America’s first Wonder Women

By Vivian Lawson Hogue

I’m going to steal a well-known line here and say “in the beginning” to describe the prehistory women who lived their lives in Arkansas as they had to. The females of this area were not always about bonnets and crinolines, you know, waving a mint julep in a southern breeze with one hand while daintily fanning themselves with the other. While the Southern feminine image charms people from other regions, it seems to be fading by some women’s usage of crude language and behavior that would disappoint Rhett Butler himself.

The first women in this area of Arkansas in the latter Mississippian period (about 1,500 A.D.), were Native Americans, mainly the tribes of the Caddo, Quapaw, and later Cherokee tribes. They actually lived in communities with political organization. These women and their families conducted their lives in ways that worked for thousands of years. They bore and raised the children and managed the home, and the men took care of the government of the tribes. The men also did the dangerous hunting for food, and women prepared it. 

The First Thanksgiving, 1621 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930). Wampanoag Indians and Pilgrims in 1621 at the first Thanksgiving. The white-bearded Elder William Brewster is on the left of his wife, Mary, a “wonder woman” who is inviting an Indian woman to join the group. Of 18 women who travelled to the New World on the ship, “The Mayflower,” only five survived the first winter. Mrs. Brewster is an ancestor of the author.

Eventually women cared for the ill and dying during enemy raids and the killing diseases brought by Europeans. Without natural immunities, many were lost, and then tribes suffered the loss of lands, their cultures and ways to survive. The lives of the peaceful farmers and hunters of the Caddo, Quapaw and Cherokee Indians became disrupted, and they were removed to Oklahoma.

In 1620 in another place with other tribes, European women arrived on the ship “Mayflower” with demonstrations of more strength. Out of 102 passengers, 30 crewmen and 14 officers, only 18 were adult women! In crowded conditions in the dark, cold, and damp cargo decks below, they must have wondered why they consented to be without a country, homes, food, clothing, and some comforts. During the 66-day voyage, all passengers were often seasick and hungry, and five women were in their third trimester of pregnancy.

The men stated that “the voyage was undertaken for the Glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith,” and after landing, the Mayflower Compact was drawn up as a way to maintain order and civility in their community. It is said that it was a model for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Fifty percent of the passengers died the first winter. Of the original 18 women, 13 died. Two of my ancestors, Elizabeth Hopkins (Stephen) and Mary Brewster (William) were among the five surviving women who helped with the new village. These “women of wonder” helped provide for the first Thanksgiving, which began 50 years of peace with the Wampanoag tribe led by sachem (chief) Massasoit. This was 400 years ago, and many current families recall rugged Arkansas women who lived under similar customs. To be accurate, there are some who still do. You just have to look for them. When you do find one, you will likely note their advanced age and know they are among the last with their kind of grit. They have survived more hardscrabble times than any of the rest of us.

You may even find that their home-and-garden ways have come down to your   mother and you from a long-ago landing in Massachusetts, Maryland, or Virginia. These leftovers from English culture may be in language, gardening habits, a knack for “making do or doing without,” or cooking. Those pesky dandelions make great salad greens, you know. Do you place a small fish in each hole before you plant corn or tomatoes?

I would “wager” that my cornbread, corn pones, and other recipes are at least 170 years old, handed down to daughters upon marriage. The pencil-written recipes of my grandmother, born in 1874, tells me so. Bequeathing recipes was a matter of survival, whether it was how to safely cook poke sallet or concocting a tonic for sickness.

It is quite different now to read about careers held by the female descendants of these women. Gone are the farmers’ wives and daughters who helped clear land, build fences, and slop pigs. In Arkansas, we have had actresses, three Miss Americas, folk singers, opera singers, composers, orchestra conductors, poets, authors, physicians, ballerinas, artists, a baseball player, a cryptographer, and a silversmith.

While it has been primarily our men who have fought for our country’s survival for more than 400 years, women have also been serving since 1948, thanks to President Truman. The earlier noncombat diversity of their service during World War II in the Women’s Army Corps auxiliary was astonishing while ranging from secretaries to building airplanes … and being wives and mothers. Our current nonmilitary women who also have the innate gifts of nurturing and protecting are still serving in their own ways. It is they who know their child or other family member may choose to protect the freedoms that have always been ours.

Those who instill in their children the valuable principles of patriotism and loyalty to family and country are our “Wonder Women” — since 1950 with another war; since 1963 with a presidential assassination, a melting down of our culture and another war; since more wars and now political upheaval and schools trying to catch up.

The real Wonder Woman concept arrived in 1941 not long before I arrived! I remember her character in comics as being a female defending against evil-doers while protecting the good guys. Our own Wonder Women, and even some single-dad Supermen, still have to defend themselves and their families against evil. They have much to do and pray for now, just as all of us must do for each other. We ladies don’t have to hurl ourselves through space in a skimpy outfit and a tiara that serves as a projectile weapon, but the tiara could likely curb arguments over who gets the last Oreo.

Vivian Hogue
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