Young Women’s Diaries as Primary Sources for Rural Women’s History
My name is Rachel Kleinschmidt and I have been a member of the Rural Women’s Studies Association (RWSA) since 2009. My work has focused on unmarried women in Midwestern agriculture throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For this blog, I want to share about my work on post-adolescent women on family farms, and talk a bit about using diaries as source material for research projects.
For women of the Midwest in the late nineteenth century, the teenage and young adult years provided opportunities for women to explore options for work, education, socializing, and marriage, but within the strictly controlled boundaries of the lifestyle of farm daughter and helper. The prevalence of teaching jobs in rural schools, as well as opportunities for socialization, such as church, temperance societies, and other community activities, provided a range of activities acceptable for young women to partake. Social prescriptions and parental guidance influenced the expectations of how a young woman should act, yet these women worked within and without of these boundaries to forge a lifestyle of their own.
Prescriptive literature, including etiquette advice manuals and articles in newspapers and farm journals, pushed young women in many different directions related to their lifestyle and attitude. Advice authors expected girls to conform to an urban, middle-class definition of womanhood, which defined women as caretakers of the home and family. This definition could not encompass the realities of life on the farm, where women and girls were productive members of the farming household. Rural advice attempted to take this position into account, but these writers worried more about the potential for farm girls to leave the farm. None of the prescriptive literature could accurately assess the position of rural daughters, as the unique aspects of farm life, and the differences between farm families’ material circumstances, made generalizations about girls difficult.
Girls on the farm had serious responsibilities within their families, but still acted as young, single women. The tension between roles as productive members of the farming household and roles as job seekers, socialites, and potential marriage partners provided a space where single women in rural families both provided for the family and community and found ways to maintain social lives that may not have fit within the social prescriptions. The diaries of four young women in rural Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin from the years 1865 to 1894 provide contrasting examples of how young, unmarried rural women negotiated the societal prescriptions for women’s behavior in the context of the farm home.
Using diaries as the main source material for this project proved to be both rewarding and challenging. The diaries provided a personal insight into the lives of these young women unmatched by any other type of source I used. The girls poured their thoughts and emotions into these books in ways that could not have been captured any other way. For example, Rhoda Emery, a young teacher from Minnesota in the late nineteenth century, used her diary as a way to express her frustrations with her family and her students, writing quite personally about her perceived failings as a teacher and various quarrels with her mother and sister.
In contrast, however, Carrie Markle from central Illinois used her diary mainly as a way to record her daily comings and goings. With such little detail, it was difficult to draw conclusions about Carrie’s life, but her entries still open a window to the daily rhythms of farm life from the perspective of a young teacher and hired girl.
I am working this project, my Ph.D. dissertation, into a book on rural girls, and I would have no hesitation to use diaries again as source material. Along with forming the basis for my historical arguments, the diaries were fun to read. I would encourage any rural women’s historians to seek out diaries and get a first-person look into what it was like to be a farm woman in the past.