I just watched the Little House on the Prairie episode, Oleson vs. Oleson.
What happens is this: A woman comes to Walnut Grove to give a lecture against a law that gives a woman’s property to her husband once they marry. She circulates a petition to the state legislature to change that law. Percival, Nellie’s husband from New York, signs the petition, for New York has a law that says the woman gets to keep her property when she gets married. But Charles doesn’t support that kind of egalitarian policy, for he believes that sharing and mutual trust are important to a marriage, whereas a policy of “what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine” can be detrimental. Other husbands feel that women need their husbands to support them, and that’s their basis for supporting the status quo. And Nels Oleson, whose wife, Harriett, continually runs all over him, feels empowered when he hears that the law regards him as the sole owner of his family and its property.
The women revolt by leaving their households. Their husbands prove inept at housework, cooking, and the rearing of their children, so they see that they need their wives, who make a genuine contribution to their homes. And Nels, who ordinarily does the cooking anyway, learns that he needs his wife to run the mercantile effectively. Charles concludes that a law allowing women to keep their property may be necessary because of the husbands who could abuse their legal power, and he leads the men of Walnut Grove to sign the petition. They all get their wives back, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Some people don’t like this episode because they regard it as too feminist. They prefer nice, mild-mannered Mrs. Ingalls to Ms. Ingalls, the women’s-libber!
But what would Betty Friedan think about this episode? She liked the pioneers, as I discuss in Feminine Mystique 11, so she would probably appreciate Caroline Ingall’s little speech to Charles about how they came to the frontier and were partners in building a house, a farm, and a new life, so why not have a law that recognizes that partnership? At the same time, would she have thought highly of Percival’s implication that New York was more progressive on gender equality than back-woods Walnut Grove? I’m not sure. I mean, if that’s the way it was in the area of property laws, then she probably wouldn’t have minded Percival saying that. But her point in the Feminine Mystique was that pioneer states were ahead of the game on women’s rights, for, there, men and women worked together to tame the frontier, almost as equals. As she points out, Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote!
I doubt that she would’ve appreciated the theme of the women boycotting their housework and leaving that to their inept husbands. The subtext here is that men and women have clear gender roles. The women do a good job as homemakers, whereas men stink in that role and should focus instead on bringing home the bacon. So the episode glorifies a feminism that assumes traditional gender roles, which is an essential part of the Feminine Mystique that Friedan criticizes on page after page of her book. At the same time, however, I can’t be absolute about this. Nels was the homemaker of his household, whereas Harriett was the shrewd business-woman, and, even then, they worked together at the mercantile. Betty Friedan would probably like that. And Caroline worked outside of the home—as a cook at Nellie’s Hotel. Yet, that’s somewhat of a feminine role, and Caroline did that to bring income to her family, not out of a desire for self-fulfillment. Betty Friedan probably wouldn’t like that.
But the episode was enjoyable, even though I got a nagging feeling that scenes were cut out. Of course, scenes that I saw as a child are not shown on the Hallmark Channel, but I have a nagging feeling that even the Hallmark Channel is cutting out scenes that it used to show, in order to make room for advertisements.
The end was classic. Laura Ingalls Wilder narrates that her mom says women will one day get the right to vote, but she (Laura) doubts it. Yet, we all know that they did!