Mary’s back at college, and Ma and Laura get started on Laura’s sewing. Remember how awesome it was in Little Town when they made all of Mary’s new things for school? Now it’s Laura’s turn to be outfitted for a new life. Not just with clothes, but with linens, too—including those dreaded muslins that have to be sewn together into sheets, which is totally the Chore of Doom in Laura’s book, even worse than pulling up turnips.
Throughout the books she’s had to contend with all kinds of seam-sewing FAIL—everything from woefully inferior stitching skills (compared with Mary’s, which are tiny, and neat, and perfect, and ugh) to needle-through-the-thimble injuries (again, UGH). But this time Laura has a little something called The Industrial Revolution on her side. Now that there’s a sewing machine in the household, Laura realizes, she can just overlap the edges of the muslin and machine-stitch the whole business, can’t she?
Ma agrees, though she points out that “our grandmothers would turn in our graves.” What would the dead grandmothers be objecting to here? Were sheet seams such a simple task that it seemed absurd to do them by machine—like ridiculous overkill, like using a blender to beat an egg? Who knows. Still, Ma admits, “after all, these are modern times.” So Laura runs the sewing machine on the muslins and quickly dispenses with an old girlhood misery.
Then she turns to the “white sewing”— the pillowcases and underthings that need to be trimmed—and uses the machine to sew on the lace that she’s crocheted and knitted by hand. It’s a detail I never really noticed before but now appreciate, because it shows us just what kind of woman Laura’s decided to become. I can’t help but think this is the same woman we’ll meet, years later, in the pages of the Missouri Ruralist columns and whose presence we can feel in the farmhouse in Mansfield. She has an electric stove in her kitchen but she won’t give up her old dash churn; she’ll gladly leave behind drudgery but understands the value and self-expression in the skills she learned from Ma—skills that she in turn passes on to Rose, who would go on write a definitive book on American needlework in the same decade she flew to Vietnam on assignment. I know, I’m going on, but it feels like so much is happening in those moments with the handmade lace and the flashing needle.
Together Ma and Laura decide that Laura needs only two new dresses, a nice black cashmere dress and then something pretty for the wedding. Meanwhile Almanzo is building their house on the tree claim, and Laura gets to see it under construction exactly once before it’s finished. “I’ll get a roof over it before the snow flies,” he says. (You’d better, Almanzo, because getting snowed on in bed is no fun. Just ask Pa.)
They all think they have several months to get ready for the wedding, until Almanzo drops by with this doozy: it turns out his sister Eliza has been making plans for them to have a big church wedding, and despite Almanzo’s objections, she’s got their mother set on the idea, too. Now he’s gotten a letter saying Eliza and Mother Wilder are heading out to De Smet to take charge of the wedding. “Oh, no!” Laura says.
Oh, no is right. Supposedly she and Almanzo don’t want a big wedding because neither they nor Pa can really afford one, but I’m sure Laura is also wondering what kind of wedding good old Lazy-Lousy would plan for her. Will she loosen the bolts on all the church pews so that they rock during the ceremony? Give the bridesmaids slates to carry instead of flowers? The horror!
So Laura and Almanzo consider getting married sooner—like by the end of the week. If they do, Laura points out, she won’t have a wedding dress. Of course Almanzo thinks the calico dress she’s wearing is pretty enough for a wedding, because he’s sweet, and also, because he’s a guy.
But Laura has something else on her mind. “Do you want me to promise to obey you?” she asks Almanzo. Of course not, Almanzo says, since it “is only something that women say” in the standard ceremony but nobody ever expects to abide by it. What follows is this exchange:
“Well, I am not going to say I will obey you,” said Laura.
“Are you for woman’s rights, like Eliza?” Almanzo asked in surprise.
“No,” Laura replied. “I do not want to vote. But I can not make a promise that I will not keep, and, Almanzo, even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgment.”
Oh yes, these lines. I think Laura’s refusal to obey says a lot of things here—that she’s got Pa’s spirit, that her experience growing up on the American frontier has taught her a lot about individual freedom (right, Rose?), and that times are changing.
Some people point this scene as evidence that Laura is a feminist. I don’t think she was—not in the way women who believed in woman’s suffrage in 1885 would have been. Unlike someone like Eliza, who worked for a time in Washington DC and was friends with controversial women like Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, Laura isn’t exactly bucking convention. She’s insisting on equality within her marriage, but not in the wider world. Really, she’s not even asking for much—all she wants is to omit a vow that “no decent man” would hold his wife to anyway, according to Almanzo.
And yet it’s precisely for that reason that her refusal to say “obey” is so very important.
As with the hand-knitted lace and the sewing machine, Laura is conscious of the ways the world is changing, and negotiating for herself what those changes mean to her. So even though her fiance claims that nobody takes the “obey” vows literally anymore and Reverend Brown doesn’t believe in saying them either, Laura still states her own terms. She’s a modern, self-determined woman in that she believes her actions are truly meaningful, whether it’s the things she makes with her hands or the words she says at her wedding ceremony, and a feminist I can admire and appreciate that.
I think I finally figured out why I’m such a stickler about whether or not to call Laura a feminist based on this scene. Because much like Laura with the word obey, the word feminist means something specific to me—the fight for certain rights (yes, including the right to vote.). The word can describe a lot of strong women I admire, but not all of them. I don’t need Laura Ingalls Wilder to be a feminist in order to be inspired by her, to love that she insists on marrying word with deed at the same time she’s marrying Almanzo.
With the “obey” issue out of the way, Laura and Almanzo decide to avoid a big wedding and to get married as soon as Almanzo finishes the house. But there’s one more war of words to be fought, and it involves Ma’s old sayings. Laura thinks Ma’s going to object to the quick ceremony with the “marry in haste, repent at leisure” line. But instead Ma trots out the “married in black, you’ll wish yourself back” saying, since the wedding dress hasn’t been made yet and only the black cashmere dress can be finished in time.
But Laura has an old saying of her own. She’ll wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” by wearing the new black dress with her old blue-lined bonnet and Ma’s borrowed pin, making a nod to tradition in a way that suits her—again, like the modern woman she’s become.
It used to drive me nuts when Ma would finally give in and say, “I don’t suppose there’s truth in these old sayings” right after she just went and spouted off an old saying. But maybe the point is that Ma is wrong: there is truth in those old sayings when you give them meaning, as Laura is doing.
Still, Ma will be Ma, and her final bit of resistance is to insist that the ceremony with Reverend Brown take place at home. But Laura, who I imagine would love nothing more than to have a little wedding on the homestead, points out that they can’t, not without Almanzo’s mother there. Even a small wedding is a wedding, and Laura stands by her words.
It’s decided: she’ll be married in black, with hand-knitted lace-trimmed machine-sewn underthings. She won’t obey anyone against her better judgment—not her husband, not her in-laws. She won’t repent at leisure. She won’t wish herself back. It’s on.