09. September 2008 · Comments Off on The Discrete Charm of the Frontier Woman · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, History, Media Matters Not, Old West, Politics, World

I understand that some of our foreign observers generally are having a bit of trouble grokking the attraction of Sarah Palin amongst the blue-collar electorate in a variety of American locales not known for exhibiting that Olde Worlde Cosmopolitan Charm. Lord knows our very own dear political and media elite are having much the same kind of problem. Kind of fun to watch them twist and squirm in the icy cold wind, as they slowly realize that the rest of the ’08 campaign will not be a walk in the park for the Fresh Prince of Chicago – that the anticipated coronation might have to be put on hold… with luck for the foreseeable future. I ought not to enjoy the sight so much… but I – aside from the collection of Japanese prints and affection for Bach’s Brandenburg concerti – am a person with simple taste in amusements. This election season is turning out to be way too much fun.

OK, back to my main point – the reasons why we kind of like Sarah Palin. There are any number of considered reasons to not like her political stance. Some may be put off by the adamantly ant-abortion bit, or a distinct lack of enthusiasm for big-government solutions to real world problems, and a certain lack of experience with persistent and endemic problems in mega-big Americian cities. When I think of desperately broken inner cities with huge gang problems, endemic poverty and the occasional outbreak of rioting, Juneau, AK is about the last place which comes to mind. Something about extreme heat and extreme cold keeping people law-abiding, mostly because going out and breaking the law in a serious way is just too damn uncomfortable.

These days, when we turn on the tube or go to a movie, we get the strong woman whose personal life is a mess, or a strong woman whining about the glass ceiling, or having the vapors because someone said something, or some dithery and charming ingénue, eaten up with equally charming neuroses. Or any one of a number of other stereotypes… which are, frankly, getting a little boring. In real life, in flyover country, most of us know a Sarah Palin, sometimes a great many of them; strong and competent women with happy marriages, well-adjusted families, and a long career of service to their communities… or for the places where they worked. They are not nearly as rare as they might appear – it’s just that the job openings for governor and VP-nominee are not nearly enough to absorb them all, and to be honest, the interest of the media is a sometime and fleeting thing. So what it is it about a hitherto mostly obscure local politician, with a personal story arc that looks like something assembled from a collection of upbeat country songs and those Lifetime Channel made for TV movies which have a kick-ass happy ending? (Yeah, all three of them….)

Basically, it’s because she is an archetype – the frontier woman. Or the pioneer woman, and that’s a sort that we haven’t really seen front and center for a bit. Well, not on the national stage, anyway. In the military maybe; lots of that sort of woman. Tough as nails, do not take a lot of BS or give it out, supremely competent, unflappable, and amusing to hang out with, comfortable in her own skin. Now and again you might see that kind of woman appear briefly in a supporting role. But even in the 19th century, they weren’t especially thick on the ground… except possibly on the American frontier – although such marvelous women did make occasional appearances in other venues.

As I wrote a couple of months ago, about Lizzie Johnson– schoolteacher, cattle baroness, landowner, writer and bookkeeper – such women had no other habitat than on the frontier. Which was a tough place, despite many romantic notions about it; dangerous, devoid of the usual support systems that women of the Victorian era, no matter of what class were accustomed to. Women on the frontier died in childbirth, of various unpleasant illnesses to include spousal abuse, went mad, were killed in accidents and Indian raids… but many of them thrived in the relative social freedom. Some of them even went to the extent of putting on mens’ clothing, but many of them did just fine in their own.

In one the books on my shelf for research – a volume about cattle ranching – there is a picture of three young women in the corral of a cattle ranch in Colorado in the 1890s. Two of them are in properly modest, dark-colored, ankle-length dresses, and the youngest wears a light-colored dress with a ruffled hem that comes down to the top of her high-buttoned shoes. All of them are wearing straw boaters. The girl in the short dress and one of the older girls are holding braided lariats, drawn tight on the fore and hind legs of a cow laying on the ground. The third girl is holding a long-handled branding iron, as a small woodfire burns a short distance away. The three girls, according to the caption, are the daughters of a well-to-do rancher, who wanted to be sure that they had every necessary skill to carry on with the business of the ranch after his death – even those skills which were normally carried out by male ranch hands. Frontier women, god bless them. They could probably go into the parlor, after a round of calf-branding, and do a mean round of cross-stitch embroidery, and then host a meeting of the Women’s Library Book Committee.

In the end, it’s all about competence – not if you are male or female. Can you do the job and not whine, or ask for special treatment. So that’s why we like Sarah Palin – she’s a frontier woman, a hundred years after the frontier.

Comments closed.