Remember the TV westerns from the sixties—Maverick, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Bonanza—to name a few? Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey wrote about loner, prairie knights. They, movies, and television made shooting or knocking a man down with a single punch iconic and formulaic male western romance. All those rough, courageous types, hankering for a fight with fists or six-guns, always winning in the end and making the womenfolk swoon. Ladies moved on to present day steamy, western romances with hairless, bare-chested cowpokes changing their bad-boy ways for their gal.
Don’t get me started.
OK, too late. I’m in the zone and have to burst the bubbles. Most western romances have little to do with the reality, the same way Medieval-set romances with knights and ladies bear no resemblance to that era, when most people lost their teeth by the time they were thirty, were infested with fleas, and ate with filthy hands in halls with rotting, fodder-covered floors where the dogs fought over scraps pitched from the table and whizzed in the corners.
We’ve all seen the pictures of the true ladies of the West—prairie wives with lined, grim faces sitting in front of a sod house. The first thing that probably came to mind was why did that guy ever marry her? For one thing, she probably didn’t look that beaten up the day they married and men looked for sturdy women like me with broad shoulders, big bones, and industrial-strength genes. Life on the prairie was not for weenies.
There was nothing romantic about life for women out West. She got up at or before dawn, seven days a week, every day of the year. First, start a fire. If she’s lucky, she has a range, otherwise, it’s cooking in the fireplace. Next, pee in the pot under the bed, if you’re luckier, there’s an outhouse and it’s not winter. Then off she goes to schlep water, usually a walk to a creek or river. After that, milk the cow/s, and that’s twice a day, every day, all year long. If that handsome, shirtless guy on the book cover is around, he can use that six-pack torso to feed the stock. If he isn’t around, there’s also wood to chop and carry, and that has to be brought in the night before it rains or snows, or there’s no dry wood (or buffalo chips) in the morning.
Now comes the fun part. Make breakfast for husband, kids and perhaps a ranch hand. Dishes are washed in a pan, after toting in more water. Depending on the day of the week, there’s laundry to hand scrub on a washboard with Fels Naptha bar soap. Have you ever smelled it? Washing meant hauling in two tubs of water, scrub and rinse, then hanging them out. (Please God, don’t let the overburdened clothesline collapse into the dirt.) Tote the water back outside, and oh bliss, most of the time she’s pregnant.
There’s bread to bake every day, or every other day, food to preserve, if there’s enough food, garden to tend, (more hauling of water to keep it going in the summer) and maybe a chicken or two to kill for dinner.
It’s never mentioned how the chicken for frying has miraculously appeared in her kitchen, because we know dang well it hasn’t come all nicely sliced up in a package. The bird has to be caught, its neck wrung or chopped off, bled and gutted properly, doused in scalding water so the feathers can be removed, followed by the hunt for pinfeathers, then cut it up (correctly) before it goes in the pan. OK that’d just the chicken/s. What about everything else? You get where I’m going with this. Oh, and by the end of the day, if the shirtless guy was in the mood for sex, his wife probably said the equivalent of “whatever” and slept right through it.
Bathing was done usually at night with a bowl of water—but not until after the lamps had been filled, chimneys cleaned, wicks checked, and extinguished for the night. Immersion was a luxury and usually tub water was shared. Yes, shared, and if you were (again) lucky, you weren’t the last one in the tub. Public bathhouses made customers stipulate if they wanted “used” water or fancy bathing in water that never had a body in it. With two adults and a few sibs, the bathwater would be the consistency of mud by the time your turn came around.
For the women of the West, the sad fact was that men weren’t often around the house or underfoot. Cattle needed tending, guarding, moving to better grazing. Some men had to hire out for trail work and didn’t get home for months, while others disappeared to check out the most recent gold/silver strike.
Such was the life for women on the western side of the Mississippi, and probably many other places. At least it was better than what the prostitutes endured. But that’s another story.
M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)
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