When I was in high school, I would get home at the end of every school day, with enough time to turn on Little House on the Prairie reruns. I would curl up on the sofa with my pint of ice cream and a blanket, in anticipation of whatever episode would be on that day. I would watch each episode, as if I had not watched them hundreds of times before. It fostered a life-long love of the show. I know more about the show than anyone else I’ve ever met. Each of the characters hold special places in my heart, but none so much as Eliza Jane Wilder (played by the wonderful Lucy Lee Flippin). Eliza Jane was Almanzo’s unwed, older, inexperienced sister. We watched her sad trials, as no men noticed her existence, and as the other characters would look at her with smug pity. She was the only sister, surrounded by brothers, who became a teacher. Although, seemingly independent, Almanzo insisted upon taking over her care and guardianship, until she lied about getting married and moving away, to get away and out on her own.
I remember feeling such sadness for her. They made her character very avian in nature, shrill, and frail, with a sapling-like build. Her homeliness exemplified by her wire-frame glasses. Viewers couldn’t help but feel unbelievably sorry for her. You would start off the new Eliza Jane episodes just hoping she would find love and happiness. It seemed, for her, the two went hand-in-hand.
I’m now an adult, and still a “bonnet head.” Looking back at the episodes, how I felt about them then, and how I feel about them now, my attitude has changed a bit. Eliza Jane existed in an era where a woman’s worth lay in the acceptance and acquired desire of a man. Women almost needed men in order to survive. I can’t fathom how helpless and desperate some women felt, if they weren’t married by the time they were 25 years old. How would they make money? How would they make large purchases? How would they make legal and financial decisions, if they even could? Men didn’t just make them seem irrelevant, they rendered them so, via culture, laws, and society.
My attitude has also changed in the realization that, those pitiful and disparaging glances that Eliza Jane seemed to receive now occasionally land on me, as well. Almost automatically, I will receive an expression of, “You poor unwanted soul,” from strangers and family, alike, when the topic of marriage comes up. There is never a discussion of if I wanted to be married, if I had the opportunity (and turned it down), or even about my thoughts about marriage as a whole. Why? Because a woman’s worth, to a large degree, still lies in whether or not a “man wants” her.
You see, when you’re over 35 and unmarried, you become Percy the Puny Poinsettia. You are now the last, straggly plant on the shelf, the night before Christmas, with your sad, wilted leaves hanging in despair. Or, at least, that’s what people think. The assumption is always that you WANTED to be married, and no one must have wanted you. And what’s worse, is the question then becomes, “What is wrong with her, that no one wanted her?” People figure that the acceptance and love of a man, must mean that a woman is a good person, worthy of getting to know. If there is no man, she must not be “worthy.” Or she is damaged and broken.
What was wrong with Eliza Jane? We could assume that she was prudish, peckish, and conservative. She certainly seemed to be played that way, feeding into the stereotypes of a “spinster.” Building on the foundation of the viewing audience already having pity and sympathy for the character. “That poor soul,” so on, so on.
As it turns out, the real Eliza Jane Wilder was a claim owner/operator, a teacher, a “government girl,” a wife, a mother, and a guardian to her niece, while she was finishing up her schooling. Eliza Jane was much more than a pathetic stereotype. She even pushed boundaries further by marrying at 42 years old, and entering motherhood at 44. That is certainly not to imply that her existence was validated by marrying and having children. If that mode of validation was true, this blog would not exist. It would seem more likely that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about Eliza Jane in such a way, as to make her look bad. Because really, what’s more offensive than a mean, bitter spinster who was never “wanted?”
Even more interesting, the real-life “spinster” of the Ingalls/Wilder clan was Mary Ingalls. The real Mary did lose her vision at age 14, but she never married, and never had children. She was a contributing member to the family income, but she did live with immediate family members for all of her life. It’s interesting that the show chose to change the story for the attractive portrayal of Mary, in exchange for the homelier portrayal of Eliza Jane.
It’s worth noting that Lucy Lee Flippin is an accomplished actress who is seemingly nothing like her most famous role, Eliza Jane Wilder. Especially so, because her real mannerisms, speech patterns, and even carriage, is so different than Eliza Jane’s. Lucy plays the part to stereotypically perfection, making Eliza Jane the ideal example of what society’s image of a “spinster” was, and oftentimes still is.
I grew up with a lot of idols, and examples of strong, independent women. Eliza Jane on the show, Little House on the Prairie, was not one of them. In fact, it was almost a touch terrifying to imagine life as a single, “unwanted” woman. As I’ve grown older, I now realize that the meaning of “spinster” is what we make of it. There is no “unwanted” in my life, there is no desperation to keep a man around (or to have one trying to control me, or make my decisions, as would’ve been necessary in the Old West days). And in reality, the real-life Eliza Jane should be an ideal idol for independent women, who go out, seek a good life, gain experiences, and then (if they so choose) settle down and enter motherhood. Now, if the rest of society would “get on the same page,” we’d really be on to something.