New Issue of Agricultural History Highlights Rural Women’s Studies
by Jeannie Whayne
Three years ago the RWSA met in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada at St. Thomas University for its triennial meeting. It was the first – hopefully not the last – time that the RWSA held a meeting outside of the United States, and we were all very pleased to have excellent attendance from around the world. Inspired by discussion at the business meeting, it was decided that we should explore the possibility of publishing some of the superb papers that were presented. Linda Ambrose, Jenny Barker-Devine, and Jeannie Whayne agreed to devote time and attention to that prospect, solicited contributions from presenters, had them refereed by scholars in the field, and ultimately selected essays by Kelly Houston Jones, Kristin Mapel Bloomberg, and Grey Osterud. These essays, which span time and place, appear along with an introduction by Ambrose, Barker, and Whayne in the Summer 2015 issue of Agricultural History.
Jones’ essay, “Bondswomen’s Work on the Cotton Frontier: Wagram Plantation, Arkansas,” examines the role of slave women in farming newly reclaimed land in southeastern Arkansas. As Jones explains, the work of women in this environment was essential to the functioning of the plantation, not merely as support but also in terms of the production of cotton. While many of the slave men were put to the task of felling old growth timber, removing stumps, and breaking ground, the women assumed roles more typically assigned to men in the older South. Although conditions were harsh and unrelenting there, the bondswomen were able to claim some control over their situation. This was made more possible because the Wagram plantation was an absentee operation and overseers came and went with some regularity. Controlling slave women’s bodies often eluded attempts of the transient overseers, and the bondswomen both orchestrated and were the beneficiaries of their failure.
Kristin Bloomberg’s “women and Rural Social Reform in the 1870s and 1880s: Clara Bewick Colby’s “Farmer’s Wives,” takes us into another world in a far different time and place. Although focusing on the 1870s and 1880s, Bloomberg’s essay intersects in an interesting way with Jones’ essay in that she finds that the frontier experience for farm women in eastern and Midwestern was more burdensome to women than to men. Although they enjoyed a much better quality of life than did slave women, they were located on isolated farmsteads and often faced loneliness and even despair. And while their financial situation was far superior to the bondswomen of the Arkansas delta, the farm wives in the Midwest faced economic instability and often found it difficult to secure recognition for their contributions to the home and farm. The practice of marrying early interrupted their acquisition of education and limited their ability to fully contribute to the family income.
Grey Osterud’s “The Meanings of Independence in the Oral Autobiographies of Rural Women in Twentieth-Century New York,” echoes some of the themes developed by Jones and Bloomberg but explores how many women sought opportunity away from the farm and – sometimes – did not return. Focusing particularly on the exodus of young women from the farms of New York in the early twentieth century, Osterud explores the desire on the part of many young women to escape the dependency and limited freedom that farm life involved in this period. Many intended to return to the farm after securing education and skills in nearby towns. What they wanted was an equal partnership with men and the ability to participate in the decision-making process. As her oral histories suggest, they were sometimes but not always successful in these goals.
Agricultural History 89 (No. 3) also includes three other fine essays by scholars familiar to most of the journal’s readers and many RWSA members: Melissa Walker has an essay entitled, “Can You Be a Productive Scholar at a Teaching Institution? Yes, with Mindfulness and Planning”; James C. Giesen and Anne E. Marshall, “Reading Stone and Steel: Statues as Primary Sources for Agricultural History”; and Frederic Aparisi,“Village Entrepreneurs: The Economic Foundations of Valencian Rural Elites in the Fifteenth Century.”