Looking Backward and Forward at Rural Women History

By Joan Jensen, Professor Emerita, New Mexico State University

It was the spring of 1977, and I was where I wanted to be. I was at a Land Grant University, teaching women’s history, and in my head a book on rural women was taking form. I had dropped out of the academic field, like many did in the early1970, but then refocused my life and, after living on a farm commune for two years, decided to drop back in but dedicate myself to studying rural women. That spring, I was, if I remember right, attending the Berkshire Women’s History Conference, which was then always held at one of the women’s colleges in the East. As a westerner, a Californian by upbringing, and now a New Mexican by choice, I felt marginal already. When I announced that I was researching rural women, this put me at the farthest borders of most of the current interest in women’s history which was urban, working class, eastern women. Looking for common ground, someone mentioned casually that Feminist Press was looking for someone to write about rural women. And so began the story of how I came to write With These Hands: Women Working on the Land.

And how I met the extraordinary women who were editing the Feminist Press project “Women’s Lives, Women’s Work.” The project was funded by the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. The goal was to produce readable books for high school students, to field test them before publication, and then accompany each with a teacher’s guide on how they might be used in the classroom. By 1977, after publishing several excellent books on urban working women, someone at one at Feminist Press suddenly had the idea that nothing was being done about rural women’s work. And somehow word got around at that Berkshire Conference on Women’s History that Feminist Press was looking for proposals for a book on rural women.

Back in New Mexico, I sent a query to the Press to ask about this rumor and they replied, yes, send in a proposal. I did so as soon as classes ended. By July, I had sketched out a proposal for a book of documents written by and about rural women with introductions and sent it to their New York editorial office.

Two weeks later–no e-mail then–they replied that the Feminist Press  wanted to publish the book, offered me an advance of $2500, and a contract for publication of 10,000 copies of what we soon called With These Hands: Women Working on the Land. Feminist Press field tested the book with high school students, the proposed audience, and they liked it, but it ended up being used mainly in college level courses after it was published in 1981. It is still in print, and over the years has sold about 5,000 copies.

Late in 1982 or early in 1983, Sue Armitage, Sarah Elbert and I decided that if we wanted to encourage scholars to expand the field of rural women’s studies, we should organize a conference where anyone interested could come to discuss how we might to do that research. It was a daunting task to take as our field half of the population for most of US history.

That conference was held at NMSU in early 1982. To our surprise, about 125 scholars and rural women attended that conference. Conferences followed at the University of Wisconsin (1986, where Mary Neth became active in the group), Tuskeegee University (1988), the University of California, Davis (1992), at the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland (1994), Baylor University (1997, where the structure for the Rural Women Studies Association was formally established, the Minnesota History Center (2000), the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces (2003), Lancaster, Pennsylvania (2006), University of Indiana, Bloomington (2009), University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University, Fredericton, Canada (2012). The next conference was scheduled to be at the Texas State University, San Marcos in February 2015. RWSA also sponsored and encouraged sessions on gender and rural women at the annual Agricultural History Society conferences.

With so much of our own work accumulating, we decided to try to sum up what had been accomplished during the previous thirty years and to reflect on new paths for future. These papers from the 2014 Provo, Utah conference, were the first step in reviewing the past work, evaluating it, and encouraging new research.

We intend to continue this evaluation process, and to point out new directions for further research. We want to encourage all historians to consider the implications of their research for the entire population and not just one segment. We support new methods for research and collaborations with both scholars new to the field and those who want to share their insights. We hope that one result will be publication of more work in the field and more use of new and experimental ways to share the results of our work.

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One thought on “Looking Backward and Forward at Rural Women History

  1. How did you get introduced to the field of rural women’s studies? What are your earliest memories of participation in RWSA? Post a comment here, or consider contributing a post of your own to the Rural Women’s Studies blog! Send contributions to .

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