The Past and Future of Rural Women’s Studies
By Cynthia Prescott, Department of History, University of North Dakota
My first Rural Women’s Studies Association (RWSA) conference was a joint conference with the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) in Las Cruces, New Mexico in 2003. I was a graduate student at the time, and was thrilled to find an academic conference where I immediately felt at home.
At other history conferences, I often found myself on the periphery, and felt my student status keenly. My assigned role was to sit, listen quietly, and learn from big-name scholars. And given that I was studying 19th-century farm women and children, I was peripheral in a disciplinary sense, as well. Everyone knew that the real work was focused on the 20th century and urban history or “borderlands” (and that the Pacific Northwest, where my dissertation project was centered, didn’t quality as a borderland). The “Holy Trinity” of Race, Class, and Gender was everywhere … except perhaps in 19th-century log cabins and barnyards.
RWSA was different. As a grad student and later as a junior scholar, I was welcomed as a full participant at RWSA conferences and respected as a colleague to senior scholars whose books informed my work. I remember being told by another junior scholar that I really ought to get to know Joan Jensen. My anxiety about meeting one of the founders of the field of rural women’s history soon melted away when I had the chance to talk with Joan, whom I now think of as both an esteemed colleague and the nurturing and protective grandmother of RWSA. I even brought my mom – a children’s librarian by training – with me to the Lancaster, Pennsylvania (2006) and Bloomington, Indiana (2009) conferences, and she, too immediately felt at home.
I always look forward to RWSA’s triennial conferences as an opportunity to reconnect with friends and to hear the latest work that’s being done about and by rural women. Yet I must confess feeling a bit underqualified to contribute to a plenary session at the 2012 conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in which I was asked to cast my vision for the future of RWSA. One of the big issues that we discussed was the continuing peripheral status of rural women’s studies among the various disciplines that our members represent. Rural women’s studies is often ignored both because it deals with rural areas and because it deals with women. Even agricultural history and women’s studies tend to neglect rural women.
Coming out of conversations that took place at the 2012 conference, several people committed to work to raise the visibility of rural women’s studies and the RWSA, and to maintain momentum over the three years between conferences. Katherine Jellison and Linda Ambrose coordinated submission of 5 panels on rural women for the 2014 Berkshire Conference of Women, of which 4 appeared on the program for the highly selective conference. RWSA introduced a new website and a Facebook page. Further conversations at the 2015 conference led to increased social media presence and the launch of this RWSA blog.
Perhaps the greatest challenge that RWSA faces is to follow through on its founders’ vision of making RWSA an organization that brings together academics and grassroots activists. Building partnerships between the ivory tower and those working in the trenches holds immense potential. But it is not easy. Academics and activists have different priorities and different work cultures. To be truly global in scope, we will also need work within the hundreds of human cultures around the world. Negotiation, compromise, and commitment will be required to bring these varied groups together within one organization. But the potential payoff is fantastic.
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What are your favorite memories of attending RWSA conferences? What would you like to see at future RWSA conferences? How can we bring together academics, grassroots activists, artists, farmers, and others to promote the interests of rural women? Please comment on this post, or consider submitting a blog entry of your own to our editorial team at firstname.lastname@example.org.