When I was young, there was talk of invisible women, the women “behind the successful man.” They had the babies, made the food, were the Cub Scout den mothers and served on the PTA. Husbands brought home the bread. Women got their pictures in the paper with Cub Scout boys and Brownie girls, and maybe, at election time with the League of Women Voters, but they didn’t run for office or run the bank (where they needed a husband to sign for a loan).
Molly Gloss is younger than I am, but grew up with the same set of unwritten rules and expectations regarding women. She also grew up a reader, going to the library with her dad and consuming all of the Westerns on the shelves. And later, when she was a mother herself and had decided to be a writer, she thought about all those Westerns she’d read. Where were the women?
The women who did make it into the plots were schoolmarms and prostitutes, there to prop up the male heroes, give them a reason to save the town, or the pleasure of an evening.
Molly decided to find the women who must have been there to cook and do the laundry — the women who were invisible in the stories. And she found them, in journals, diaries and homesteading records. They penned about hard journeys on the Oregon Trail in private journals, which sometimes got passed on in families. They wrote reminiscences in county historical magazines, or told them to children who wrote them in those magazines. The big publishers of Westerns, or, for that matter, the academic historians, were not interested in these private affairs, lost in the range wars, confrontations with Native Americans and the industrialization of agriculture.
There were exceptions: Elinore Pruitt Stewart, widowed Wyoming homesteader, wrote letters to a former employer in Denver, and they were published as “Letters of a Woman Homesteader” in 1914. As the women’s movement grew in the 1970s, the book gained a new audience, and in 1979 was the basis of the movie “Heartland.”
A small gaggle of books recounting women’s experiences emerged as we began Fishtrap here in Wallowa County in 1988. Sue Armitage, the Washington State University historian and chronicler of women in the West, came to Fishtrap early and was one of our advisers. Director Annick Smith came, and we showed “Heartland.” And, in the second year of Fishtrap, Molly Gloss came along with her friend and mentor, Ursula Le Guin. (Ursula, so far ahead of her time, was using fantasy and science fiction to mess with gender, power and morality). Molly was soon back to Fishtrap with “The Jump-Off Creek.”
Lydia Sanderson is the woman homesteader in “The Jump-Off Creek.” Widowed in the East, she sells all of her possessions, puts on her husband’s overcoat and heads west. She purchases a small parcel with a rundown shack and sets about making a life. It’s the 1890s and a rough-and-tumble world. Her neighbors are “wolfers” and a far-off homesteading family she comes to know. La Grande is a dirty town and a bit dangerous. She saws, pounds, milks her goats and makes her life as a woman homesteader.
I’ll not give more of the story. Molly and her book are the subject of “Fishtrap Reads” this year. She joined a potluck dinner at Fishtrap’s new place on Main Street in Enterprise by Zoom, and will be here in person for the finale. Meanwhile, there are copies of the book available in all the libraries and at the Bookloft. And I might loan you mine.
The book has been in print continuously for over 30 years, and, in my mind, is still seminal in breaking old stereotypes and portraying a more truthful West. It paved the way for others to think about women in the West — and it reflects a much wider interest and clearer look at the past and an acknowledgement of the skills and contributions of women in the present.
The gift of being 80 is that I can remember a time when women rode sidesaddle (in the movies; not in real life), and were the sidekicks and supporters of presidents and prime ministers. Or they were luscious and big-eyed, gracing the pages of Playboy and playing to Richard Burton and Marlon Brando in the movies. They were the cheerleaders and not the basketball heroes.
Those of you under 40 didn’t know a time when girls didn’t play — and weren’t the doctors and lawyers. Or prime ministers. The line between Molly Gloss and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin is long, but what a joy to see a woman lead a country successfully through the pandemic, and stand next to Zelenskyy in Kiev — before President Biden made his way there this week.
Rich Wandschneider is the director of the Josephy Library of Western History and Culture.
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