I was looking though a bin of used books recently when I noticed one entitled Are Men Necessary? by syndicated columnist Maureen Dowd. “Ha,” I thought, “so long as spiders get into bathtubs, men will be necessary.” Since it was only $2.99, I went ahead and bought it, just to see where we currently stand in the age-old battle of the sexes.
The book is about as appealing to me as knitting. Like yarn, it’s sort of “fuzzy” and like knitting it is put together in an incomprehensible way (incomprehensible, at least, to a man). But it was interesting to read about how this experienced and respected writer, who has taken on many of the most powerful men in our government, wilted in the lobby of a hotel in Saudi Arabia. She was there to interview a Saudi VIP and thought she was dressed appropriately, wearing a pink dress and matching head scarf. But apparently no one in Saudi Arabia has ever seen the color pink in public before. The recriminating looks of the men in the lobby caused Ms. Dowd to flee back to her room and change into a burqua.
Ms. Dowd commented, “With the loss of interest in the abilities of women, the cradle of civilization … fell behind economically and culturally, simply proving that societies need the participation of women to prosper in every way.”
Her remark reminded me of stories I’ve read about the first settlers in the Boone County area. Many of the men who came here to “stake their claim” were perfectly content to sleep under their wagons at night. But they knew full well this would never suit their wives. And so they built sod houses and dugouts so they could bring their families here.
Soddies weren’t much better than living under a wagon. They were overrun in the late summer by bed bugs (as were Native American earthlodges). Earthworms would fall from the ceiling whenever and wherever they pleased. And sod houses tended to dissolve in heavy rain.
It was every woman’s dream to live in a wood frame house, and so the men hauled lumber from Columbus. Women made their families’ clothing, so they had to have access to cloth. Women cooked the meals, so they had to have access to more than prairie turnips and corn meal. And so general stores soon appeared.
With her husband in the field and no close neighbors, women grew lonely. Men would buy their wives birds to keep them company. This didn’t always help — many pioneer women actually had nervous breakdowns. Those women not content with a bird and small children for company began forming societies — reading groups, music clubs, sewing circles, church guilds.
It was the women who “civilized” the Plains — had it been left to the men, we’d still be living under wagons. It was the influence of the women and their concern for their children’s well-being that led to wood-frame housing, the proliferation of schools, improvements in sanitation and health care, and the growth of a diverse retail sector.
Not that men weren’t necessary, but women’s and their families’ needs were the driving force behind the development of the Great Plains. It was women who “knitted” the fabric of society together, sometimes in ways incomprehensible to men.
As readers of this column know, I’m a strong advocate of applying the lessons of the past in dealing with the future. The pioneers faced far greater challenges in settling this region than we face in revitalizing it, but neither task is simple. By reflecting on the vision that drove the original pioneers, by remembering how hard they worked and what they accomplished, we can find inspiration for today.
One primary lesson of the pioneers is the importance of women. In my last column I mentioned how rural areas are losing people ages 25 to 49 — people raising families. This is resulting in a rural “baby bust” — 20 years from now there will be no one left. With last year’s increase in births at Boone County Health Center this area is bucking the trend, but overall, rural births are a cause for concern.
To reverse this sobering trend rural areas need to become as “family friendly” as possible. To do this, we need to pay every bit as much attention to the needs and concerns of women as we do to attracting new businesses.
People are “consumers of place” and women make most of the decisions regarding where their family lives. We can’t make the mistake the Arab world has and not include women in our “re-pioneering“ efforts. Ms. Dowd is right — “societies need the participation of women to prosper.”