could learn anything about it."" Life was more civilized among the British gentry at Victoria, where coyote hunts took the place of fox hunts, and even more ordinary pioneer women strived for sociability and grace. The Civil War interrupted the settling process, however, Lillian Smith, then just a girl, remembered her mother standing ""smiling through her tears at Father to cheer him. . . . At last he rode away, and we all huddled together like lost sheep, and went on as best we could."" Post-Civil War Kansas women were active as social crusaders in temperance and suffrage--effecting the first state prohibition act in 1880, seeing 15 of their number serving as mayors by 1900. The measure of such women's achievements, Stratton believes, lies not just in such specific successes, but in ""the strength of their individualism, their faith and their determination which have remained as an important part of our common heritage."" An effective if at times uncritical use of oral history, a new, woman's view of pioneer existence.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1981
Publisher: Simon & Schuster