The Open Question Once More

The compelling undertow of Roe’s narrative is the unasked question, is she or is she not a feminist? Until now, the question hadn’t been asked nor contemplated by contemporary scholars even though newspapers and magazines were openly debating women’s rights at the time of Army Letters from an Officer’s Wife, 1871-1888 release.  Readers and writers fervently joined the discussion in The Century Magazine “Open Letters” section.  Located within “The Open Question Once More,” an 1895 letter by Helen Watterson delves into unraveling the complexities of a woman’s inalienable rights by asking- “What is the woman question, and why are we talking about it ad sudorem?”

….the mass of all that is written and said on this subject, we find that it gathers itself under two main heads, and may be broadly stated thus: first, the question as to woman’s right to live in the world on the same terms as a man does—to work as he works, to be paid as he is paid, to govern as lie governs — to use the world, in short, as he uses it, and to be treated by it as it treats him; and, second, the question as to woman’s competence to do so…The only proof of competence is performance.  The world has belonged to those who have taken it, women as well as men.¹

In a sense, Watterson’s straightforward response could have been written by Frances Roe.  Her book of letters are proof of one woman’s independent spirit witnessed in her actions and competitive performance. She describes dangerous events including outwitting outlaws, perilous fort attacks by Indians and escaping large grey mountain wolves on a lone ride.  Oftentimes Frances was the only woman at outlier posts, traveling alone by train and ambulance [military wagon] to visit family back East and return to her  military Western home. Read from the feminist viewpoint of her era, Frances forthright preface and body of her work leaves no stone unturned about her leanings as a free agent in her actions,  “A simple, concise narration of events and more in keeping with the life, and that which came into it.” By reviewing magazine and newspaper editorials within the political environment of the day, we are able to see another side in this open debate about “the woman question” and Roe’s decision not to live within the normative typecast of gender limitations. The question of whether she was a feminist is undeniably witnessed in her deeds. Just maybe it was her decision to use the world, in short, as he uses it, and to be treated by it as it treats him rather than talking about it ad sudorem.

 Exhuming Roe’s remains within the 1909 Funk & Wagnall’s 1909 Literary Digest;Repository of Contemporaneous Thought and Research  lies another layer to this complex question. A book review says “It is the feminine quality of the present book [Army Letters from an Officer’s Wife…] that forms its principle attraction.”  Whether or not this was a predicated tongue in cheek or a sign of the changing times, the story within Roe’s letters is that of a woman who embraced life without forfeiting her intrinsic feminine essence.  Clearly for Frances- her accomplishments, actions, world views and opinions were the sum of who she was; a person who did not restrict her full participation in the world by a gender label.  According to Elizabeth Oakes Smith (see photo inset) who was an extraordinary Elizabeth Oakes Smithwomen’s rights author, editor and fictional writer of the 19th century, “The world needs the action of Woman throughout its destinies.”² In short, I would argue that Oakes-Smith’s position along with her predecessors and contemporaries such as:  Abigail Adams, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Paulina Wright Davis to name a few,  were the foundation that actualized Roe to go out West with her army husband, jump onto the saddle of her horse, tightly sitted and riding astride chasing buffalo and antelope, and -“always with a pistol in her saddle pocket.”       

Deservedly so, Roe qualifies as a noteworthy feminist unduly catalogued as an officer’s “wife,” and the endless recipient of a hindered mindset perpetuated by contemporary scholars.  Sandra Myres, Handy-Marchello and Eales Army Wive’s scholarly bibles cite Roe’s narrative as a historic account detailing the wifely hardships of housekeeping, quarters with dirt and sand floors, adventures and improvised entertainment.  The book was advertised as a good read for those who “delight in the romance,” even though it was published during the height of the feminists’ argument rebelling against the status quo of the privileged male establishments.³ Even today, more than one hundred years later- the reluctance to cast off the millstone around Roe’s narrative has submerged the truth of her adventurous spirit and independence in the far West. Roe laments,

An old proverb tells us that “All things come to him who waits,” but I never had faith in this, for I have patiently waited many times for things that never found me 

Indeed, for Frances it has been a long time in coming, as she waited patiently mounted upon your champion steed, and at last found and untethered from the pedagogical label of an army wife. 

¹Published in The Century Magazine, a Popular Quarterly v.49 1894-1895. “Open Letters.” Helen Watterson contributor.
²Woman and Her Needs. Author Elizabeth Oakes Smith August 12, 1806-November 15, 1893. After attending the Women’s Rights Convention in October 1850, she wrote a series of ten articles for Horace Greeley’s Tribune “Woman and Her Needs.” The articles are impassioned arguments against young girls marriages before reaching adulthood or a proper education. Her discourse postulates about the women’s position in marriage and the binding contractual agreement in favor of the husband as it negates the woman’s rights. Written between Nov.1850-June 1851. E.O. Smith becomes a prolific writer, editor, and feminist throughout the 19th century. The Defeated Life is a semi-autobiographical short story about sixteen year old Elizabeth Brewster’s arranged marriage to Mr. Malcolm, a man twice her age, and all the ramifications upon the woman’s confined life of a slow death in a loveless marriage. E. O. Smith’s information available courtesy of Timothy Scherman, Ph.d.and E. O. Smith scholar and ongoing researcher. Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU).
³“Army Officers’ Wives on the Great Plains 1865-1900.” U. of Nebraska website about the women on the military posts.  Army Wives on the American Frontier; Living by the Bugles. Author Anne Bruner Eales. Stories about Eastern women accustomed to servants and genteel living marry and move with their military husbands onto the Western frontier army posts. “Delight in Romance” excerpted from  Fayette Roe’s obituary in the USMA Annual Report. 70.