The Importance of Propriety for Women on the Frontier
This item is an excerpt from The Ladies’ Letter Writer, which is a book created and published by F. Warne and Co. publishers in London. In this excerpt, a variety of model replies to marriage proposals are provided. It includes acceptance, rejection, and also other templates related to marriage such as engagement announcements and wedding business. There are many models and examples on what to write and how to be polite. The book’s tone is light and respectful. The publishing company probably wanted this to be highly circulated, showing the importance of expressing the feeling of love at the time. It was most likely written so woman would know the proper way to be respectful and courteous when responding to marriage proposals. From the excerpts the reader can tell that there were high standards and expectations set for women to always be polite and think carefully about word choices. The model letters are always brief, nice, and polite even if it is a rejection.
The importance of propriety and social conventions during the expansion period was a major justification for settlers when moving west and colonizing Native American lands. White Americans believed that they were the courteous, polite people while the indigenous people were the savages and the thieves. One of the examples of the importance of propriety and sticking to the “status quo” is the Ladies Letter Writer. Love was sacred to the people of the time, as seen by the dignified and polite tones throughout the excerpt. The model letters are not rude or brunt or distasteful, and they treat the proposal or marriage business with the utmost respect. The specificity of the many scenarios and how detailed the models are give a sense of propriety and show the importance of it in romantic correspondence. There is even one model letter titled “From a Lady to her Lover, whom she suspects of inconsistency”. While the piece has a slightly disappointed tone, there are no mean accusations or harsh words written. The woman writes, “Is it right for a man to win a woman’s affection only to disappoint her at last?” This sentence shows the importance of respect. Women at the time were expected to be respectful no matter what the situation. Love was so important to women that they wrote politely even when they were most likely very angry. Propriety was kept in mind at all times. Women did not want to seem rebellious or rude, which was very “unladylike” at the time, because there were high standards set for them, and they were expected to be submissive and subordinate. Women were expected to follow all rules, act prim and proper and do the house chores while taking care of the children. These expections were seen in the letters, as even marriage rejections are formal and do not say anything rude or anything in a mean tone. Letters had to be formal, as women wanted to keep their high social status with their friends and other men. It was for these reasons that women felt dignified and discriminated against Native Americans on grounds of what they interpreted sas the inderent savagery of the Native Americans. They wanted the Natives gone off the land, and most likely many were racist, just as Ma is in the book Little House on the Prairie.
The importance of propriety is also seen in the book Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In the book, the character Ma is always worried about how a woman should act. She is obviously submissive to the father figure, Pa, as he makes all the decisions and she does exactly what he says all the time. She also is concerned with the proper appearance, as she is always getting on to Laura for taking her bonnet off while playing outside. While Laura is constantly battling the restrictions of being a typical girl on the prairie, her mother constantly desires the propriety and security of a white, settler girlhood and womanhood. “Dear me, Laura, must you yell like an Indian… if you girls aren’t getting to look like Indians! Can I never teach you to keep your sunbonnets on?” Ma would have most likely used the Ladies Letter writer, as throughout Little House she is constantly getting on Laura to be ladylike and polite.
This specific episode, as well as other sections of the book highlights how much propriety meant to the women during the expansion period. This was most likely one of the main justifications women told themselves and others for inhabiting the land that really belonged to the Native Americans. Ma represents a settler colonial attitude that believed that white women were better and more deserving of territory than Native Americans, because they had manners and acted with dignity and worked hard for everything, while perpetuating the stereotype that Native Americans just "rode around yelling and stealing, and making a mess on the frontier" already owned by the white Europeans expanding west.
By Renee Walker
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. New York City: HarperCollins, 1971. Print.