We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

All it takes is quick perusal of a book about ordinary women’s lives in the 19th century to appreciate feminist progress in the 20th and 21st centuries. The Woman Without a Voice, Louise Farmer Smith’s memoir about her family of Oklahoma pioneers, makes it abundantly clear that married women had no rights. Surprisingly, a single woman could stake a homesteading claim, but a married woman was as powerless, though not as abused, as the indigenous people displaced by the almighty railroads in their quest for profits. Smith, a Capitol Hill resident, emphasizes that the wife’s vow of obedience to her husband was enforced by the law of the land. Though they did hard, physical labor, pioneer women clung “to the ideology centered on the supposed natural characteristics of women: purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity.”

This is the world portrayed in Frank Norris’ classic novel, The Octopus, about how railroad expansion and commodity market manipulation rendered farmers destitute. Similarly, Smith’s book describes how land speculators lured settlers into Native American territory before it was officially open for settlement: “Having settlers there in need of government protection enhanced the argument to open the land.”

Beginning in 1898, during a drought in Nebraska, the memoir depicts a desperate corn farmer, Isaac Storm, the author’s great grandfather, about to lose his farm to the bank. The country was five years into an economic depression that impoverished farmers. “Thousands of angry, unemployed men burst into Nebraska on their way to Washington, D.C. to demand relief from the government,” Smith writes. They commandeered a train, whereupon the executives of the Union Pacific Railroad took “the law into their own hands.”

The Storm family moved to Oklahoma as millions of acres were being taken from Native Americans. “It is some solace to me,” Smith writes, “That my family headed for the western section, Oklahoma Territory and not into Indian Territory,” and thus was less part of  “the grand larceny of the United States government.” And grand larceny it was. It “legislated away the cultures” of the Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Muscogee, Chickasaw, Kiowa, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Osage, Miami, Ottawa, Eastern Shawnee, Quapaw, Peoria, Wyandotte, Seneca, and Cayuga. Smith writes that many of these tribes had already been uprooted to Oklahoma, but the U. S. government broke its promises to them, and betrayed their treaties. The railroads’ lust for profit had helped create “a clamor for free land.”

Before leaving for Oklahoma, Isaac Storm committed his wife Phebe, suffering from postpartum depression, to an insane asylum in Nebraska. She was powerless to leave it. Even when her mental health improved, her keepers in the Lincoln Asylum could not release her. Only her husband could. It was not until after his death that a daughter finally had the legal right and filled out the paperwork to secure her mother’s freedom.

Without today’s drugs, Phebe would have been treated with “leeches, morphine, opium, rhubarb, tincture of gentian, wine, cooked beef blood and small doses of arsenic and strychnine,” Smith says. No Lexapro for her. However, in many ways, the asylum inmates were better off than our homeless, deinstitutionalized psychotics today. The asylum was “a self-sustaining operation with a farm that produced all the food and dairy for the staff and patients.” Back in the 1890s, people with mental illness gardened and slept in warm beds.

In 2018, some of them roam the streets of big cities in rags and sleep on concrete sidewalks in the winter. All is not progress.

You can order “The Woman Without a Voice” here.