Intersectional Feminism on the Prairie

By: Phoenix Robertson

 The 1970s were a time of change: new movements for women’s rights, environmental awareness, and rights for the LGBTQIA+ community in America. What was in and groovy was different than what it had been in the decades prior, and all of these new things left some people feeling hungry. This wasn’t necessarily a hunger for food, but for the nostalgia of the past. Blasts from the past were popular during this time. One of the most notable shows of the 1970s that portrayed a time period that some individuals living in the 1970s would remember was Happy Days, a television series that followed a middle-class American family throughout their average life in the 1950s. On September 11th, 1974, another slice of the past was fed to the television watchers of America, but this time it wasn’t milkshakes and cheeseburgers at Arnold’s diner, it was a humble dinner, served in the small town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. 

Little House on the Prairie was an American television series that aired from 1974 to 1983 and was produced by Michael Landon. This series followed the Ingalls family, a real family from the 1860s, on their adventures in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. This television series was based on the book series written by the Ingalls’ second eldest daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was played by Melissa Gilbert. The book series was also titled Little House on the Prairie

While Little House on the Prairie does follow the typical patterns of a historical drama and the costumes and ideas specific to the time period, it also demonstrates something that television shows from the current time period struggle with–having strong female characters whose strength doesn’t come from another male character. Little House on the Prairie does an excellent job of demonstrating feminism in the 1860s – 1870s in a way that is accurate to the time period. This series demonstrated that not all historic dramas have to be centered around male characters, and that if they are centered around female characters, they don’t have to paint a picture of women that shows them as entirely dependent on the men around them. In this article, I will explain the feminist themes of Little House on the Prairie, not only showcased by its strong female characters, but also by the male characters on the show that do not treat them like children or something less than human.

Disclaimer: This article is based on the television series Little House on the Prairie, not the book series. There are very large differences between the two series.  

What is feminism?

According to the International Women’s Development Agency, “feminism is about all genders having equal rights and opportunities” (IWDA). The idea of feminism is not a new topic. There have been four major waves of new feminist ideas over the course of history. According to History.com, one of the earliest feminists included Plato; this was seen when he stated that “women possess natural capacities equal to men for governing and defending ancient Greece”. There are many different kinds of feminism; when this article says “feminsim,” it is referring to the intersectional definition of feminism. According to UN Women, “Intersectional feminism offers a lens through which we can better understand one another and strive towards a more just future for all” (Intersectional).” During the time period in which Little House on the Prairie was based upon, the Seneca Falls Convention had just taken place years prior. The famous statement “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal” (History.com Editors), also arose during this time period. This statement has been accredited to the famous abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucrecia Mott. 

The Ingalls Family

The Ingalls family, according to the Little House on the Prairie television series, not book series, consists of Charles Ingalls, Caroline Ingalls, Mary Ingalls, Laura Ingalls, Carrie Ingalls, Grace Ingalls, Albert Ingalls, Charles Fredrick Ingalls, James Ingalls, and Cassandra Ingalls. Charles Ingalls, or “Pa”, and Caroline Ingalls, also known as “Ma”, were the heads of this family. Charles and Caroline had five biological children together. Mary Ingalls was their oldest daughter who became a teacher after going blind due to Scarlet Fever. Laura Ingalls is their second oldest daughter and the author of the Little House on the Prairie series. Carrie, Caroline Celestia, Ingalls and Grace Ingalls are the two youngest daughters. Charles Fredrick Ingalls is the couple’s only biological son who died nine months after being born for unknown reasons. The Ingalls family also included three adopted children: Albert Ingalls, who was adopted after the family’s trip to the nearby city Sleepy Eye and James and Cassandra Ingalls who were adopted after their parents were killed in a covered wagon accident. According to the laws in the 1800s, Charles Ingalls was legally the head of the Ingalls family. All property belonged to him and he was in charge of everyone; however, when not viewed through the lens of the law, Caroline played a very large role in the running of the family. Caroline Ingalls was a true renaissance woman. She worked in the town restaurant as a cook, took care of her children, helped her husband on the farm, taught as a school teacher, and temporarily worked as a janitor in a hospital. The characterization of Caroline, played by Karen Grassle in the television series, is of a strong woman who isn’t afraid to follow her heart and mind and who also has as much control over her family as her husband does. This specific aspect of Caroline’s character demonstrates one of the main pillars of feminism–that all genders are equal. While women during the 1800s were sadly not viewed legally as equals to men, the Ingalls family ignored this fact and treated everyone, adults and children alike, with respect and kindness. 

Characters That Demonstrate Feminism in Hero Township

The only mercantile in Walnut Grove is owned and operated by Mrs. Harriet Oleson. Mrs. Oleson has three children: Nellie, Willie and Nancy Oleson. Sheco-owns Oleson’s Mercantile with her husband, Nels Oleson, but anyone who has seen Little House on the Prairie knows that the true owner of the store is Harriet. She controls all of the store’s finances, handles customer interactions, cleans the store, and maintains the records for the shop. Mrs. Oleson was also the head of the town council, school board, and church council. Her position of power in Walnut Grove also stemmed from her high socioeconomic status. Mrs. Oleson’s store generated a great deal of business and money, and this provided her with a great deal of say in how the town was run. If Mrs. Oleson had been a poor woman who didn’t own a successful business, I doubt that she would have had as large a role in the running of Walnut Grove as she did in the television series. The character of Mrs. Oleson demonstrates what life was like for women of different social classes during the 1800s. While she did not face the same struggles as working class women, such as Caroline Ingalls, she did face the sexist biases that were against her in the business world. These biases include the need to be perceived as attractive to be seen as worthy in different social groups, and the need to be “superwoman”. By “superwoman”, I am referring to the false idea that a woman needs to be able to carry out all jobs that society places on her satisfactorily. The difficulties faced by Mrs. Oleson demonstrates the intersectionality of feminism. Her struggles are not only that of a woman, but a woman in the business world from the upper class. Mrs. Oleson has more privileges than Mrs. Ingalls due to her financial status, but they are still viewed legally as second class citizens due to their genders. Mrs. Oleson’s jobs include being a full-time mother, wife, member of the workforce, and homemaker. It is impossible for anyone to be absolutely perfect at fulfilling all of these roles, and Mrs. Oleson is evidence of this. Her husband has to manage a lot of their family’s home affairs because his wife is so busy managing the store, and this role reversal doesn’t go unnoticed 

Feminism and Race in Little House on the Prairie

The majority of the people living in Walnut Grove are white men, women, and children who hold a certain amount of privilege due to their race. There are very few people of color in Walnut Grove, and even fewer women of color. One of the few women of color in the television series is Hester-Sue Terhune. Ms. Terhune worked as a teacher in the school for the blind, which was started by the Ingalls oldest daughter and her husband, Adam Kendall. Her experiences as an African-American woman are very different from the experiences of white women on the show. She faced both racism, sexism, and classism as a member of the middle class. According to the Library of Congress, in a timeline of African-American history from 1852 to 1880, the last slave ship did not arrive in the United States until 1859. This would have been during Ms. Terhune’s lifetime, so she was still dealing with the direct repercussions of slavery in her daily life. The Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until the beginning of 1863; this was around the same time that the Little House on the Prairie television series was supposed to take place in. By examining Hester-Sue’s experiences as a middle-class African-American woman in a predominantly white area, the viewer can begin to understand what life was like for women like her. The show’s characterization of Hester-Sue as a strong, independent, intelligent, and logistical woman demonstrates the way that the show turns away from the typical narrative of African-American women in the 1800s. By exploring the relationship between Hester-Sue’s many identities, the viewer can see how the intersectionality of feminism relates to this character. 

Issues in the Book Series

The Little House on the Prairie book series, which the show was based on, is far from perfect. In recent years, it has been noted just how problematic the language used in the books actually is. In an article written by Liz Fields, we discover that “Pa appear[ed] in a minstrel show and s[ung] a racist song…accompanied by an illustration of the characters in blackface”. It is impossible to talk about anything related to Little House on the Prairie without acknowledging the racist past of the book series. In fact, these problems were not entirely absent in the television series. While the television series didn’t include blackface and racist songs, it did include racist depictions of Native Americans, as well as the appropriation of Native-American culture. These incidents are present in multiple episodes, ranging from using traditional Native-American clothing as Halloween costumes to racist interactions with Native American characters on the show.This raises the age-old question of whether or not something with a problematic past can still be appreciated. I think that one important aspect of discussing iconic, yet problematic works such as Little House on the Prairie is acknowledging these issues and not attempting to disguise or hide them. 

Conclusion

Little House on the Prairie portrays the many interesting adventures of the Ingalls family and their friends through the perspective of their second eldest daughter. Due to the fact that the books were written by a young woman during a time when many women were not considered equal to other genders, it makes Laura’s adventures and spirit all the more remarkable. By watching the Little House on the Prairie television series or by reading the books, individuals can gain insight into what life was like for a woman in the 1800s and what their day-to-day may have been like. Laura’s perspective is that of a middle-class white woman during the 1800s, and this greatly shaped her world view By examining the other female characters on the show, such as Caroline Ingalls, Harriet Oleson, and Hester-Sue Terhune, the viewer can see through the lens of intersectional feminism how the many identities of each of these women changed their experiences in the world. 

Thank you for exploring the world of Walnut Grove, Minnesota in the 1860s with me. I hope that you have found it both an interesting and educational experience. If you would like to watch the Little House on the Prairie series for yourself, you can do so on the Amazon Freevee app for free. 

Citations

Fields, Liz. “What Should Be Done about Racist Depictions in the ‘Little House’ Books?” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 21 June 2022, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/what-should-be-done-about-racist-depictions-in-the-little-house-books/16587/. Accessed 22 Sept., 2022. 

“Intersectional Feminism: What It Means and Why It Matters Right Now.” UN Women Headquarters, 1 July 2020, www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/6/explainer-intersectional-feminism-what-it-means-and-why-it-matters. Accessed 21 Sept., 2022. 

IWDA. “What Is Feminism?” IWDA, 20 Sept. 2018, iwda.org.au/learn/what-is-feminism. Accessed 20 September, 2022. 

“1852 to 1880 | African American Timeline: 1850-1925 | Articles and Essays | African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection | Digital Collections | Library of Congress.” Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, www.loc.gov/collections/african-american-perspectives-rare-books/articles-and-essays/timeline-of-african-american-history/1852-to-1880/. Accessed 22 Sept., 2022. 

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