I'm a feminist thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder

I'm a feminist thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder

…and I think that’s hilarious because the cultic Vision Forum and that whole branch of fundamentalist homeschooling Christianity like to use the “Little House on the Prairie” books to advocate submission among women and to puff up the “manly” role of men.

In “These Happy Golden Years,” Laura told Manley that she will love him, but she will never obey him. In fact, she wanted to be sure that the marriage vows did not include the word “obey.”  Even when I was younger,  I knew that I did not want to promise to obey my future husband. I never wanted to be stuck in a position of having to break that promise, which I equated with sinning.

I never told anyone. Anything I shared with my parents, I feared would be used against me. Or I feared that they would try to talk to me, convince me that I was crazy and that dad’s idea was the right idea. That happened sometimes where he wouldn’t actually be mad at me, but he would talk a lot. And he even would say that something was my choice, even though it was strongly, strongly implied that my idea was bad. And if I didn’t listen to his advice, he would get mad then, usually by not talking to me.

It was safer to keep it to myself. That way it remained my idea, my thought, and I could cultivate it and let it grow in secret without it getting hacked away.

When I was an older teen, my mom would sometimes use our times together to teach me about being a wife. Sometimes she would use her interactions with dad as an example of how and why she had to obey him even when he “jumped off the deep end” as we called it. It always rankled me when she did that. Why couldn’t she stand up to him? For sanity? For us kids?

Sometimes she would talk to me about marriage when we spent a prolonged time together, free from interruptions. I remember one time. I was finishing up my freshman year in college. Mom and I sat outside on the porch steps, watching the four little siblings while they played in the back yard. I was reading a funny book about bridesmaid horror stories. Mom started talking about marriage vows. Obeying your husband. Making marriage work. She said she promised to obey her husband in her vows, and she has to keep it. Otherwise she’d be breaking the vows and starting discord in the relationship. It was so much healthier to just obey.

Oh, did I mention that this was after she had gotten that “How to Be Beaten by Your Husband” “How to Change Your Husband” book? Written by a cult leader in Alabama who isn’t satisfied until he has absolute obedience from his wife and his followers, the book says that wives can change their husbands by simply changing their attitude. Anytime they question their husbands, it’s a mortal blow to his ego and causes strife in marriage. It’s much better to get along and obey him.

I didn’t tell her about Laura Ingalls. I also didn’t tell her that I was thinking about becoming a nun because I couldn’t see myself obeying a husband. (None of the orders that I managed to find online appealed to me, in the end, and I put it on hold. Then I met Jeff.) I didn’t want to become like my mom, trapped.

Actually, maybe my feminism started far younger. My dad liked recounting a story about how I pwned some bullies on the playground. I don’t remember how old I was–2 or 3. I was waiting in line to use the slide when some older boys cut in front of me. I said loudly, “Scuse me!” and pushed them out of the way, and got back into my place in line. dad said they were so shocked that I stood up for myself that they left me alone after that.

Nobody has the right to make me inferior, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, unless I consent. I did not let those boys on the playground marginalize me. With dad, it was the opposite. Letting him control us, yell at us, belittle us, threaten us, shame us was the only kind of relationship I knew, modeled by my mother. I did not have much outside influences, a consequence of my deafness, dad’s control, and my conditioned responses.

Then I went to college. They say education is dangerous. I don’t disagree with that. Being away from home, even if only for a day at a time, gave me a taste of freedom, of independence. I had more freedom to read books that told me I did not have to consent to my dad’s abuses. These books gave me the tools for instituting boundaries to protect myself. I was able to hide the books in my locker at work, or in my stuffed backpack full of textbooks. I could read them in between classes.

I found other women who also believed in equality, and not submission nor superiority. I found my husband, who told me that a) the word “obey” is NOT in any of the approved Catholic wedding vows and b) told me he’s glad I wouldn’t obey him when we got married, because it would be creepy if I did.

I slowly made boundaries for a healthier relationship with my parents. No guilt-trips. No shame. No yelling. Respect must be mutual. A therapist I saw at the school for free agreed with me that moving out might help. Then I got engaged, and made the mistake of telling my mom I did not want to be given away by dad. I wanted the tradition-rich processing of walking with my fiance side by side down the aisle, to enter the marriage as equals.

Since he is narcissistic, he saw it as abandonment, and tried to rage and guilt and shame me into obeying him. Being submissive. He was being a bully, and he made the mistake of telling me that I was being a radical liberal feminist, and I was in cahoots with a radical liberal feminist priest. I specified my boundaries. No shaming. No name-calling. Respect is mutual. He stopped writing to me. My mom tried to guilt-trip me into “apologizing” to dad. She told me to obey my father. I told her there was nothing I needed to apologize, and furthermore, to not guilt me in the future. She would reform her ways for one or two emails, and then try the guilt-trip tactic again. Finally, she said that I was making “too many rules” for them and she would stop emailing me, too. Fine. That’s her choice.

dad used to call me “stubborn” when I was growing up. I liked that term, and took it as a source of pride. Likewise, I took “radical liberal feminist” as a compliment. If equality is radical, well, so be it.

Thank you, Laura Ingalls Wilder, for planting the seed of feminism in my mind.

Filed under: Abuse, faith, homeschool, misc.


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  • One of my peak vacation experiences was visiting The Ingalls Homestead in DeSmet, SD.
    Love Laura Ingalls and I am a feminist also. Never saw the connection before but now I do.
    Nice piece.

  • In reply to Kathy Mathews:

    I need to visit the homestead in DeSmet, too, one of these days. Thanks for reading!

  • I don't know if you're really a 'feminist', even though you call yourself one. I think you just got a very bad hand dealt by growing up with a controlling, abusive father, and you finally stood up to him as an adult. Bravo to you! Usually feminists are full of discontent and have a daily axe to grind with all men in general, and based on your blog you don't strike me as such.

  • In reply to Chenjesu:

    Chenjesu, that's one of the things I still ponder about sometimes. What is feminism? I certainly do not identify with the "axe to grind" kinds of feminism--that's just mean and does a disservice to the idea of equality--which is the kind of feminist I am. You have a good point, though--feminism as a term tends to conjure up images of the negative kinds of feminists. I wonder what kind of term we could use for people who seek equality?

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