Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder

To celebrate the 150th birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder in 2017, the Pioneer Girl Project of the South Dakota State Historical Society has released a new book on the writer’s legacy.

pioneer-girl-perspectives_frontcoverIn 2014, the South Dakota Historical Society Press released Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, which became a national bestseller. The new book, Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder takes a serious look at Wilder’s working life and at circumstances that developed her points of view. This rich source book from these Wilder scholars from across North America also explores, among other topics, the interplay of folklore in the Little House novels, women’s place on the American frontier, Rose Wilder Lane’s writing career, the strange episode of the Benders in Kansas, Wilder’s midwestern identity, and society’s ideas of childhood.

 

The book’s contents include:

  • “Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder,” an Introduction by editor Nancy Tystad Koupal
  • “Speech for the Detroit Book Fair, 1937,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • “The Strange Case of the Bloody Benders: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and Yellow Journalism,” by Caroline Fraser
  • “‘Raise a Loud Yell’: Rose Wilder Lane, Working Writer,” by Amy Mattson Lauters
  • Pioneer Girl: Its Roundabout Path into Print,” by William Anderson
  • “Little Myths on the Prairie,” by Michael Patrick Hearn
  • “Her Stories Take You with Her: The Lasting Appeal of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” an interview with Noel Silverman
  • “Laura Ingalls Wilder as a Midwestern Pioneer Girl,” by John E. Miller
  • “Women’s Place: Family, Home, and Farm,” by Paula M. Nelson
  • “Fairy Tale, Folklore, and the Little House in the Deep Dark Woods,” by Sallie Ketcham
  • “The Myth of Happy Childhood (and Other Myths about Frontiers, Families, and Growing Up),” by Elizabeth Jameson
  • “Frontier Families and the Little House Where Nobody Dies,” by Ann Romines

 

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“Dear Miss Cushman”: The Dreams of Eva McCoy, 1874

“Dear Miss Cushman”:

The Dreams of Eva McCoy, 1874

Sara Lampert, University of South Dakota

 

As an early republic historian working on the gender history of commercial entertainment, I am always on the lookout for Carrie Meebers, or women and girls who can open up the longstanding trope of the country girl seduced by the city. Carrie Meeber is the heroine of Theodore Dreiser’s turn-of-the-century novel Sister Carrie. This is a quintessentially urban tale: Carrie is awakened to the seductions and possibilities of mass culture and urban life by her explorations of the city. Her rural girlhood and the dreams that brought her from Waukesha to Chicago are dispensed with in the first page as the rural landscape of her Wisconsin childhood rushes by on her train bound for Chicago. These gestures deploy familiar tropes, rural girlhood as ennui. Carrie releases a faint sigh for “the flour mill where her father worked by the day” and the “familiar green environs of the village,” but as then train picks up speed, “the threads which bound her so lightly to her girlhood and home were irretrievably broken.”[1]

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http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/volpe/theater/theater/ambition3.jpg

 

Dreiser does not give us a chance to spend more time with Carrie in Waukesha, to read her letters with sister Minnie in Chicago, survey the sheet music on her parlor piano or open the chest in which Carrie might have kept press clippings and women’s periodicals and catalogs. How might her rural girlhood have shaped her expectations about the world she would exit into at other end of the train line?

 

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Charlotte Cushman.  Half plate daguerreotype, ca. 1855.  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZC4-13410.

 

In Washington D.C. while researching 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman, I briefly stumbled into the world of Eva McCoy, a girl from rural Illinois who penned a piece of fan mail to her idol in 1874.[2] The letter survives today taped into a red bound volume in the Charlotte Cushman Papers in the Library of Congress. It is likely that the letter was received and read by Cushman’s life partner Emma Stebbins, and later saved by Stebbins, who took on the weighty task of managing Cushman’s legacy after the actress’ death from breast cancer in February 1876. The letter was preserved and later mounted, along with miscellaneous fan mail, much of it from the 1870s and much of it from other women.

In 1874, when McCoy wrote to Cushman, she was living in Thomson, Illinois, a town on the Mississippi River that by 1880 counted a population of only 390 people. McCoy painted a portrait of financial depravation matched by frustrated ambition. At only twenty-three, she was “‘alone in the world’ having my own resources to depend upon for existence.” Like Cushman’s other correspondents, McCoy balanced appeals to necessity with testimonial to her passion for the stage. She explained, “Since I was a very little girl, I have been desirous of becoming an actress; however, I have never had an opportunity of becoming educated for the Stage.”

Here was the reason for her letter. McCoy wanted instruction, but not from the “gentlemen…managers of the Stage.” Though she readily admitted to an “adventurous and courageous nature,” McCoy feared for her virtue: “strange men may be ‘hideous monsters’.” Instead, she fantasized about coming to live and study with Cushman. She promised, “I will love you as a darling sister, or a mother,” “be obedient,” and “become your own.” Whether as a “servant or companion,” McCoy only hoped to “sustain a relation” to Cushman in “whatever capacity it may please you to place me.” She enclosed a photo.

McCoy’s desperate and passionate appeal was not unusual. Other women and girls who wrote to Cushman struggled to frame professional desires and naked worship of their celebrity object in a more socially acceptable narrative of economic necessity, often describing poverty and family need. Like McCoy they collapsed the fantasy of student in the role of devoted servant to their desired object. As Cushman’s biographer Lisa Merrill has demonstrated, throughout Cushman’s life and career, women were drawn to her, whether because of her performances and the inspiration and lessons that they read from her life and career. Cushman’s determination to be breadwinner for her widowed mother and siblings was an established feature of her biography, which also shaped her reputation as a true woman who was both virtuous and charitable. Merrill points out, however, that some women may well have read the “code” of female erotic desire in Cushman’s relationship with Stebbins or her performances of male roles like Romeo.[3]

Correspondents like McCoy dreamed that Cushman would be moved to aid them. McCoy’s letter in particular reminds us that Cushman’s publics included girls and women who had never seen her perform, would never see her perform, but for whom Cushman’s celebrity held significance and inspiration.

But was Eva McCoy exactly as she appeared? Was her careful appeal actually a careful manipulation of sympathy or did it conceal an even sadder truth?

McCoy had lived in rural Illinois her entire life. Her parents John Vallette and Clarinda (Walker) Vallette came to DuPage, Illinois from the Northeast in 1839 during a period of rampant land speculation in the Big Woods.[4] Their daughter Evaline was born a decade later, the eldest of three. In 1860, her father was earning a living as a “homeopathic physician” with only $100 to his name owning real estate worth $1000.[5] After serving briefly as a hospital steward with an Illinois regiment toward the end of the war, he seized the opportunity of new settlement made possible by postwar railroad construction.[6]

In 1866, he went into partnership in the dry goods business with the widow of a local physician and druggist. Their new home would be a small village laid out by the Western Union Railroad in a valley on the banks of the Mississippi River at the western edge of the state.[7] The new partnership and move to Thomson was a boon to the family fortunes. In 1870, Vallette boasted a personal estate worth $5000 and $3000 in real estate. The former “homeopathic physician” now titled himself “medical doctor” on the federal census. His son clerked in the family business and his daughter was married to a young lawyer, Daniel McCoy.[8]

The couple had married in November 15, 1865. He was twenty-two, she eighteen.[9] By 1870, Daniel possessed a respectable personal estate of $1000. After 1870, he disappears as does Eva McCoy, though we know that in 1874 she was writing Charlotte Cushman hoping for…something.

Where was Daniel McCoy in 1874? Born in Ohio, he was one of the many Daniel McCoys who served in Illinois regiments in the Civil War. Was he the Daniel McCoy who had served with the 45th Illinois Infantry and died March 18, 1873, laid to rest in Peoria, Illinois?[10] Perhaps he had been mustered out for the very injury that would cause his death eight years later. Perhaps Eva’s loneliness was not that of a widow but of a deserted wife. Most likely he died and she hauled stakes. Though its unlikely she received a reply from Cushman, perhaps writing the letter gave her the courage to leave the comfortable estate her father had built for himself in Thomson and try her luck in Chicago, travelling by the Western Union Railroad, a little bit older and perhaps with a bit more saavy, though less ultimate success, than Sister Carrie Meeber.

 

[1] Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (Penguin Books, 1994), 3.

[2] Eva McCoy to Charlotte Cushman, November 15, 1874, Charlotte Cushman Papers, Library of Congress.

[3] Lisa Merrill, When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and her Circle of Female Spectators (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999).

[4] The History of Carroll County, Illinois (Chicago: H. F. Kett & Co., 1878), 425.

[5] 1860 U.S. census, Wheaton, Du Page, Illinois, page no. 195, dwelling 1451, family 1494, John O. Vallette, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com).

[6] Rufus Blanchard, History of Du Page County, Illinois (Chicago: O.L. Baskin & Co. Historical Publishers, 1882), 121.

[7] History of Carroll County, 365.

[8] 1870 U.S. census, York Township, Carroll, Illinois, page no. 36, dwelling 278, family 278,  John O. Vallette, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com); 1870 U.S. census, York Township, Carroll, Illinois, page no. 34, dwelling 257, family 257, Daniel McCoy, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com).

[9] Illinois State Marriage Records, Illinois Marriage Index 1860-1920 [database online], Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com) based on Illinois State Marriage Records.

[10] Daniel McCoy, Pvt. Co. C, Regt. 47, Illinois Infantry, date of death March 18, 1873, digital image, Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, 1879-1903 [database online], Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com) based on Card Records of Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, ca. 1879-ca. 1903.

Cowgirls and the Discourses of Patriarchy and Feminism in Country/Western Music

 

Editor’s note: In the months leading up to the 2017 “Big Berks” conference (the triennial Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities, which will be hosted by Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, USA, on June 1-4, 2017) , we will be highlighting research on rural women that will be presented at that conference.  This week, we share another abstract from a session focused on rural women, “The Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture,” that will include several members of the Rural Women’s Studies Association.

 

Cowgirls and the Discourses of Patriarchy and Feminism in Country/Western Music

Renee M. Laegreid, University of Wyoming

 

“Cowgirls” emerged on the music scene as singers/songwriters and as the subject of songs by both male and female artists in the mid-1930s. The popularity of western music helped create an image of western women who, despite stepping outside traditional feminine boundaries, retained traditional attitudes toward sexual purity and domesticity. The emergence of Honky Tonk music in the 1950s blurred the distinction between cowgirls and working class women; Western music became increasingly identified as Country, and lyrics featuring cowgirls shifted away from the innocent pleasures of riding across the range to drinking in bars, cheating on spouses, and flaunting sexuality. While some female Country Music artists wrote songs protesting patriarchal attitudes toward women, in the heavily male-dominated music industry, since the 1970s songs about cowgirls have become increasingly fixated on their demimonde world of cowboy bars, beer, and sexual license. The emergence of Western Music Association in 1988 provided a forum for singer/songwriters to counter this stereotypical cowgirl image with songs that speak to the diversity of western women.

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This lightning session presentation combines music history and theory with gender studies, examining the popularization of country western music in the 1920s, the historical development of this musical genre related to women—more specifically, cowgirls—as the subject of songs, and individual composers whose songs interrogated the evolving discourse over women’s changing roles in society. This presentation addresses a significant gap in western women’s and gender scholarship by connecting the cultural significance of cowgirls with an analysis of country music history.

 

Other presentations as part of the “Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture” session will include:

Gender, Rurality and Imaginary for National and Commercial Purposes

Editor’s note: In the months leading up to the 2017 “Big Berks” conference (the triennial Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities, which will be hosted by Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, USA, on June 1-4, 2017) , we will be highlighting research on rural women that will be presented at that conference.  This week, we share another abstract from a session focused on rural women, “The Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture,” that will include several members of the Rural Women’s Studies Association.

Gender, Rurality and Imaginary for National and Commercial Purposes,

with special emphasis on the Netherlands from 1870s onwards.

 

Dr Margreet van der Burg, Wageningen University

 

My interest for the portrayal of rural life and culture has been awakened by researching the late 19 C worries about the extinction of long lived national cultures in many European countries. Though, the attempts to preserve these cultures as being essential to a nation’s culture, have also reinforced the objectification and stereotyping of rural cultures. They are largely deprived from being part or voice in a dynamic historical process.
In my work so far I showed how this objectification turned into stereotyping and images that were eagerly used for branding and packaging of national pride, national inclusiveness, purity and innocence, cleanliness, harmony – with nature. When showing rural people, esp. in farm sceneries and /or (extended) farm families, the imaginary is often symbolically associated with well-respected virtues such as reliability, and used for both national and commercial purposes. Although some campaigns also focused on gaining the support of rural people, most are symbolically oriented to getting the goodwill of foreign or urban inhabitants who are supposed to value the packaged meanings of rurality without being part of these rural cultures themselves. This applies also to ‘others’ gendered meanings. Ruralism still directly affects rural women and men when encountering urban biased stereotypes in their lives.

In my work I systemized the set of features in rural iconography often used; what mismatches between the actual portrayal and reality seem to be most powerful in various cultural contexts and how their symbolic meanings are culturally connected to the various techniques applied. I am working on identifying various forms and intersecting hierarchies of meaningful misrepresentations and connecting these to how they are exploited in various systematic ways over time. In my contribution I will present this work in progress with illustrations from especially Dutch origin.

 

 Other presentations as part of the “Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture” session will include:

Pioneer Mother Monuments and the All-American Family

Editor’s note: The triennial Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities – will be hosted by Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, USA, on June 1-4, 2017.  In the months leading up to the “Big Berks” conference, we will be highlighting research on rural women that will be presented at that conference.  This week, we share an abstract from a session focused on rural women, “The Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture,” that will include several members of the Rural Women’s Studies Association.

 

Pioneer Mother Monuments and the All-American Family

Cynthia Culver Prescott, University of North Dakota

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Bryant Baker, Pioneer Woman, 1929, Ponca City, Oklahoma

In the early twentieth century, communities throughout the United States erected commemorative monuments to their white forefathers sculpted by prominent artists.  Both scholars and the wider public have largely ignored the numerous monuments commemorating white settlement of the American West that were erected after the supposed closing of the frontier in the 1890s.  Even less scholarly and public attention have focused on postwar monuments to white settlers erected in response to more recent social change.

During the 1920s, changing gender norms, xenophobia, and rural nostalgia combined to produce a common iconography of a sunbonneted white woman carrying white “civilization” westward, armed with either a Bible or rifle.  Despite the growing popularity of cowboys and Indians in film and television, public interest in these “pioneer mothers” declined after World War II.  Centennial celebrations inspired small towns to erect statues by local artists depicting frontier families.  Most western urbanites largely ignored these pioneer monuments in their midst.

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David Manuel, The Promised Land, 1993, Portland, Oregon

Yet even as interest in older monuments waned, the New Western History and the rise of heritage tourism collided to inspire a new wave of more varied pioneer monuments beginning in the 1990s.  Assessing public reception of the monuments erected from the 1890s to the present uncovers the ways that Americans used western mythology to enshrine particular notions of white civilization, to define American nationhood, and to grapple with social change.

 

 

Another abstract from the Berks “Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture” session is available here

 

Story About a Man Named Jed: Gender Constructions in The Beverly Hillbillies

 

Story About a Man Named Jed: Gender Constructions in The Beverly Hillbillies

Margaret Weber, Iowa State University

One of the most popular television shows of all time, The Beverly Hillbillies was one of the first situational comedies to find a place in America’s living room hearts. As the hit theme song proclaimed, this was a story about a man named Jed. A born and bred mountaineer, the clan patriarch Jed strikes oil, and with some prompting, moves his family to the Hollywood hills. This set the stage for the show’s many gags and jokes, as the seemingly helpless Clampetts maneuver their way through high society. When I originally started working on this topic, I thought that I too had struck oil. An easily recognizable hit show with a wealth of information and little scholarly discussion… my graduate-student heart gave a slow pitter-patter. To me, the narrative and context of the show was simple, Jed directly addressed the postwar crisis in masculinity. His characterization showcased a longing for older forms of manhood, something that was perceived to be lost in the transition to a post-war society. Jed, the show’s fulcrum, was a startlingly anti-thesis to the man in the grey flannel suit, a foil to the Male Panic of late 50s.

However, while the idea came to me easily, the actual writing experience proved to be quite frustrating. So, what exactly was I missing? Thinking it over, a small thought crossed my mind. What if the story was not really all of Jed? What if femininity was key to this whole conundrum? To my shame as a gender historian, I had made the same mistake of traditional scholarship. I had forgotten that gender was not created in a vacuum. I had neglected about the women; Granny, Elle May, even Ms. Hathaway. Maybe just listening to a story about a man named Jed missed the real narrative behind the show’s meaning. In the end, Jed’s masculinity was predicated on his relations with his mother-in-law and daughter, his status as rural patriarch.

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“Title Screen from The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Simple yet dignified, the show’s portrayal of agrarian patriarchy rested on Jed undisputed control of his family. Even Granny, the taciturn firecracker, ultimately bent to his will. This can be seen in the very first episode of the series, “The Clampetts Strike Oil!” Having decided to move out to Beverly Hills, Jed was annoyed to find that Granny had refused to go. Grumbling, “Dang if I ain’t got me the mulest women,” Jed marched back to his shack to convince his mother-in-law to journey to his new home. After Granny rebuffed him and declared that she was not moving from her rocking chair, the next shot was of the old woman, still in her chair, now placed in the back of the moving truck. It is a humorous interplay but its intent went beyond simple humor. By showing the viewers this interchange, producers firmly placed Jed as both clan leader and a man willing to use his physicality to solve problems. While Jed was willing to talk through his problems, ultimately he would not hesitate to utilize his strength and power to get his way. What is more telling was that Granny accepted his solution. She did not continue to protest moving away from the only home she had ever known nor did she hold a grudge against the restraint of her physical movement.

Jed was also particularly concerned about the gender-bending characteristics of his only child Elle May. He mentioned several times that the major reason he chose to move was reintroduce her to correct feminine behaviors. After stopping Elle May from wrestling with her older cousin Jethro (a fight that she wins), Jed finally decided to sit down and talk to his daughter about proper roles. He explained, “You see Elle, I raised you like a boy and I was wrong to do it. I reckon every man would like to have a son and you were my only young’in. But it ain’t fittin, it ain’t right for folks to go against nature.” Pointing to their long-faced hunting hound, Jed asserted that one cannot turn a dog into a cat, “Nature turned you into a girl, you’re pretty.”[1] He then convinced the buxom young woman to try her hand at helping Granny in the kitchen and with the rest of the housework. By utilizing gender as a biological imperative and attempting to regulate Elle away from the physical world of men, Jed reinforced his own masculine position in the household and in society. Neither Granny nor Elle May resented his control over their appearances, occupations, or even physical bodies. Jed was the undisputed masculine leader of the clan, ready to enforce gender norms on his family.

In conclusion, this story was about so much more than a poor mountaineer turned millionaire. It was about the intersection between environment and gender, families and individuals. As most agricultural historians know, no one actually farms by themselves. Even as cultural portrayals of farmers would have us believe in a lone yeoman, we all know that behind that individual stands so much more.

 

Ma Kettle Revisited

Ma Kettle Revisited

Frank Garro, Texas Tech University

As a child in the 1970s my mother’s generation had begun the job of moving from rural Northern Ohio into nearby cities.  My generation would eventually  finish that job.  At the time we still had a connection to the land and a few family farms with the relatives left and we would occasionally return for family picnics and gatherings.  As children were usually hard pressed to hang around the adults much as open fields and dangerous hay lofts beckoned.  When it was time to eat we were ushered to one of the tables full of cousins.  We would eat then rush back to play always keeping an eye out for that mean rooster that pecked.  As my cousins ran off I found myself under the influence of long ears (as my father would say) and lingered over my plate to listen to the secrets and mysteries of adults conversation.  Oftentimes an aunt or a adult female cousin would recount a misadventure they recently had in the city.  “Oh, we went to a Chinese restaurant,” one began.  “They didn’t have knives or forks, only chopsticks.”  “I looked like Ma Kettle in the big city and almost starved.”  This always brought a chuckle followed by a faux pas hit parade coupled with Ma Kettle citations.  It felt as if these women were marking their  transition from being rural to being urban.  I chuckled quietly so as not to draw attention to my “big ears” even if I didn’t always understand the context or humor.

I was familiar with Ma Kettle from the series of movies made in the 1950s.  We would occasionally run into her and Pa on a rainy Saturday afternoon when forced indoors.  Watching the local UHF channel showing reruns was a constant struggle.  One had to continually adjust the antenna to get a decent picture.  Back in those days the Kettles seemed like harmless fun and we laughed the same as we would at Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello.  Having fifteen children  in those pre-Duggar days was humorous.  Ma shook her head at Pa as her station, and her family’s way of life depended upon his ups and downs.  The fish out of water rubes going to the big city was always good for a laugh.  Daughters returning back to the sticks from college were encouraged to play dumb by Ma in order to get a man, and so on.  Today I see those movie’s cultural depictions of rural women in a much darker light.  The role of Ma Kettle, played by Marjorie Main, portrayed the rural woman as a  dependant bumpkin amidst a sea of hack rural entertainment tropes.  There was an opposite in the form of the alliterative simple, solid, and saintly one dimensional mother.  An example of this would be Beulah Bondi in the Gary Cooper movie Sergeant York.  For rural women over the age of twenty one it was typically one Hollywood depiction or the other.

A comic foil in the  nature of Ma Kettle risks the development of a detrimental image of rural women a society only familiar with the face of Ma Kettle.  This statement might seem like overreach, nevertheless when a character is part of a successful franchise the possibility should be addressed.  Ma and Pa Kettle make their first appearance in Betty MacDonald’s bestselling book The Egg and I as well as the follow up hit movie.  The characters were a hit and a total of ten Ma and Pa Kettle movies would be made over the course of ten years.  There were credited with helping to save Universal Studios from bankruptcy.  A case might be made that for a decade in the mid twentieth century Ma Kettle was the face of the American rural woman.  It’s only Ma Kettle,  but I see her as a slightly less offensive character than that of the earlier African American depiction of Stepin Fetchit.  The Kettles, Ma in particular, are an interesting and possibly rich area of study with regard to the cultural history, especially her effect on the outside perception of rural women.  She is part of a Genesis like list of character lineage, as in Ma begat the women in the show The Beverly Hillbillies, who begat Petticoat Junction, who begat Green Acres, and on.  I don’t include The Andy Griffith show as it leaned more towards the Beulah Bondi type.  While the Ma and Pa Kettle movies have fallen by the wayside, the television shows mentioned are still in rerun.  Ma Kettle is no longer the face of rural women, but her entertainment genetic legacy endures.

My thought now return to Ohio in the 1970s where I failed to mention the most important part of my remembrance of family’s gatherings.  I turn now to the grandmothers and great aunts of my family.  These were women born at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century and were contemporaries of Ma Kettle.  They were nothing like the character from my rainy Saturday afternoons.  Through our eyes these were women made of the same cast iron they wielded in the kitchen.  They were famous for keeping the books with the balance never off by a penny.  They ran their farms alongside their husbands and they did a bit of everything as part of their daily routine.  These women kept the family together as men fought World Wars and as the banks threatened foreclosure during the Great Depression.  It was impossible for me to make any sort of connection between these women and the image from the television screen.  I saw them in person, and heard the stories told about them through my “long ears” for years after they had gone.  Ma Kettle may be a cultural echo with a long lineage today, but I would rather focus on the women I remember from my youth.