“If anyone worked harder than the farmer, it was his wife.”
These words were written in a local history book 1970 called Wait’s Mill: The Story of the Community of Waitsburg, Washington, by Ellis and Elvira Ellen Laidlaw.
“When a farm woman wasn’t busy cooking, washing, ironing, scrubbing or sewing, she was tending her garden, feeding turkeys, setting hens, or working to revive a weak, newborn pig or lamb behind the range in her kitchen. In the spring, she cooked her meals to the cheeping of baby chicks, kept in a flannel-covered box by the warm stove.
“When the farmer bought more land, he little realized how much it was made possible by the assistance of the helpmeet who baked his bread, rising before dawn to mix the dough from yeast she had set the night before. Like the woman extolled in Proverbs, she rose while it was yet night to give meat to her household; she looked well to the ways of her household and ate not the bread of idleness.”
While the roles of women were gradually changing in the early 1900s, life for a woman — especially on the farm — was still hard, manual work.
“It has always been maintained that a good housewife would make a successful storekeeper,” according to the local Up to the Times magazine in 1918-1919. “The qualities that are necessary are the same. She must keep her home neat and attractive if she would have friends and relatives come to visit her joyously. She must be a good ‘hostess’ if she is to be popular in the town and community in which she lives. She must serve her dinners in a way that will appeal to those who sit about her board. She must supply the little conveniences that make a house a home to her husband and children and visitors. And, she must care for the health and well-being of her family. Yes, any woman who can successfully manage a home would be equally successful as manager of a store.”
A head for business
One such Waitsburg woman was described in the Laidlaws’ book.
Florence Marietta Wickersham Scott owned a clothing shop specializing in hats in the early 1900s in Waitsburg described as a “two-story, brick millinery shop which was an oasis of femininity in a drab masculine world.”
The book goes on to say: “Experienced and competent, she took the train to Portland every spring and fall to spend weeks in selecting rich silks and velvets, ostrich plumes, birds of paradise, coque feathers, wings, quills and boxes upon boxes of ribbon and flowers. She gave equal importance to the task of securing a first class head trimmer for the season, who could cleverly fashion the buckram frames for winter and cover them with silk or velvet, draping, wadding or puckering it in the prevailing style; and create summer forms from wire or bolts of straw braid, to be covered with yards of chiffon or silk net when as much as twenty-five yards of maline might be tucked or shirred on one hat and perhaps, in addition, entwined with daisies or asters.”
Wickersham Scott apparently was a shrewd businesswoman, who “understood her prospective customers, their individual tastes, extravagances and conservatisms. She knew how far the young girls could inveigle their mothers into buying them the latest toque dripping with white Parma violets or wreathed in Banksia roses. She knew what their grandmothers, many of whom had crossed the plains in covered wagons, wearing calico sunbonnets, would pay for a new feather or bow to refurbish their old headgear that was ‘still too good to throw away,” according to the Laidlaws.
She knew when farmers’ crops were good or when the price of wheat was high, or when the community’s economy was struggling. Wickersham Scott also knew about residents’ social happenings, diseases and more.
A man’s world
With World War I came the need for women to take over when men were shipped overseas. During that time, they took on roles in the ever-growing industrial fields.
An Up to the Times magazine article stated women in Russia were hauling logs, sawing wood, and working on railroads and blamed its leaders for it.
“The Bolsheviki government is some government,” it said.
But the war impacted the area.
“The draft, enacted in 1917, symbolized as nothing else the changes overtaking the region,” according to Experiences in a Promised Land: Essays in Pacific Northwest History, edited by G. Thomas Edwards and Carlos A. Schwantes. “Loggers, metal miners, and clerks from the Pacific Northwest were sent to fight in the trenches alongside pipe fitters from Brooklyn and Boson … The war, in short, placed a premium on centralization and conformity.”
In the U.S., an Up to the Times magazine article reported about 1.5 million women were doing “men’s work” at the end of WWI.
But women needed to learn their “physical limitations,” the article went on, to stave off disease.
“Half the cases of nervous prostration, of disease of mind or body, arise from the absence of this very bit of knowledge,” the article said. “‘Stop just short of being tired,’ is the advice which all physicians give their patients. This is the ounce of prevention idea that stands before the pound of cure, and yet not one woman in 10 pays any heed to it. The sensation of fatigue is the indication of your particular limitations. Give up the theater and supper in the evening if you have had a hard day and are feeling tired at night. ‘I know I ought not to do it, but I just can’t resist,’ is the criminal confession of most women.”
The magazine also noted, however, that it would be good for the economy if all the women who wanted to work could get a job.
“In certain lines of industry women are more skillful — perhaps ‘fit in’ better than men; and it is also true that in this day, work for many women is needful — just about as needful as it is for many men. Proprietors of Walla Walla laundries and other industries that employ female help report that almost every month in the year a small army of women make applications for positions. If all the women who want to work could get work, no harm would be done; on the other hand economically and in every other way the valley would be very much better off.”
Dressing the part
Besides conflicting messages about what women “could and couldn’t do,” they were also faced with what was “appropriate” attire.
In Ellis and Elvira Ellen Laidlaw’s book, one of the writers describes attending church as a boy in Waitsburg. While there, he and another boy thought a woman was wearing a short dress — considered immodest, as it showed more than her feet. However, they couldn’t see her whole dress and thought it was above her knees.
“Taking little interest in women’s fashions, we did not know at the time that Mrs. Preston was wearing a skirt made of several flounces, one above the other … Never in my life had I seen a woman wearing a dress short enough to show more than her feet. The idea of Mrs. Preston, the most proper of ladies, coming to church in a dress above her knees was hysterically absurd, but there was the evidence right before our eyes.”
The thought of her wearing a short dress caused the boys to laugh hysterically in church and receive disapproving looks from the reverend and the boy’s mother.
The boys might not laugh as much in today’s world.