Jennifer Earles, Frostburg State University

Inclusivity may be the mantra of many fourth-wave feminists when it comes to trans women’s voices and experiences; however, when TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) sentiments started showing up online, these practices have been said to produce “…the most bitter battle in the LGBT movement today” (Wente 2014).

But, these TERF wars are nothing new and certainly represent some deep-seated ideas about gender, sex, and bodies within mainstream feminism. Even before the invention of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, radical and lesbian feminists practiced exclusion within communities designed for “womyn-born women” or “women who were born as women, who have lived their entire experience as women, and who identify as women” (Vogel 2014).

And, those women who practiced lesbian separatism or the everyday, deliberate disconnection by women from men and from male-dominated institutions, relationships, and activities (Frye 1983), often flocked to rural areas in Alabama, Florida, and other states where land was abundant. These communities became a way for lesbians and radical feminists to find each other and mobilize in spaces where they were often unwelcomed.

But, as radical-identified feminists work toward recognition, agency, and the preservation of lesbian spaces, how do members differently determine gender for insiders and outsiders in order to preserve a particular kind of feminism? These exclusionary practices certainly have implications for trans inclusion, but also for how feminists hold tight to the logic of a gender binary and public narratives about essentialism, biology, and heterosexuality.


A Sociologist Out of Water…

As a trained sociologist, I am often confronted with my discipline’s reluctance to delve into the past. Much of our research is about the present with little indication of how current meanings and practices stem from historical ones. But, as feminists continue to fight over the same issues again and again, I would argue that it is our obligation to see how these exclusionary sentiments developed over time. After all, this knowledge could produce some insight as to how we can move forward.

Indeed, both lesbians and trans women can experience contradictory embodiment by attempting to live as either straight or as a man – to remain invisible under heteronormativity. But, by seeking memberships in communities, cisgender lesbians and trans women are trying to gain recognition of their identities and bodies in whatever terms are possible for that particular time and space (Connell 2009).

In this way, doing gender or finding other lesbians or trans women becomes more about historical and social solidarity and organizing than individual identity. But, feminist communities also do the work of figuring out how to determine gender for insiders and outsiders (Westbrook and Schilt 2014). And, while both cis lesbians and trans women struggle against invisibility and contradictory embodiment, feminist literature reveals the troubled relationship between radical feminism and trans women (Connell 2012).

With that, I headed to my university’s archives to see what I could find out about a local feminist separatist community that thrived for over 20 years. How did they last as long as they did? And, why did they eventually dismantle? The answer lies in their notions about gendered bodies and some members’ fervent refusal to admit trans women into the community.

With that in mind, my research is based on the printed newsletters collectively written by self-identified radical feminists in Florida (dates 05/1983 to 04/2013: 3,554 pages). In 1982, they began meeting monthly in what they called Salons, named after the cultural and intellectual collectives of Revolutionary France.

Within the first year, Salon feminists formed the collective, Women’s Energy Bank (WEB), and began publishing their newsletter, Womyn’s Words. Over the years, the women grew together to incorporate consensus decision-making, nonviolent conflict resolution, and feminist practices and activism. They held Salon programs about coming and being out, body image, fat oppression, ageism, sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, journal writing and even financial planning, technical skills, substance, addiction, relationship challenges, health, art, history, and BDSM (bondage, dominance/submission, sadomasochism). Together, they endeavored to create a special place just for lesbians.

At its height, the mailing list was over 250 subscribers, designed specifically for “womyn-born women.” And, if patriarchy was the problem, then separatism was the answer as lesbians laid claim to physical and textual spaces in forging networks of political and cultural resistance.


“The Penis Police”: Employing Biology-Based Determinations in Lesbian Spaces

Salon feminists developed a woman-centered space and agentic embodiment by rewriting “herstory” to include figures like Sappho and images of powerful Goddesses. However, like all gender-segregated spaces, women-only spaces rest on and reproduce an idea of a gender binary (Lorber 1993).

Through Womyn’s Words, Salon feminists organized their local feminist activities by nominating an official “penis police” to ensure no images of men appeared in the newsletter. Even before trans women attempted to enter this space, biology-based criteria for membership perpetuated ideas about who was a woman and the kind of feminism that centered on bodies and power.

While this helped cis lesbians recognize one another, it also drew seemingly impermeable boundaries around this space and locally reproduced those ideological codes that influenced how members talked about their encounters with perceived outsiders.

To be sure, these membership criteria were based on both actual and imagined scenarios about women’s experiences in public spaces. Women are much more likely to experience sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and sexual harassment by men than the other way around (May et al. 2010). Fear in public spaces negatively impacts women’s lives and, even when the danger is low, the manifestation of gender in everyday life puts women on edge.

I do not take this lightly. It is, after all, why women are expected to adhere to gendered expectation that restrict their public interactions and why feminist mobilization strategies and spaces are important. But, by connecting feminists’ use of imagined scenarios with how they determine gender, we can see how some members essentially conflate the identities and bodies of cis men and trans women to exclude.

For instance, in a Womyn’s Words article that made the case for women-only spaces, one member recounted her experiences with an “aggressive” and “violent” man at a women’s cultural event. She wrote, “[T]he violence… emanates from his prick… I am using the word ‘prick’ not as an ‘obscenity’… but to emphasize the fact that his violence stems from his maleness, not from anywhere else” – M. (WEB September 1987).

Indeed, narratives about women’s vulnerability as “men rape, attack, kill womyn everyday…” seemed to prompt the need for “womyn [to] stop them” before they “annihilate us all” – M. (WEB September 1987). In this case, penises and, subsequently males assigned at birth in general, were seen as a constant threat to women. This idea also reinforces the construction of heterosexual male desire as uncontrollable and dangerous.

However, in the end, what people are protecting is not just women, but the public narratives about essentialism and heterosexuality and the logic of binary genders.


Ideological Collisions: Developing Gender Policies in Feminist Spaces

In February 2002, a headline appeared in Womyn’s Words: “Everything About Gender You Always Wanted to Know: But Didn’t Even Know How To Ask.” What was supposed to be a regular monthly forum with trans women signaled the beginning of the end for Salon. One member wrote:



For the past five of six Salons, Salon has not provided a “womyn only space”… Womyn, Lesbians, in particular, are feeling threatened in their own private, sacred space. Why? Because M 2 F Trans are attending Salon. . . . We are womyn. . . Yet we are being forced to capitulate in our own space, to the patriarchy! Trans who were born men are once again asking womyn to accept them . . . to nurture them . . . to take them in . . . to socialize . . . to listen to their problems. . . .Womyn born womyn do not have much in common with M 2 F trans. We cannot possibly share the same herstories. We cannot possibly share the terrors of servitude, ownership, and rape with trans who were born men. We cannot share the pain and joy of childbirth and motherhood. A male birth and upbringing, experiences, thought processes, hair, skin and egos are NOT ours and can never be ours! – C.L. (WEB April 2002).

While some questioned how some determined gender through bodies, other Salon feminists’ fear of invisibility in the local space amplified notions of biology and socialization so that all people who were assigned male at birth were suspect. Stories became embedded with meanings about biology and identity to inform feelings of ownership over this space. As a result, some used perceived genitalia and imagined situations to shore up the boundaries of this feminist community. This created a moment of ideological collision and gender panic.

For C.L. (above) and others, asserting women’s weakness in the face of heterosexuality was an attempt to re-establish boundaries. While these imagined scenarios worked to separate insiders from outsiders, it also seemed to unravel members’ work in re-writing a herstory of the strong and powerful lesbian. Salon feminists relied on narratives about how men were helpless in their socialization to commit violence and about how women were also just as helpless to nurture. Likewise, trans women were at the mercy of recognition by cis women.

As another member wrote, “Why not limit our membership at all?… We could feature a new group of people every month – recently released male parolees, for instance. They need support… Or, how about drug addicts?” – C.B. (WEB April 2002). If segregation depends on the binary separation of bodies, then women-only spaces also rest on the assumption of difference based on capabilities and interests or the connection between “egos” or personalities and “hair” and “skin” or physicalities. During times of gender panic, men become uniquely terrifying. And by rejecting trans women’s gender claims, Salon feminists not only claimed that “Trans are not Lesbians” – H. (WEB May 2002), but as heterosexual cis “men in dresses” (J., WEB May 2002) who are seeking membership for nefarious purposes.


female background


The Un-unravelable Thread: Embedded Spaces and Feminist Negotiations

Given the embeddedness of perceived biology and identity in the newsletter and it is the overarching narrative’s dependence on opposition in achieving recognition and embodiment, this community was ultimately unsustainable under the changing ideas about feminism and inclusivity.

Members continued to collide in how they determined gender and in how trans women did or did not fit into the community. In November 2002, a Salon featuring trans women was cancelled due to divisiveness within WEB. A few months later, one member wrote, “…I cannot, in good conscious, continue to ask [trans women] to make that lonely walk to the womyn-born women only drinking fountain” (WEB January 2003).

After that, Salon meetings became less and less frequent until a few years later, in 2006, feminists stopped meeting all together. After that, Womyn’s Words became more about the broader LGBT community. The newsletter was published until 2013.

 By relying on the logic of a binary and the public narratives of gender, essentialism, and heterosexuality, feminists uphold the sex/gender/(hetero)sexuality system by disseminating those ideological codes that paint women as vulnerable and men as predatory.

And, as we move from rural to online spaces, feminists continue to play the part of the “penis police” using imagined scenarios in order to exclude trans women and potential feminist allies. This is important for situating the body in any sociological analysis. As gender, essentialism, and heterosexuality continue to inform how these spaces are constructed, it is no wonder that trans-women’s membership is problematic.


The Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, a View into the Past

The Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, a View into the Past

 Sally Dwyer-McNulty, Marist College

The Catholic Worker Movement Collection is held at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Beyond Marquette’s vast repository, however, there are some Catholic Worker artifacts that could never be stored in a traditional archive. And, as luck would have it, the “document” I was most eager to examine, was not far from my home in upstate New York. It was the farm that Dorothy Day purchased in Tivoli, New York in 1964. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin launched the Catholic Worker Movement in response to the Great Depression in 1933. They used The Catholic Worker newspaper to communicate the value of voluntary poverty and mutual aid, and they relied on their Houses of Hospitality, and various farms to live out their values with other likeminded individuals and those in need. Tivoli, was the location of one such farm.[1]

There are few detailed accounts of the Tivoli Farm, but what has been recorded, is not very favorable. Oral histories and reminiscences note the farm’s beauty, but most historians conclude that it was a chaotic residence, which was often overwhelmed by non-contributing visitors.[2] Ultimately the farm community could not be sustained. Although the Farm has been closed for almost 40 years, I wondered what I might learn about its attraction and demise by simply walking through the property and observing the land and buildings. The present owners, kindly agreed to let me visit, and I took an afternoon to explore the grounds and think about what brought Day to Tivoli and the significance of this location.

According to Day’s granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, not long after learning of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Day saw an advertisement for an 87 acre farm “on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River,” in Tivoli, NY, just 100 miles north of New York City. The property was “suitable for a religious group,” and included a thirty-two room boarding facility, a 19th century mansion, and a carriage house. The mansion also had a swimming pool.[3] Upon visiting the grounds, Day saw a plaque with the words “Beata Maria” or Blessed Maria prominently displayed on the mansion. All the signs were there for Day: ample space for a new farm and plenty of rooms for workers and guests, “a stream of living water”, and a reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus.[4] Day decided to use the proceeds from the sale of another property on Staten Island to put a down payment on the Tivoli Farm.

Bob Fitch, Catholic Worker Farm
Bob Fitch, Catholic Worker Farm, Tivoli, New York 1968. Dorothy Day and Stanley Vishnewski, a volunteer since the age of 17. Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries

Scholars tend to associate the establishment of Catholic Worker farms with Peter Maurin, Day’s “cradle-Catholic” mentor and partner in establishing the Houses of Hospitality and newspaper. Maurin was born to a farming family in Langeudoc, France in 1877. He spent time in a religious community, as a Christian Brother, but left the order in search of a different model of Catholic service. Influenced by decentralist agrarians such as Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, along with monks of the Benedictine Order, Maurin imagined creating an integrated community of “cult, culture, and cultivation” where scholars and workers could distance themselves from the capitalist system and come together to learn from each other and build a community with a foundation of work and prayer.[5] The Catholic Worker established farms on Staten Island, New York; in Easton, Pennsylvania; and in Newburgh, New York. Maurin appeared to be the strongest advocate of combining farm communes with their New York City efforts.[6] Nevertheless, by the time Day bought the Tivoli property in 1964, Maurin had been dead for 14 years. Tivoli was her first independent farming venture.

It’s unclear if Day knew that Tivoli had, itself, been founded as a kind of utopian inspired community at the end of the 18th century, but perhaps the street that intersected her future property, “Friendship Street” gave her some indication of its intentional origins.[7]  Back in 1795, Frenchman and successful New York City merchant, Peter DeLabigarre, purchased 248 acres along the banks of the Hudson River in Upper Red Hook and married the daughter of a prominent Hudson Valley family, Margaret Beekman.[8] DeLabigarre chose the name “Tivoli” for his ideal community after the picturesque town of Tivoli in central Italy.[9] According to a copper engraving of his community, commissioned by DeLabigarre, he imagined “a gridiron of house lots and sixty foot streets” as well as “a market and docks along the river and, on higher land a community park or ‘pleasure ground.’”[10] The community, as other street names indicate, would promote “Commerce, Plenty, Peace, Liberty, and Friendship.”[11] By 1807, however, DeLabigarre was bankrupt and his utopian dream ended.[12]

The Tivoli land that would become the Catholic Worker Farm, was established in 1843 as a summer home and country retreat for General John Watts de Peyster and his family. They named the mansion and property Rose Hill. Shortly before de Peyster died, he transferred Rose Hill to the Leake and Watts Children’s Home for $1.00.[13] Over the next forty years, Rose Hill would function as an orphanage. And during World War II, the former dormitory for the young boys would house members of the “land army” or “young city people who volunteered to work in the area’s farms” while the local men were off at war.[14] By the time Day acquired the Rose Hill property it was fairly run down from hard use, but the bones of excellent architecture were still apparent.

Historic Red Hook
Swimming pool, Camp Tivoli, Madalin N.Y. Ward Manor Collection, Historic Red Hook. https://www.hrvh.org/cdm/ref/collection/hrh/id/141

Not unlike Tivoli’s founder DeLabigarre, Day had elaborate plans for the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli that include many similar goals, especially liberty, peace, and friendship. As an anarchist and believer in voluntary poverty, Day would not have shared DeLabigarre’s interest in commerce and plenty. The property would function as a farm, but also, a House of Hospitality, Folk School, a place for silent retreats, and peace conferences. The newspaper press would also be housed in Tivoli, and there would be a chapel, library, and plenty of space for sleeping workers and visitors. According to Day, in this last agronomic university, “the entire school will be staffed by our ‘community of need’… The scholars will become workers, and the workers scholars…” just the way Maurin proposed so often in the past.[15] The Catholic Workers, visitors, observers, needy, and ill came to Tivoli, but Day’s last rural community only survived until 1978.

On my visit to the former farm, I wondered what I would be able to sense about the allure of the location and the problems that beset the community at Tivoli. Parking at the end of a backroad that came down to the Hudson River, I was surprised by property’s close proximity to the water. It was indeed a beautiful location, with magnificent views, but not an ideal site for any intensive farming. It was clearly a sharp drop to the Hudson and the land near the water was rocky. Matt, the caretaker, met me by the water and I climbed into his SUV for a drive to the mansion. As we made our way up the dirt road, I noted that like several of the 19th century mansions on the Hudson River, there were thickly wooded areas with narrow trails shooting off in different directions. This environment was perfect for collecting natural specimens or a meditative walk, but again, I wondered about where they would farm.

Arriving at the top of the road, I took my first glimpse of the mansion. I could see, immediately, that its Italianate architecture conveyed a Catholic feeling and space — one that would have been comfortable and familiar to Day who so frequently sought out Catholic places. The architecture, just like the chiseled sign Beata Maria, imbued the location with Catholic associations. Inside the mansion, many of the doorways were small arches, like those in Catholic monasteries throughout Italy. While a concern for the poor is a consistent Catholic priority, official Catholic spaces, especially those built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, are not known for their impoverished appearance. Instead, the churches, convents, monasteries, and schools are often identifiable by their architectural impressiveness whether it be stonework, size, tile, or art. I imagine Day appreciated this common Catholic juxtaposition of grandeur and poverty. Day easily reconciled the opposing Catholic interests in a hand-lettered sign prominently painted on a lovely stone wall in the mansion vestibule. “Men’s Pants” with an arrow facing down indicated where visitors in need of clothes could find trousers in the grand estate. Fortunately, the current owners recognized this curious feature of their home’s history, and decided to keep it. The potential majesty of the mansion did not obfuscate the basic requirements of its residents.

Tivoli Tower
SOUTH FRONT OF TOWER WITH ENTRANCEWAY AND ARCH – Rose Hill, Woods Road, Tivoli, Dutchess County, NY. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ny0195.photos.116215p/

The dormitory was another large structure on the site, not splendiferous like the mansion, but nonetheless similar to another kind of Catholic space, the school institutions or the houses of the religious. Catholic orders frequently carried out their charism or special service, and financially sustained their religious families, through the administration of schools and orphanages. The former Leake and Watts Children’s Home, while not Catholic, shared that same dedication to benevolent institutionalization. Again, I thought this building too, would have excited Day, since her own leadership was similar to that of an abbess in an alternative-style monastic order.

Day, in particular, was devoted to the Benedictine tradition, and made her profession as an Oblate of St. Benedict in April 1955 at St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois.[16] One of the long time Catholic Workers who knew the Tivoli Farm well, Stanley Vishnewski, noted the importance of the monastic influence on the Catholic Worker. “I am sure that without the influence of the Benedictines,” he explained, “there would be very little in the Catholic Worker Movement – For from the Benedictines we got the ideal of Hospitality – Guest Houses – Farming Communes – Liturgical Prayer. Take these away and there is very little left in the Catholic Worker Program.”[17] Monastic traditions, whether in prayer, silence, or community living deeply attracted Day. She even had monastic neighbors whom she liked to visit, less than 2 miles away. The Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirmed came to Avila-on-the-Hudson in 1947 and welcomed Day into their home when she arrived in the neighborhood. It was easy to see how Day could imagine living out some of the Benedictine traditions in Tivoli.

Despite the comforts of Catholic symbols, spaces, and inspirations, the Farm would need to be productive to sustain an active community. And, it was the farming that I failed to picture. According to local historian Bernard B. Tieger, “only about an acre of land was even cultivated, and farming never became a dominant feature of the Farm.”[18] Rather than a Farm, it seemed like a large and potentially diverse garden with fruit trees occupying some of the open and flat areas of the property. There are many farms in Northern Dutchess County and surrounding counties, but as Tieger observed, the most popular crop in the area was fruit, which accounted for 84% of area farm production by 1936.[19] It didn’t mean that other crops or livestock were not possible, but there was not enough evidence of land under cultivation, grazing areas, or animal shelters to support an active and often crowded anarchistic community.

I went home from this fieldtrip with a better sense of why Tivoli was so attractive to Day, and also at least one reason why it didn’t work out as she had hoped. Maybe as she approached the end of her life, it was the natural cloister and religious spaces that inspired her decision to purchase the Tivoli Farm. Clearly crop yield and farm production did not greatly influence her choice. The land had limited potential for sustaining its often needy residents. After having appreciated my local “archive,” I am eager to view and listen to another set of artifacts at Marquette, and study more texts about Day’s years at the Tivoli Farm.

[1] Audrey H. Cole, “The Catholic Worker Farm: Tivoli, New York 1964-1978,” The Hudson Valley Regional Review, March 1991, 8, no. 1 (March 1991): 25-27.

[2] Ibid., 34-35.

[3] Kate Hennessy, Dorothy Day, The World Will be Saved by Beauty (New York: Scribner, 2017), 229-30.

[4] The reference to “living water” comes from Dorothy Day’s diary entry of 13 December 1963 included in Robert Ellsberg, Ed. The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day. (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2008), 345.

[5] Anthony Novitsky, “Peter Maurin’s Green Revolution: The Radical Implications of Reactionary Social Catholicism,” The Review of Politics 37:1 (January 1975): 90, 100-1.

[6] Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origins of Catholic Radicalism in America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), 65.

[7] Richard C. Wiles, Tivoli Revisited: A Social History, (1981), 5. Local History Collection, Tivoli Library; Tivoli, NY.

[8] Joan Navins, Tivoli 1872-1972: A Historical Sketch (Rhinebeck, NY: Jator Printing Company, 1972), 12.

[9] According to The Utopian Impulse, an 2009 exhibit at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University,  from the  15th through the 18th there was an notable increase in “expressions of the utopian impulse” or “planning of ideal cities and societies” in Europe and the Americas. The humanistic values of the Renaissance coupled with the possibilities offered by the discovery of the “New World” inspired visionaries to reimagine society. The exhibit creators identified New Haven, Connecticut, the home of Yale University, as an 18th and 19th century community inspired by the desire for “safety, plenty, and freedom.” Likewise, its nine-square plan was a recognition of the priority of a “planned” community.

See http://www.library.yale.edu/exhibitions/ideal/images/utopian_impulse.pdf (accessed October 10, 2017).

[10] Navins, 16.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Bernard B. Tieger, Tivoli: The Making of a Community (Tivoli, NY: Village Books Press, 2012), 87.

[14] Ibid., 137.

[15] Cited in Brigid O’Shea Merriman, Searching for Christ: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 160, from Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage” The Catholic Worker (June 1964): 1, 2, & 6.

[16] Merriman, 106. An oblate is a lay person who professes an association with a religious order and maintains certain rules such as participating in the Liturgy of the Hours or saying prayers at designated times of the day.

[17] Stanley Vishnewski to Brother Benet Tvedten, O.S.B., 14 August 1968, Marquette University Archives. Dorothy Day- Catholic Worker Collection, W-12.3, Box 3, cited in Merriman, 107.

[18] Tieger, 138.

[19] Ibid., 121.

Wide Open Suburban Spaces

WHA2017I recently returned from the annual meeting of the Western History Association in San Diego, California.  Held at a resort hotel overlooking the beach and separated by freeways from both Old Town San Diego and southern California’s suburban sprawl, this year’s WHA conference was in an ideal location to examine the boundaries between rural and urban spaces, as my panel sought to do:




Leisure and Living in Wide Open Western Suburban Spaces

In popular imagination, the West is a land of wide open spaces or family farms – in other words, a rural place.  Scholarship on the region in the twentieth century emphasizes the urban West.  But as the housing subdivisions sprawling from San Diego to Santa Barbara, Phoenix and Las Vegas highlight, a rapidly growing percentage of westerners both live and vacation in suburban spaces.  Exploring examples as varied as a Wild West theme park located on an Indian reservation, pioneer statues in New Urbanist exurbs, and tours highlighting ethnic identity in a small college town and labor in North Dakota’s oilfields, this panel explores the intersection of tourism, western mythology, and cultural identity in suburban western spaces.  Meeting such diverse individuals as Sunbelt homeseekers, 1930s car camping families, “Occupy Wall Street” protesters, and nudist tourists suggests the range of westerners’ experiences in these places.  Taken together, our varied presentations query the boundaries of natural, rural, urban, and suburban spaces, and the complex interrelationships between traveling and living in the twentieth-century West.


Our fantastic panel brought a wide range of disciplinary approaches to this question.  Lawrence Culver (History, Utah State University) examined the role of climate in promoting the growth of suburbs and outdoor recreation in southern California.  Phoebe Young (History, University of Colorado at Boulder) demonstrated the ways that camping blurs the boundaries between nature and urban development.  Sarah Schrank (History, California State University, Long Beach) explored notions of “naturalness” in nudist tourism.  I (Cynthia Prescott, History, University of North Dakota) compared uses of cowboy art and local pioneer monuments to create an appearance of historicity in suburban locales.  Laura Barraclough (American Studies, Yale University) examined the relocation of a Wild West theme park from a wealthy white suburb to an American Indian reservation outside Phoenix, Arizona.  Natchee Barnd (Ethnic Studies and Native American Studies, Oregon State University) shared ethnic studies tours of a college town in Oregon’s richest agricultural region.  And Bret Weber (Social Work, University of North Dakota) introduced a tourist guide to industrial production in the rural northern Great Plains.


Coralville marriott handcart new urbanist
Stanley J. Watts, Handcart Pioneers, Coralville, Iowa


Taken together, these diverse presentations grappled with notions of race, class, sexuality and nature in diverse places across the American West and throughout the twentieth century.  In retrospect, though, I recognize that none of our presentations grappled in any meaningful way with gender.  Yet most if not all of these topics are shaped by gendered discourse.  “Wild West” imagery is overwhelmingly masculine.  North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch was famously populated by “man camps” – and fascination with that single-gender temporary housing helped to motivate the study that produced Weber and William Caraher’s tourist guide.  But campgrounds and suburban neighborhoods are conceived of as the natural home of nuclear families.  Suburban homes that were once the domain of  women as full-time homemakers have become increasingly deserted during the day as married women have entered the workforce in large numbers and leisure time is increasingly devoted to ever-longer commutes and shuttling children to organized sports and other scheduled activities.  These changing family structures should be compared to those in both urban and rural places, and could be fruitfully compared to far more static memory of earlier gender and family roles.

Rural Women on Display

“Rural Women on Display”

Elyssa Ford, Northwest Missouri State University


Head north from Kansas City on Interstate 29 in Missouri and the features of city life quickly fade from view.  From the road, you see rows of corn and cattle in the fields, which provide a glimpse into the daily life that has existed, both today and for decades in the past, for people in this part of the state.  While many of these rural communities no longer exist, historical societies across northwestern Missouri gather stories of the past and display that history to the people who live there today and for the people who used to call the area home.

There are an estimated 10,000 local historical societies in the United States today, and many run on a shoestring budget.  In fact, a LinkedIn poll reported that only 25% of historical societies had more than one paid, professional staff member.[1]  Atchison, Holt, Andrew, and Nodaway counties in Northwest Missouri all are home to their own historical societies, and like countless others in the country they run on a limited staff or rely solely on volunteer support.  In 1896, M. Burton Williamson stated that the “actual local value of our [historical] society to the community in which it is located can not be estimated in dollars and cents.”[2]  In 2012, Debbie Ann Doyle, a historian with the American Historical Association, agreed with Williamson’s statement made over a century earlier: “Small historical societies play an important role in protecting and preserving the historical record and also interpret the past to the public.”[3]  The county organizations and the people in this corner of Missouri would agree with both of these statements.

Yet despite their sustained presence and their perceived value, these societies and their small museums often are in a constant scramble not just for monetary and volunteer support but visitor numbers.  There clearly is a disconnect between the value that we believe historical societies have for our communities and the role that they truly play.  Theories abound to explain this disconnect, but repeatedly there is the idea that historical societies can be too limited, too parochial in their approach and content to speak to and for the current community.  This is not just a modern-day problem.  Williamson raised just this concern in 1896 in California: “Their interests have been centered elsewhere. Our history does not appeal to them [newcomers to the area] until they have become identified with that history. It takes time to do this.”[4]  Of course, Williamson had a different perspective on this problem than others, like John Galluzo who said in 2016 that “[w]e’re not local in nature anymore.  There will be fewer and fewer people with long, deep knowledge of local landscapes, people who are really dedicated to the preservation of hometown history.”[5]  Galluzo is saying that historical societies need to change the stories that they tell – to move away from such a deeply local history and that limited scope – in order to remain relevant to a more transient population.  In contrast, Williamson was saying that the local story simply did not appeal to these newcomers yet but that it could and would.  As he believed, “Our local history furnishes us with unusual and interesting events.”[6]  You just had to find the right stories to tell to get the community, whether old timers or new, interested.

The question then is, what stories are these historical societies telling and what lies untold?  At the Nodaway County Historical Society, many different parts of the local community and its history can be found on display.  There are exhibits on railroads, military service, quilts, music, local heroes and well-known residents, and African American history, to name just a few.  Women feature prominently throughout the museum, but not always in a way that is directly stated.  There is a room of quilts, one of dolls, and another of women’s clothing.  A historic house run by the museum highlights the daily lives of women at home with a garden out back, a stocked kitchen, and upstairs rooms with a decidedly female- and child-centric arrangement of artifacts.  Most of these exhibits are object centered with few explanatory labels, so despite the presence of women, that presence is often fleeting and ephemeral rather than as a focused and explicit discussion about women and their experiences in Nodaway County.


At the NCHS, the women who appear and the artifacts that are assembled to tell their stories in many ways could be stories and objects of women anywhere in the country.  There is little that sets them apart and tells a uniquely rural story about their lives even though Nodaway County is a remarkably rural place.  Today the primary hub is the county seat of Maryville, and several other, much smaller communities still remain, while others have become almost ghost towns or even disappeared entirely.  This is a place that once had over 100 school districts, served predominately by one room schoolhouses and staffed by young, female teachers.  The museum’s site includes one of these schools and the Caleb Burns house, which is the oldest standing home in Maryville and once rented rooms to young women who took the train into town from their more rural homes to attend the local teacher’s college.  Yet visitors to the schoolhouse or the Caleb Burns house take little away from either that tell the story of these women or the impact that their rural homes have on their daily lives.

According to historian Debbie Ann Doyle,

Many local historical societies were founded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by amateur historians whose interest in the past was often combined with a desire to celebrate the significance, growth, and business potential of the community. These early societies were commonly formed by elites whose main interest was the history of people like themselves, leaders in business, commerce, and government.[7]

Though women certainly were a part of the elite families in Nodaway County, they were not leaders in business, commerce, or government in the 1960s when the historical society was founded or even in the 1990s when a museum building was constructed and a permanent collection formed.  Likewise, as Doyle explains, “Their mission was to preserve the legacy of their ancestors, to commemorate local heroes, and to preserve historic architecture.”[8]  If the goal of a historical society is to preserve local heroes, architecture, and key events, women rarely are seen as central to that story.  Women in more remote corners – meaning in even further rural areas – of Nodaway County fit this understanding of historical value even less.  This can be seen at the NCHS museum today as it is not just women but the most rural women of the community who fail to have their stories told.

The Nodaway County Historical Society is not the only museum that fails to display rural women or purposefully discuss them in the context of a rural setting.  In historical societies across the country, rural women remain hidden from view, much as they did in their lived experiences throughout American history.  Now that we are expanding our understanding of that past and encouraging other stories to be told, we need to work with and in our local historical societies to gather the stories of rural women and display them to remember that history and to present it to current residents and future generations.

[1] Debbie Ann Doyle, “The Future of Local Historical Societies,” AHA: Perspectives on History (December 2012) https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2012/the-future-of-the-discipline/the-future-of-local-historical-societies.

[2] M. Burton Williamson, “The Value of a Historical Society,” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, Los Angeles 3:4 (1896): 58.

[3] Debbie Ann Doyle, “The Future of Local Historical Societies,” AHA: Perspectives on History (December 2012) https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2012/the-future-of-the-discipline/the-future-of-local-historical-societies.

[4] Williamson, “The Value of a Historical Society,” 60.

[5] John Galluzo, “Historical Societies and the March of Time,” AASLH (November 2016) http://blogs.aaslh.org/historical-societies-and-the-march-of-time/.

[6] Williamson, “The Value of a Historical Society,” 59.

[7] Doyle, “The Future of Local Historical Societies.”

[8] Doyle, “The Future of Local Historical Societies.”

Best of the Blogs: Museums of Minnesota

It can often be challenging to identify and access archival collections and artifacts related to rural women and men.  All too often, materials related to rural people have been lost because later generations failed to recognize their value.  Yet many valuable collections remain undiscovered by researchers because they are held by county or local museums whose small staff and budget limit their ability to publicize and provide access to their holdings.  We are excited to share Museums of Minnesota, a new blog initiative hosted by H-Midwest, which is part of the H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

At Museums of Minnesota, a variety of local historical institutions have posted entries highlighting particularly exciting archival collections and artifacts from their collections, many of which relate to rural people.  For example, check out the image reproduced below in which two young men in a rural setting pose in fancy women’s hats.  We encourage our readers to read these blogs and visit the websites and collections of these local Minnesota archives and museums.  We hope you’ll tell us about your own favorite collections related to rural women!

Minnesota Museums photo
Two young men seated outdoors, each wearing a fancy woman’s hat with women’s gloves draped over their knees. Taken in the St. Francis, Minnesota area, c. 1910s. Anoka County Historical Society Object ID# 2016.1689.173 https://networks.h-net.org/young-men-womens-hats

The Hired Girl in Norwegian America

The Hired Girl in Norwegian America

Lori Lahlum, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Upon completing my coursework for a master’s degree in history, I moved back to the family farm to finish researching and to write my thesis.  Moving back home with one’s parents while completing a degree is not so unusual.  That summer, however, I also had a job on the farm: hired girl.  (And, that was official job title I typed on the W-2 form.)  My duties included: cooking when my mother was gone, moving machinery to and from the fields, running errands, canning, and helping out as needed.  The cooking would be significant because at the time my mother served as chairwoman of the Farm Bureau Women’s Committee and, as such, was also a member of the North Dakota Farm Bureau Board of Directors.  She traveled for meetings and special events, and when she was gone I did the cooking.  Quite frankly, there were days when I made almost no progress writing that summer because I was busy cooking, getting lunch ready, and then canning.   As a hired girl, I continued a long work tradition in Norwegian America that also hearkened back to Norway.  The type of labor, though, differed historically in the two countries.

In Norway, most women in rural areas spent a portion of their youth working as servants on farms.  The farm buildings and barns were clearly the domain of women.  This meant women milked cows, mucked out the barns, raked and stacked hay on the hesje (a special fence to dry hay), and fed and watered the typically shedded livestock, among other duties.  Seasonally, women might plant and harvest crops, although this varied regionally.  On larger farms, some young women were hired to provide domestic labor in the house.  The farmwoman oversaw these household and barnyard activities.  Of the servants, the budeie (or dairymaid) was the most important on the farm.  She spent her summers at the high mountain pasture (sæter) milking cows and goats and processing the milk into butter and cheese, which were crucial for the farm economy; she milked cows and did barn chores the rest of the year.  The dairymaid performed gendered labor, and men rarely served in that role.  The farm labor of female servants was crucial for the success of Norwegian farms. [1]

When Norwegian immigrants arrived in the United States in large numbers after the American Civil War, they encountered a very different system of agricultural production undergoing labor changes.  Increasingly, as historian Joan Jensen has noted, by the mid-nineteenth century men took over milking responsibilities on American farms in states like Pennsylvania. [2]  For young Norwegian immigrant women who hired out, they may or may not have continued the gendered labor practice from Norway of female milkers.  Hired girls, especially those who worked for Americans, often worked in the house and not in the barn.  Bertina Serina Kingestad hired out to an American farmer in Illinois in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and she appreciated the fact that she no longer milked cows or mucked out barns. [3]  Other Norwegian American hired girls continued to milk cows.  Young women might also move regularly in search of employment.

lahlum norwegian hired girls
Photo from the collection of Mary Ann Anderson.

Harvest was a particularly busy season that required additional labor on farms.  As a young, unmarried woman, American-born Anna Billet Monson provided domestic labor on the North Dakota farm owned by her half-sister and brother-in-law in the mid-1910s.  The image below shows Anna Billet Monson and the male threshing crew that included her brother-in-law and his father (my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather), as well as men from their Norwegian American community.  The photograph encapsulates significant differences between hiring out in Norway and the United States.  Monson’s role as the hired girl focused on home and hearth, although her American-born half-sister did continue to milk the cows.

The tradition of girls and young women hiring out in Norwegian America continued long after the Department of Agriculture declared the day of the hired girl had “pass[ed”] in 1920.  Indeed, my paternal grandmother appears in the 1930 census as a servant on the farm of her future husband.  My grandmother’s experience was quite common for Norwegian American farm girls in the 1930s and 1940s. [4]  Girls and young women hired out in Norway and in Norwegian America, albeit working in agricultural systems that often differed.  In both, these hired girls helped make agriculture successful.

See this previous post for a discussion of gender in contemporary Norwegian farming.


[1] For Norwegian agriculture see, Reidar Almås, ed., Norwegian Agricultural History (Trondheim, Norway: Tapir Academic Press, 2004); Brit Berggreen, “Idealmønstre og realmønstre: Kryssing av Kjønnsrollegrenser i norsk bondekultur ca 1850-1920″ (Ph.D. diss., University of Oslo, 1990); Brynjulv Gjerdåker, “Continuity and modernity 1815-1920,” in Norwegian Agricultural History, 236-295; Jon Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers: The Migration from Balestrand, Norway, to the Upper Middle West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Øyvind Østerud, Agrarian Structure and Peasant Politics in Scandinavia: A Comparative Study of Rural Response to Economic Change (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1978); and Eilert Sundt, Sexual Customs in Rural Norway: A Nineteenth-Century Study, trans. and ed. Odin W. Anderson (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1993).

[2] Joan M. Jensen, Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 93.  For Norwegian American agriculture, see Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers.

[3] Lori Ann Lahlum, “Women, Work, and Community in Rural Norwegian America, 1840-1920, 90-92, in Norwegian American Women: Migration, Communities, and Identities, eds. Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011).

[4] Florence E. Ward, “The Farm Woman’s Problems,” United States Department of Agriculture Department Circular 148 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1920), 10; Anna Anderson, 1930 roll census for Norma Township, Barnes County, North Dakota.

Empires, Nations, and Native Women

Empires, Nations, and Native Women

Cynthia Prescott, University of North Dakota


5113rg2fssl-_sy344_bo1204203200_I finally carved out time to read Anne F. Hyde’s masterful Empires, Nations and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860.  Once I  picked up Hyde’s 650-page volume, I had trouble putting it down.[1]  Winner of the prestigious 2012 Bancroft Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History, Hyde’s 2011 book is part of a University of Nebraska Press series that reassesses the field of United States Western history.  Hyde brings together the latest scholarship in ethnohistory, colonialism and settler colonialism into a wide-ranging yet highly engaging narrative of the trans-Mississippi West.  By tracing the networks built by prominent interethnic families engaged in the fur trade, Hyde makes sense out of the seeming disorder of global economies and geopolitics.  She guides her reader through the complex and often messy world of hunters, merchants, and politicians from St. Louis to San Francisco, from Fort Vancouver to Santa Fe, and from the Great Lakes to the Arkansas Valley.

By focusing on a few prominent families, such as the Chouteaus in Missouri, McLoughlins in Oregon, Vallejos in California, and others – such as Stephen Austin and Kit Carson who seemed to be everywhere at once, Anne Hyde brings to life the complexities and contingencies of fur trade and frontier life.  Hyde’s narrative provides a culturally complex picture because she focuses on the interethnic family networks that these “great men” built in places that became known as the American West.  She painstakingly reconstructs these Euro-American men’s marriages and informal unions with French, Anglo-American, and Native women from many different Indigenous nations, and their resulting children and broader kinship networks.  Perhaps even more clearly than the rich scholarship of the fur trade, Hyde demonstrates the centrality of these interethnic family relationships to the history and culture of the region.  Native women provided needed labor and cultural knowledge, and offered entrée into Native cultures.  White traders survived and even thrived largely because of their relationships with Native women.  And, as Hyde makes equally clear, many of them struggled to maintain or abandoned those familial ties in the 1850s and 1860s as American racial understandings hardened around fixed categories.  In memory, a Catholic Canadian of Scottish and French descent could become the white American “Father of Oregon,” but his Cree and French Canadian wife could not become the “Mother of Oregon” (and John McLoughlin’s Ojibwe first wife gets forgotten altogether).

Yet as Hyde admits in her introduction, “[m]uch of what I describe is really an updated version of ‘great man’ history” (Ecco 2012 ed., p. 21).  Rich collections of correspondence among Euro-American businessmen reveal their thoughts and actions and, in some cases, their ethnically mixed sons.  While their Native and mixed race wives and daughters contributed greatly to the overall success of their undertakings, these women’s experiences and perspectives remain frustratingly unclear if not completely invisible.  Hyde does an admirable job of attempting to recreate these women’s experiences, but too much of what we would like to know about them is simply not in the written records.  The lives and thoughts of these fur trade women – like those of Native men and women throughout the region who did not marry prominent white traders – receive little attention in the available written sources.

Uncovering the history of rural women is extremely challenging due to their dual invisibility as both rural people and as women.  Studying them is challenging because rural people and women often failed to leave much written record.  Moreover, these groups were long disregarded by scholars, archivists, and even their own descendants, so what records they did create have been lost to us.  All of these challenges are exaggerated in regard to women of color, who were even less likely to be literate and their experiences less likely to have been recorded and preserved.  And while many Indigenous cultures valued women’s contributions and granted women authority in ways that white society did not in the early nineteenth century, those traditions tended to be oral rather than written, and had very different conceptions of time than did the Euro-American culture out of which the historical profession developed.

Important work has been done uncovering the contributions of Native and mixed-heritage women in the fur trade, particularly in the Great Lakes region and eastern Canada.  Those scholars’ innovative methods could be applied to other regions and cultural contexts.  Much more research is needed to uncover nineteenth-century Native women’s lives.  At the same time, much more work should also be done to preserve contemporary Indigenous women’s voices throughout the American West and around the world.

Anne Hyde gives us a sweeping yet intimate narrative of the worlds that Euro-American traders and Native peoples built in the early-nineteenth-century West.  It should also serve as a call to arms to delve deeper into researching, documenting and preserving Native women’s voices both past and present.


[1] Hyde summarized her detailed study in this C-SPAN video: https://www.c-span.org/video/?321943-1/empires-nations-families.