Gender and the Routledge History of Rural America: An Editor’s Point of View

Gender and the Routledge History of Rural America:

An Editor’s Point of View

Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, Iowa State University

When I proposed the Routledge History of Rural America, my desire was to edit a book that provided a state-of-the-art view of the topic.  I wanted for the book to reflect, as much as possible, the broad range of material now available on rural American history.  As such, it was very important to me that it provide, wherever possible, a healthy dollop of the history of rural women.  Of course, my experience with rural women’s history dates back to a time when the literature was very, very thin.  My first introduction to the topic was in a seminar Joan Jensen taught while visiting the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 1988.  She told us that it was the first graduate level course on rural women’s history taught in the U.S., and I believe it.  There was very little literature from which she could draw, and the historiographic papers we wrote required that we travel a very great (historical) distance in the literature to find enough material.  My paper was on rural women and migration, and I had to dip back into the 1940s in order to find enough material.

In The Routledge History, the authors of the chapters have included discussions of gender wherever appropriate, and there is a chapter dedicated to rural women’s history, written by Jenny Barker Devine.  She draws on a vast array of both primary and secondary materials in order to tell a story about rural women that spans generations and regions.  In my own chapter on rural childhood, I have written it as the story of both boys and girls, since gender shaped expectations of child life to a degree that is quite foreign to most of us living in the early 21st century.  At the same time, gender was not always destiny in the way that we might think that it was.  My own grandmother, Elsie Swafford Riney, was the first of six children.  She was born in 1910.  Her sisters, twins, arrived in 1913, and her brothers, also twins, arrived in 1916.  Another sister was born many years later.  Because of her place in the birth order, she became her father’s “hired man,” working in the fields in addition to helping her mother with housework.  Girls might do the work of boys, if circumstances required it.  In her family, the circumstances required that a girl act as a boy, until the boys were old enough to work alongside their father.


Mother and child for Pam R-K
Tenant farmers, Mrs. Glen Cook and husband, Little Sioux Township, Woodbury County, IA. Photograph by Russell Lee, December 1936.

The illustration for the cover (chosen with more than a little help from the editorial staff and friends), literally has a woman at its center.  An FSA photograph from Great Depression Iowa, it shows a farm family, mother, father, little boy, and toddler girl, posed at the door of their home.  The woman is front and center, holding her daughter, with her washing machine prominently displayed.  She wears a dress that she probably made, and her daughter also wears a homemade dress.  This farm was as much her work as her husband’s, and this photograph depicts a reality I want The Routledge History of Rural America to convey.


Going Cage Free: Using Rural History in the Classroom

Going Cage Free: Using Rural History in the Classroom

Margaret Weber, Iowa State University

Reblogged from H-AmStdy

Whenever I tell people that I am a rural historian, most stare blankly back at me. More than one student has adopted a zombie-like air, with glazed eyes and a vacant expression usually reserved for the most boring of subjects. My next question, “what does it mean to be rural,” is usually met with that dreadly black hole of silence instructors fear so much. This reaction is predictable, primarily because of modern America’s own disconnect with rurality. Despite enjoying a bounty of cheap food and fiber, most of us deal with rural life only in the most tangential of ways. Americans, including many instructors, are essentially caged in by their own assumptions, unable to connect with or grasp the wider importance of rural spaces in the nation’s narrative.  After all, only twenty percent of Americans today live in rural spaces. Whereas over forty percent of Americans engaged in agricultural production in 1900, a mere two percent do so in 2017. When American popular culture depicts rurality, the result is more likely to be dueling stereotypes than anything of real substance. Sometimes people will wax nostalgic about a non-existent idyllic rural past. Others are more content to peddle clichés of ignorant and inbred hicks. But the reality of rural life and its past is far more complex and engaging than these tropes could ever convey.

Perhaps no other aspect of American society has undergone such a dramatic transformation and yet received so little attention in the halls of America’s universities. Despite revolutionary changes to rural communities since the Civil War, most of American rural history has been confined to a few well-trodden topics (i.e. Populism) or ignored completely. This is partly due to the fact that ruralness itself is difficult to define. Does rurality merely boil down to population numbers? Or must it be associated with the more traditional professions of farming, hunting, herding, lumbering or mining? Maybe rural America’s association with specific regions have limited American understanding? Or perhaps cultural assumptions about who embodies the rural (white, cis-gendered, traditional men) have left further exploration daunting? This and other ambiguities have limited the incorporation of rural history in the classroom. Luckily, recent works within the field offer opportunities to reintroduce this history to students. Books covering issues of globalization, gender and sexual identity, state control and resistance, racial justice, perceptions of food and environment, and many other topics have enriched the recent historiography of rural America.

212-265-product_largetomediumimageEasily one of the most prominent themes explored in this historiography is the transformation of agriculture within the global political economy. Agriculture has always been a transnational enterprise. However, interaction between different ecologies, foods, and ideas accelerated in the twentieth century, intertwining peoples and places across vastly different environments. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is explored in Sterling Evans’ Bound in Twine (2013). Recounting the history of binder twine, Evans traces the emerging dual dependency (“a henequen-wheat complex”) between Mexico, the United States, and Canada. 575ee2bfb0fa2a5d47945f1bfd12dd91By demonstrating these environmental and economic connections, students are shown the concrete causes and effects of globalization. In a similar vein, Edward Dallam Melillo’s Strangers on Familiar Soil (2015) determines how parallel environmental conditions in Chile and California created deep cultural and agricultural connections between these distant regions. Melillo’s book can challenge students to rethink their assumptions about borderlands and how those boundaries do not necessarily have to be physically connecting to shape environmental systems. For example, his discussion of nitrate, a chemical mined in Chile and utilized in California’s agriculture, displays how the desire for this commodity influenced labor structures in both places. 9780691165202_0Studying the environmental links between the United States and Mexico, Tore Olsson’s Agrarian Crossings (2017) discusses how institutional efforts to reshape the US and Mexican countryside in the early twentieth century had wider consequences for North America’s agricultural development. All of these works showcase the critical role agriculture played in the development of global relations in the western hemisphere. Professors interested in demonstrating the interplay between the environment and the growth of capitalism or discussing diplomatic forces on a transnational level will find rural history to be a strong resource.

9780674032910-usOther scholars from a variety of directions have also shown how actions in rural spaces have widespread consequences for the rest of the nation. Susanne Freidberg’s Fresh: A Perishable History (2010) outlines the conception of “freshness” in society, showing how different ideas of health, food, and technology, along with a growing conceptual divide between urban and rural, fundamentally changed the way people viewed food production and consumption. Freidberg’s book is an excellent example of how rural and urban society interact and influence social perception food and health. Its emphasis on changing cultural conceptions of freshness can demonstrate how fluid culture and society actually are and the ways technology influences changing cultural ideas. While Fresh centers on food, other recent works emphasize the wider political ramifications of rural political agency on the rest of the nation. 51lmn3xmkal-_sx333_bo1204203200_Charles Postel’s The Populist Vision (2007) challenges the dominant narrative of the American Populist Movement. Instead of describing the Populist as reactionaries angered by a changing economic system, Postel argues that this group actually envisioned a reformed society that met the needs of everyone. His chronicle of this thoroughly modern group of progressives is a tool for teaching new perspectives on old subjects. Finally, Shane Hamilton and his various works on food, policy, and politics also underscore how rural people influenced America’s political and economic development since the Second World War. 91vfwtcfftlHis book Trucking Country (2008), which connects the advent of free-market conservatism with the development of the rural trucking industry, provides another opportunity to study the rise of new conservative ideology and the culture wars it sparked during the 1980s and 1990s. Hamilton’s monograph can help history instructors present a more complex view of emerging political rhetoric in the twentieth century by demonstrating how political movements can originate from popular unrest among overlooked groups of people. Each of these scholars shows how growing socio-economic pressure on rural communities influenced American consumerism and politics in the twentieth century. They also invite classroom discussion on historical agency and the role all Americans play in changing the nation.

barkerdevine_webThe study of twentieth century history is known for its greater focus on identity and societal interactions on cultural, ideological, and social levels. Historians have recognized complexity in the bonds between peoples, giving voice to those once deemed unimportant, and exploring the diverging methods of various social movements. Yet many scholars fail to extend this understanding of historical intricacy and social change to rural America, lingering in what scholar Colin Johnson calls the “metro-normative gaze.” That is why books that challenge this oversight are so valuable for rural history in the twentieth century and should be further incorporated in our classrooms.

41vhobezvclThe study of rural identity and place has been one of the most vibrant areas of research in the last decade, with books complicating America’s oversimplified perception of the countryside. Jenny Barker Devine’s On Behalf of the Family Farm (2013) considers the action and ideology of rural women in postwar America within a feminist framework. This challenges students’ basic assumptions about the urban origins of social movements in the mid-twentieth century while also complicating the picture of American feminism. 15441Colin Johnson’s Just Queer Folks (2013) examines gender non-conformity and sexuality in early twentieth-century rural America. Both Johnson’s book and Gabriel Rosenberg’s The 4-H Harvest (2015) discuss how the state attempted to impose rigid conceptions of hetero-normativity on rural spaces. By exposing students to queerness in rural America, these histories reveal a surprisingly complicated version of rural spaces and the ways in which urban outreach has stifled, rather than enlightened, the countryside.

41u8kqtw-pl-_ac_us218_Along with gender and sexuality, other scholars have used the lenses of race, class, ethnicity, borderlands, and migration to investigate rural divisions of labor and life. Both of Cindy Hahamovitch’s books (The Fruits of Their Labor [1997] and the more recent No Man’s Land [2011]) explore the interactions of agricultural institutions, migrant labor, oppression, and power. Each book also sheds light on the hidden costs of America’s modern foodways, asking readers to examine their own role in food production and consumption. These socio-economic costs, both on the human actors and wider labor networks, are also a major theme in Greta de Jong’s You Can’t Eat Freedom (2016), which traces the connections between Black labor displacement and social activism in the South in the postwar period. 51pbfuuiv4l-_sx330_bo1204203200_Both Hahamovitch and de Jong expose how changes in rural spaces shaped the global political economy and socio-cultural experiences of all of those involved. Each one of these works adds much needed nuance to our conceptions of rurality. They all demonstrate a level of complexity of “the rural” that can challenge urban and even rural students to think beyond their basic assumptions and experiences. All offer revisions to a historical narrative that places agency solely in the hands of urban peoples. Ultimately, all of this scholarship can reemphasize to students one aspect of the most transformative change of the twentieth century: the transition from traditional agrarianism to a highly industrial and capitalistic food and fiber system.

On the surface, the rural ideal looks simple: white, male, robustly independent, and virtuous in the vein of the Jeffersonian tradition. This is the image that is often presented to me when I ask my students to describe what a rural person looks like, in spite of the fact they themselves are a diverse group of people who often come from a diverse range of rural spaces.

Yet, this suggestion of homogeneity is a false image. It is true that rural people live in sparsely populated areas and are often involved in the production of commodities, but their other shared characteristics are much more difficult to identify. Such factors as cultural values, community configuration, and the organization of the political economy (not to mention other local features) make finding commonalities across rural people and communities extremely difficult. What makes the study of rural identity so interesting is the process of understanding why we have such a simplistic view of rural life and pulling back the layers of this misperception for students to see. My own students’ understanding from the first time I ask about rurality to the last exhibits a noticeable increase in critical thinking and an understanding of history.

So, to instructors who wish to broaden the scope of their American history classroom I say: go cage-free.  What you can explore in an urban setting you can also do in rural areas; what you teach about labor, gender, politics, culture, and environmental history, you can teach about rural history. The history of rural spaces is not just a parallel to events taking place in urban areas. Instead, it is an essential component of understanding our interconnected past and adding to our future.



Recommended Readings:

Anderson, J.L.. Industrializing the Corn Belt: Agriculture, Technology, and Environment, 1945-1972. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.

Cunfer, Geoff. On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005.

Danbom, David B.. Born in the Country: A History of Rural America. 2nd ed. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Finlay, Mark. Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Fitzgerald, Deborah. Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Gilbert, Jess. Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2015.

Osterud, Grey. Putting the Barn before the House: Women and Family Farming in Early Twentieth-Century New York. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Petty, Adrienne. Standing Their Ground: Small Farmers in North Carolina Since the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Riney-Kehrberg, Pamela, Edited by. The Routledge History of Rural America. New York: Routledge, 2016..

White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.



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.

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.

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 (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)

[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)

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

[5] John Galluzo, “Historical Societies and the March of Time,” AASLH (November 2016)

[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