The author, John Mack Faragher believes that the trail experience was no more remarkable than ordinary family life and struggle, (4) and also writes that, for most of the immigrants the trip was a spectacular event in their lives, unlike anything they had done before (11). As Faragher details the difficulties of the journey, it is clear that the trail experience was unique and that it put unusual strains on family relationships.
There is something of a contradiction that Faragher is not so much interested in family relationships on the trail as he is in examining family life in a small segment of society in a particular time period. He examines the Midwestern farm family just before the coming of modernization and commercialization. As the basis for his reconstruction of the lives of ordinary rural Americans at home and on the trail, Faragher looks at 169 family sources, including diaries, letters and reminiscences, collections of folksongs and folklore and a variety of secondary materials.
His work has been intertwined with the genealogies and traveling parties of 122 immigrant families and his appendix include information on subjects like the birthplaces and previous residences of the immigrants, the occupation of family heads and estimates of the stages in the family cycle during which families habitually moved to the frontier. His study provides a very helpful picture to the daily life of rural Americans which gives a very good perspective of what it was possibly like for women during that period. I felt that this book was framed in a womens perspective even though written by a man.
Another point the author wants to make is that migration was a family affair and that it should be looked at in the context of family life. In the introduction of the book Faraghers states that in the interpretation lays the radical perspective of feminism and hopes to provide an analysis and judgment that the immigrants would have understood (xi). Central to his thesis is the characterization of Midwestern farm marriages as oppressive to women. Despite the ideal of ordered harmony, the author argues that it was a constant struggle and conflict for women. Faragher portrays the women as exploited, subordinate and powerless (15).
To me it seemed more of a sociology study than historical because he used class, race and sexual struggles and Faragher sees these women as victims of a patriarchal society dominated by masculine attitudes of superiority (62). Whether they chose accommodation or resistance, wives were overworked and unappreciated by their insensitive, boisterous and bawdy husbands. The separation of the sexes in marriage, which stemmed from the division of labor on the farm, reflected larger social realities. Farm women were generally excluded from public life, hidden away in a mild kind of rural American purdah (181).
Their involvement in religion, the one opening of the public world brought little light. The short history of religion when writing on this was focused on camp meetings where the author claims, mens irreverent behavior made a mockery of women (120). The trail just mirrored the pattern of the home life. Faragher shows women as oppressed beings because during this time period it was the husbands that held all of the important social and domestic powers. That defensive and responsive power which he contends women of the period had was relatively insignificant in the struggle between the sexes.
Some of Faragher statements are not supported by his sources or are somewhat misleading. For example, he writes that trail women rose before the men to stoke the fires and milk the cows (76). His support for this statement comes from a diary by Helen Carpenter that if taken in context says some women had these responsibilities and that most of those who did were Missourians. Faragher dismisses this by saying that most women, were from Missouri and its Midwestern environs (80). But Missourians was a trail term used to designate a particular class of people, and usually the poor.
On page 87 he uses a quote from Phoebe Judson to show a divergence of the sexes and accepts this as a show of her emotional state; rejecting her comments about her physical well-being. But the picture he gives, I believe is quite accurate. He paints a very dark picture of the Midwestern marriages and of the women in these marriages. While I do believe that women probably suffered as much as what the author contends, I want to stress that his interpretations are a little distorted and distorts some of the relations between husbands and wives.
I think that he has given more weight to women in the marriage then what is understood to be true. Im not saying that men didnt have some influence from their wives, but in general it was the men who finally decided. The Example of Enos Ellmaker who finally got consent from his wife to go to Oregon (168) is one example because not for one moment do I believe that it was her ok that got them going. Instead it probably just made life a little easier if she just agreed. Another dimension to the mid-nineteenth century marriage is given in a popular folksong.
The song opens with a husband eager to be off to the frontier but ends with his wife persuading him to abandon the trip. The last verse has the husband deciding not to go because of his love for his wife; this again doesnt convince me the wife was in control. Just that the man was lovelorn. Faragher argues that there was a striking lack of male empathy for women both at home and on the trail and gives evidence of one hired driver who did not mention the women who he traveled with on the overland trail, I think this was a weak source to show empathy.
To my understanding of the time women were considered property and was often overlooked but as a general consensus of the attitudes of men of that time period and there were indications of facts used in the writing of this book that does show that aspect even if it was not the intentions of the author. Faragher makes a major point about the isolation of Midwestern farm families, but fails to show how the women viewed this in context of their society. He does succeed in showing migration patterns of restless pioneers and how magazines were circulated among these isolated women that helped to create the moral and cultural themes of the times.
Using the journals and diaries to help bring the point home Although I felt there was some contradiction the overall result was very well written and researched. There is room though for further research into the subject and the social science aspect of the book was very refreshing. I felt that the book did lack how pioneer women thought about their lives in the Midwest. Folklore and songs give one dimension of the female experience, but that they fell short of giving an accurate perspective.
The diaries and journals women kept on the trail suggest something about the life they left behind as do the numerous letters written from the frontier to friends at home. These sources give many indications that women had emotionally rich and often satisfying lives which were somewhat different than the perspective the author gave. But all in all Faraghers is correct in his perspective as women were not equal to men and that they worked harder and longer than most of us think is right. I think at the time the book was written in 1979 gives me reason to think that maybe all of his theories and perspectives were still not up to par.
I do think that more historical books need to be written in the female perspective in order to see a clearer picture of what it must have been like during a very rough period in time for the settlers and for women.
Begin Match to source 1 in source list: http://www. archives. gov/research_room/alic/bibliographies/print_friendly. html? page=women_content. html&title=NARA%20%7C%20ALIC%20%7C%20Pathfinder%20for%20Womens%20History%20ResearchFaragher, John Mack. Women and Men on the Overland Trail. New Haven: University Press, 1979. End Match