Books · Culture · Role of Women

What Do You Do for Firewood When There’s Not a Tree in Sight?

Pioneer woman hauling buffalo chips (dessicated buffalo poop).

Before beginning the perilous journey westward, the pioneers congregated on the edge of the prairie in what would eventually become my hometown of Kansas City. Here they outfitted their wagon trains in preparation for the arduous journey ahead. 

I’ve often wondered where these women got the courage to leave loved ones and friends and all their familiar routines and possessions for an incredibly dangerous journey and a life of extreme hardship and scarcity as they tried to build a new life in a strange and lonely place. 

The feminist historian, Julia Roy Jeffreys, wondered the same thing. In 1979 she consulted over 200 of those diaries, reminiscences, and collections of letters written by these women in preparation for writing Frontier Women: the Trans-Mississippi West 1840-1880.

In the introduction to this edition of the book Jeffrey writes, 

I hoped to find that pioneer women used the frontier as a means of liberating themselves from stereotypes and behavior which I found constricting and sexist.

The behaviors and stereotypes she refers to constituted what is called “the doctrine of separate spheres” which dictated that woman’s place was in the home; man’s place in the world. The Victorian woman was expected to be submissive to her husband, concerned only with her home and children, having no interest or ability to engage in public affairs. She was above all genteel, pious, and pure. She was “the angel in the house; the madonna in the nursery.”

But what Jeffreys discovered surprised her

She found that frontier women did their best to maintain the Victorian stereotype even as necessity forced them to face decidedly unfeminine challenges.

That really didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me about this book was the author’s perserverance in spite of the fact that her research proved her assumptions incorrect at every turn and that in the end, though her core belief in feminism remained unshaken, she was willing to be wrong about the subject of her study.

Though my own ideological commitment remains the same, I now have great sympathy for the choices these women made and admiration for their strength and courage. I have continually wondered if any of us would have done as well.

Today, 40 years later, the attribute of open mindedness is in short supply. You just don’t see it very often, certainly not among third wave feminist academics., 

Role of Women

My Aunt Florence—A Young Woman in Wartime

Earlier this week I posted a tribute to our veterans and told the story of our family’s soldier, Daniel Leffel, who fought for our freedom in World War II. Today I want to honor the women who helped to win that war. One of them was my aunt Florence, Danny’s wife. This is a repeat post, slightly edited.

Recently I was looking through my Aunt Florence’s photo album. My mother’s much younger sister, Florence, was like a big sister to me.

One of the first photos in her album is of her high school glee club taken in 1935 when they presented an operetta called “Maid in Japan.” The girls are dressed in kimonos, most of them carrying fans or parasols. The boys who played the part of Japanese appear to be somewhat confused about what a male counterpart of the girls might wear. But they seem to have settled on tent hats worn at a rakish angle, and a few Fu Manchu moustaches.

The greatest generation when they were just kids
Lansing (Kansas) High School Glee Club, “Maid in Japan,” December 19, 1935. These are members of the greatest generation when they were still kids.

When the picture was taken in 1935, Florence (center of photo in white kimono) was 16 years old, as I assume the others were—more or less.  Six years later, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they were  21-22 years old. They would give up a good chunk of their young lives—perhaps even life itself— in a war involving an enemy they had so recently found interesting and charming. If you tried to incorporate this bit of irony in a work of fiction, you’d probably be criticized for trying too hard. Because of their determination, bravery, and sacrifice in defense of the nation, history has come to call them “the greatest generation.”

Unless they were exempt for medical reasons, every one of the boys in the picture was probably drafted.  More than 11 million able bodied men between the ages of 18-45  were conscripted into military service in the World War II draft.

Government poster featuring Rosie the Riveter
Government poster featuring Rosie the Riveter

And the women did their part. There were, of course, female branches of the armed forces: the WACS, the WAVES, and the SPARS, and then there were the WASPS, over a thousand civilian women aviators who already had pilot licenses and were recruited to fly non-combat missions freeing male pilots for combat.

Women on the home front stepped forward to do the jobs that men would traditionally be hired to do. They worked in shifts around the clock, welding, “manning” assembly lines, manufacturing the weapons of war. Rosie the Riveter was the iconic image representing these women.

Typists and stenographers played a crucial part in wartime.
Typists and stenographers played a crucial part in wartime.

But there was another army of women whose skills were essential to the war effort and who are not often acknowledged because their jobs did not challenge gender expectations. They were the typists and stenographers who were recruited by the thousands to produce the incredible amount of paperwork necessary for the prosecution of the war. Florence was one of these. She worked at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Army majors came to learn to be Colonels and Generals. She and her compatriots could take rapid dictation in shorthand, type a gazillion words a minute on clunky manual typewriters, while making multiple copies with carbon paper. That was the way Florence helped win the war.

Command and General Staff College
Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1944

Florence Leffel at her desk in the Command and General Staff College, 1944
Florence Leffel at her desk in the Command and General Staff College, 1944

One day in April of 1945, Florence was at work when she received a telegram with the news that her husband, Lt. Danny Leffel, had died in a Hawaiian hospital from wounds received three days earlier on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

I remember the moment I learned of Danny’s death. My mother and I were visiting my grandmother’s house where Florence was living during the war. It is one of those isolated moments that memory illuminates with a torchlight.  An unfamiliar car pulled up in front of the house in the middle of the day. My grandmother started to the door as Florence accompanied by two women we did not know came in.

“What’s the matter, Sissie?  Are you sick?” And the awful stone-faced reply: “Danny’s dead.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Florence eventually remarried. She was the proud and loving mother of two little boys when she died of breast cancer at the age of 43.

Childhood learning · Culture · Education · Role of Women

The Lesson Learned is not Always the Lesson Taught


Herb is the one who usually writes about poetry, but I have something to say about a poem.

Miss Mary Braden, my fifth grade teacher, was a throwback to the Victorian era. Her skirt came down to her ankles, she carried a cane, and her long gray hair was tied up at the back in a big bun. She was a regular Gradgrind. and she hated children, or so it seemed to me. To Miss Braden poetry was a trusted pedagogical tool; To this day I can still remember many lines of the poems we were required to memorize and recite.

In School Days by John Greenleaf  Whittier was written in 1870 at the height of the Victorian era. It tells a charming story about children, but it ends with a discouraging message:

Self interest is the motivating force that informs almost all human interaction. So don’t expect to be given any consideration just because you are likeable (or even loveable).

 That was the lesson we were supposed to learn, but what we took from the poem was something quite different.

The setting is a one-room schoolhouse  at dismissal time. A boy and a girl linger behind.  There has been a spelling bee that afternoon in which the boy and girl ended up as the last two contestants, and the girl turned out to be the winner.

In School Days

Still sits the school-house by the road,
A ragged beggar sleeping;
Around it still the sumachs grow,
And blackberry vines are creeping.

* * * * * * *

Long years ago a winter sun
Shone over it at setting;
Lit up its western window-panes
And low eaves’ icy fretting.

It touched the tangled golden curls,
And brown eyes full of grieving,
Of one who still her steps delayed
When all the school were leaving.

For near her stood the little boy
Her childish favor singled:
His cap pulled low upon a face
Where pride and shame were mingled

* * * * * * *

He saw her lift her eyes; he felt
The soft hand’s light caressing,
And heard the tremble of her voce,
As if a fault confessing.

“I’m sorry that I spelt the word:
I hate to go above you,
Because,”—the brown eyes lower fell,—
“Because, you see, I love you!”

Still memory to a gray-haired man
That sweet child-face is showing.
Dear girl! The grasses on her grave
Have forty years been growing.

He lives to learn, in life’s hard school,
How few who pass above him
Lament their triumph and his loss,
Like her,—because they love him.

Now we ten-year-olds knew nothing about life’s hard school, not yet having experienced it. The lesson of the ultimate stanza was therefore lost on us, but we could identify with these children.

I had brown eyes; I was a good speller. I was in love—_with Jack Sevier— as was every other girl in our class. “Tangled golden curls”? Well, okay, three out of four; I could still identify.

And although I could not have then articulated it plainly, here was a potent message packaged so that even a ten-year-old could understand it. It was a lesson girls were taught over and over in subtle ways long after Whittier and Miss Braden were around to teach it.  It taught girls how to behave and boys what to expect from girls:

“I’m sorry that I spelt the word,
I hate to go above you,
“Because,”—her brown eyes lower fell,—
“Because you see, I love you.”

Girls need to disown their accomplishments if they want to gain favor with boys.  And there are certain techniques that girls can use to be appealing   . . . the lifted (and lowered) eyes; the caressing hands, the trembling voice, the frank apology.

In spite of the genuine progress women have made since 1870, when Whittier wrote his poem, sad to say, some women still are reluctant to own their accomplishments, and some men would just as soon they didn’t.

Do you still remember a poem you were required to memorize in school?To leave a comment scroll to the top of the post and click on the word “comments.”


Fashion · Role of Women

“When I Was Your Age. . .” A Generation Gap Like No Other

Lizzie Landis, 1883-1947

Meet my grandmother, Lizzie Landis, familial name “Two Mamas.” She was born in 1883 during the Victorian Era. When she came of age, young women squeezed their bodies into corsets that pushed up their breasts, nipped in their waists, and pooched out their butt. Their skirts swept 1906_jun_purplethe floor, their necklines were high, their hats huge. They all had long hair, which they coralled with combs and hair pins at the top and back of their head. For the most part, they entertained their beaux in their own parlors under their parents’ eyes. They attended ice cream socials, church picnics, and community celebrations. They went for buggy rides and sleigh rides, but they never strayed far from home

Lizzie married my grandfather, Enos Landis, in 1905. She was 22 years old.

Grace Landis, 1908-1996

Now meet my mother. Grace Landis was born in 1908 and came of age during the twenties.  World War I, which ended in 1918, had abruptly changed everything.  Grace and her young friends must have given their mothers the vapors! The older women were no longer wearing the elaborate dresses of their youth, of course, but they were modest, some would say frumpy dressers. And Lizzie wore a corset for the rest of her life. Not the corset of her youth, but a sausage casing with stays and a network of laces that “held her in.”

But the daughters!! Their dresses exposed their legs, bare arms, and even their backs. They threw off the corset. Some of them rolled their stockings below the knee. They bobbed their hair and got “permanents.” They wore makeup, smoked cigarettes, and “went out on dates”—in an automobile—alone—with a man. They danced the charleston and lindy hop with wild abandon. As for Grace, I can’t say, but some of them disregarded Prohibition and even went to speakeasies and drank hard liquor.


Grace married my father, Samuel Gillham, in 1930. She was 22. By then the Jazz Age—and the fun—was over.







Role of Women

The Way it Was for Women in the 1950s

The Happy Homemaker
The Happy Homemaker

When I commented on the women’s march in a previous post, I promised to write about the way it was when I was a young mother in the fifties. So here goes:

Because it’s hard to see the water we swim in, let alone remember it accurately more than 50 years later, I decided to do a little research. I consulted A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and America Women at the Dawn of the Sixties by Stephanie Coontz , and I was shocked by what I learned; it was worse than I remembered:

“In 1952 when Sandra Day O’Connor entered the job market after having graduated second in her class at Stanford Law School and served on the prestigious Stanford Law Review, she received only one offer from all of the major California law firms to which she applied. They would be happy to have her as a legal secretary; they did not employ women as attorneys.”

Laws varied from state to state, but here’s a sample of egregious legal measures and policies  that discriminated against women in the fifties:

  • In many states“ Head and master” laws affirmed that the wife was subject to her husband.
  • A wife had no legal right to any part of her husband’s earnings or property during their marriage (true in all states and the District of Columbia).
  • Only four states granted a wife the right to a separate legal residence.
  • In some states a wife was required to take her husband’s surname. A woman who did not change her name on her driver’s license could have it revoked until she did.
  • Five states required women to receive court approval before opening a business of her own.
  • Banks and credit card companies discriminated against single women. If a single woman with her own credit card got married, they insisted that her husband become the legal account holder.
  • Some states allowed husbands to mortgage their homes or dispose of jointly held property without consulting their wives. In issuing a mortgage or a loan, a wife’s income was taken into consideration only if she was at least 40 years old or could present proof she had been sterilized.
  • No laws prevented employers from firing female employees if they married or got pregnant or from refusing to hire married women at all or women whom they did not consider “attractive.”

There’s lots more, but you get the idea. But what was arguably worse than codified discrimination was the unstated cultural expectations that were imposed on women.

I know it’s difficult for women today to understand just how forceful these expectations were, or that all but a very few stalwart women accepted them.

The pervasive assumption was that a woman could only achieve her personal identity through the role of wife and mother. A woman was universally expected to be totally wrapped up in the welfare of her husband and children and in the care of the home. She was passive and supportive of her husband, She did not threaten him by being too knowledgeable or assertive. If she did not experience joy from cooking, cleaning, providing clean clothes and a tidy house, there was something neurotically wrong with her.

This. of course, did not make most of us happy, but it was not until 1963 when Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique awakened women to the source of their discontent and women were included (as an afterthought) in the Civil Rights Act, that the fight for equal rights took shape.

Although a lot of progress has been made since the fifties, the fight is not over.

It seems to me that the closer we get to achieving equality of the sexes while still enjoying the delightful differences between them, the harder the task is. In my opinion a laser-like focus on offending policies and parties will have more effect than all-purpose whine-ins, like the recent pink-hat, red-dress marches, which as far as I can see do little more than satisfy the participants that they’ve done something meaningful and clever.

To Be Continued: My personal story.