THE women who wrote these diaries never marched down history's main boulevard -- or even down the back road, for that matter. They never led the suffrage battle, won Nobels, danced ``Swan Lake,'' ran the underground railroad, or wore the gown of fame in any form. They were simply mothers who took some giant steps along life's route. And they wrote about their experiences.
The keeping of diaries and journals from the 17th through the 19th centuries was hardly a popular pastime with women. If a lady was fortunate enough to have leisure, she usually sat at a spinet or on a settee with needlepoint in her lap, not at a desk pouring out her thoughts on paper.
Women of the lower classes were loath to spare a moment for such frivolous ventures. They had bread to bake, beds to make; and someone's socks always needed mending. Even if women had wanted to record their days, many couldn't. They didn't know how to write. Their education generally was confined to the ABCs of domesticity.
Nevertheless, now and then, here and there, women wrote about their days. The ``authors'' below are not meant to be representative of their times, nor are they held up as examples of what womanhood was or should be. These excerpts were selected because they were written by mothers and mothers-to-be. A.S. LeCleve
Women who settled on the Kansas prairie in the 1800s fought droughts, fires, snowstorms, locusts, sweeping winds, and torrential rains. But it was the isolation that sometimes conquered them. Far from friendly neighbors during the day, and covered by a blanket of blackness at night, they were plagued with loneliness. And often they had to handle a crisis, solo-style. Annette LeCleve Botkin recorded this experience of her mother:
``My parents settled in Rice County, Kansas, in 1873. Their house was three miles from the nearest neighbor. Ellsworth or Sterling was their nearest trading point, both over sixteen miles away.
``It was the last of July, and my father was thinking of the long winter ahead, and perhaps the blizzards to come. And at that time there was not a tree in sight. . . . So my father arose early and started on his all-day trip to Mule Creek to get a load of wood. Mule Creek was about seventeen miles away.
``He had no sooner gotten out of sight, than my mother knew that the stork, being an undependable sort of bird, had decided that it was time to leave his precious bundle. Now that was a terrifying situation. Alone with two babies, one four and the other eighteen months, not a neighbor that could be called, no doctor to be gotten.
``So my brave mother got the baby clothes together on a chair by the bed, water and scissors and what else was needed to take care of the baby; drew a bucket of fresh water from a sixty-foot well; made some bread-and-butter sandwiches; set out some milk for the babies. And when Rover had orders to take care of the babies he never let them out of his sight, for at that time any bunch of weeds might harbor a rattlesnake.
``So, at about noon, the stork left a fine baby boy . . . and when my father came in he found a very uncomfortable but brave and thankful mother. . . .''
(From ``Pioneer Women,'' by Joanna L. Stratton, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1981.) Elizabeth Greer
In the fall of 1848, Elizabeth Greer, her husband, and their children came to the end of their trek over the Oregon Trail. At Portland, on Nov. 30, she wrote in her journal:
``Raining. This morning I ran about trying to get a house to get into. . . . At last I found a small, leaky concern with two families already in it . . . you could have stirred us with a stick. . . . My children and I carried up a bed. The distance was nearly a quarter of a mile. Made it down on the floor in the mud. . . .''
And on Feb. 2:
``Today we buried my earthly companion. Now I know what none but widows know: that is, how comfortless is a widow's life; especially when left in a strange land without money or friends, and the care of seven children.''
(From ``Oregon Trail,'' by Ingvard Henry Eide, Rand McNally & Co., 1972.) Grace Growden Galloway
Grace Growdon Galloway inherited bountiful Pennsylvania acres, plus part of an iron company, from her wealthy merchant father. But the times were turned against her. Her husband, Joseph, acting as a civilian adviser, evacuated Philadelphia along with General Howe's British forces during the Revolutionary War. With him went Betsey, the couple's daughter. But Grace stayed behind in hopes of keeping the inherited property and home from being confiscated. As evident from her diary, she wanted the property for her daughter, Betsey, so the young girl could launch her adult life with an independent income.
Grace didn't succeed. Separated from her family and with property gone, she led a lonely life. Throughout the war years, she smuggled letters to her family, often tightly rolled and hidden in quills.
``About 2 o'clock they came. . . . They took an inventory of everything, even to broken china and empty bottles. . . . They told me they must advertise the house. I told them they may do as they pleased, but 'till it was decided by a court I would not go out unless by the force of a bayonet.
``. . . The absence of my child has quite overcome me. . . . Should I leave this place they will not only take my income, but confiscate my estate, and then perhaps, my dearest child may become a beggar. Therefore, while I have the least shadow of saving something for her I will stay.''
Then, in a letter to her daughter, she wrote:
``I write but seldom, as little as possible. My whole heart is absorbed by you. Nor can I form a wish on earth beyond your welfare from time to eternity. . . . I am yet in Philadelphia. . . . It is now going on three years since I was left in this dreadful situation. . . . If by it I save my child all will be right. . . .''
As a happy footnote: Twenty-six years later, Betsey regained the property after a lengthy court battle.
(From ``Weathering the Storm,'' by Elizabeth Evans, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1975.) Myra Eells
Myra Eells was still a young bride -- and expecting a child -- when she rode 1,900 miles sidesaddle from Westport, Mo., across the Rockies to Waiilatpu, Ore. She was in the second wave of white women to traverse the Continental Divide.
There's no indication that Myra was an accomplished horsewoman before starting her journey. And more than likely, her upbringing attuned her to feather beds and indoor ovens rather than sleeping on the ground and cooking over open fires.
Her zest for the journey paled as her party hit the blasting winds of the prairies and the swollen rivers beyond.
But she was ever aware of the novelty of the country. In 1838, she wrote in her diary:
``Last night had quite a rain. Felt for the first time the leaping of [the baby]. Followed close to the guide. On our right, snow capped mountains. Saw a flock of antelopes. Last night a large band of buffalow passed so near we could hear them pant. Fell in with a company of Snakes (Indians). Encamped to trade with them on Little Sandy (River).''
(From ``First White Women over the Rockies, Vol. II,'' by Clifford Merrill Drury, The Arthur H. Clark Company, Glendale, Calif., 1963.) Sarah Kemble Knight
Serfdom had just been abolished in Denmark; oil was lighting up German towns; London issued its first daily newspaper. And in Boston, widow Sarah Kemble Knight ran a shop on Moon Street.
The time? The early 1700s. Widow Knight had an entrepreneurial bent and managed to keep a brimming household together at a time when widowhood seldom saw ``success.''
Around her family table sat her indigent mother; her daughter, Elizabeth; and half a dozen others, some presumed to be relatives.
In 1704, at the age of 39, widow Knight climbed on her horse and rode off to New York and New Haven for ``business reasons.''
She jotted down descriptions of ``the Cittie of New York'' as ``a pleasant, well compacted place, situated on a Commodius River'' and observed that ``the Bricks in some of the Houses are of divers Coullers and laid in Checkers, being glazed look very agreeable.''
Her diary turns poignant when she comes back to her family:
``. . . and the next day being March 3d wee got safe home to Boston, where I found my aged and tender mother and my Dear and only Child in good health with open arms redy to receive me, and my Kind relations and friends flocking in to welcome mee and hear the story of my transactions and travails I having this day bin five months from home. . . .''
(From ``The Journal of Madam Knight,'' David R. Godine, Boston, 1972).