Harriette E. Cushman: A New Woman

Harriette E. Cushman: A New Woman

Amy L. McKinney

 

My first experience with the RWSA was at the 2012 conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  Joan Jensen was on my dissertation defense committee the year before and visited with me about the conference, asking if I would be interested in being on a panel with her about professional women in agriculture.  Initially the plan was to expand on my dissertation research on Home Demonstration clubs and focus on the women agents. When I returned to Special Collections at Montana State University in Bozeman to search for more material, I was disappointed because I found very little personal information about the numerous Home Demonstration agents.  As I sat in the archives and paged through my notes, searching for something I could use, I began talking to the archivist, Kim Allen Scott.  He reminded me of the Harriette Cushman papers.  I had worked in Special Collections during my master’s program at MSU so I had some knowledge of her collection, plus her name appeared in the extension records when I was doing my dissertation research. Special Collections has Cushman’s official extension service reports, her professional papers, her estate records, and, most thrilling, boxes and boxes of letters to and from her parents. This was the scope and depth of a project I wanted so I contacted Joan to see if it would be okay if I changed the focus of my paper and she said go for it!  That began my research into Harriette Eliza Cushman, the first woman Poultry Specialist for the U.S. Extension Service.  She served the state of Montana from July 1922 until her retirement in January of 1955.  Throughout her thirty-three year career, only one other woman held the same position: Cora Cook in Minnesota.[1] Although women were often in charge of turkey, chickens and eggs on their family farms, it was unusual for a woman to be in a position of authority within the agricultural industry.

What really intrigued me about this 2012 panel was its focus on professional women in agriculture and linking those women to the idea of the “New Woman.”  I had studied New Women before, but it was always in an urban context.  As I started reading her papers in preparation for the conference, I was excited to see just how much Cushman embodied many of the characteristics of the New Woman.  Education was highly valued in her family and she was encouraged to pursue a college degree.  Cushman loved poetry and she wanted to be a writer and enrolled at Mt. Holyoke College, noted for leadership in women’s education and its academic excellence.  She discovered, however, that she had more aptitude for the sciences.  In 1914 she received her degree in chemistry and bacteriology from Cornell University.

Cushman was not satisfied with just receiving her degree, she wanted a career.  This was challenging given the time period and her professional field.  Cushman desired economic independence and intellectual stimulation.  She searched for years after graduating from Cornell for jobs in her field.  After a brief stint as the manager of a poultry farm during World War I, Cushman was intrigued with poultry work and while taking classes at Rutgers, was introduced to the Extension Service. Extension work was very appealing to Cushman because it would allow her to continue to do research and work with people.  Now that she knew what she wanted to do, she was determined to find a job.  She wrote to every state extension office until she was offered a position in Idaho.  Being raised in Jamestown, New York, the thought of moving across the country was daunting, but she believed the career opportunity was too good to pass up.  She also stated that she had found few jobs around home, believing that “the East does not seem to want me—or women.”[2]  Her tenure in Idaho did not last long, however, as budget cuts ended her position. Again, she was determined to find a suitable position. Even after receiving numerous rejection letters, including one from the Cooperative Egg and Poultry Association, which simply stated “they had decided to have a man for the position,”[3] Cushman did not give up. Finally in 1922, she was offered the position as the Extension Service Poultry Specialist in Montana.

mckinney Butte egg show

Not only did Cushman’s education and career mark her as a “New Woman,” she also showed a desire for independence in her private life.  She enjoyed the outdoors and spent much of her free time hiking, riding horses, or camping.  She also traveled extensively, often by herself.  One area where she unabashedly held on to her autonomy was her unwillingness to settle for a marriage that would limit her independence.  Cushman never married and quipped that she “never got around to it.” Although she was not opposed to the idea of marriage, she did question if marriage was right for her.  She wondered

if one man’s love would be satisfying. It is terribly spoiling for a woman to grow up and be independent. She is sure of her own livelihood. Then she can choose from her various friends for different wants. … It may give you a glimpse of why it is hard for the modern business woman to marry. [I feel] my greatest duty is to make something of myself and as time goes I realize I think a great deal of a great many of my friends and yet I don’t think I care to give up my freedom for any of them.[4]

Cushman became a major figure in the field of poultry-raising.  She saw herself as a modern career woman, and never let the fact that she was a “woman in a man’s field” deter her ability to work as a professional in agriculture.  She achieved numerous accolades for her work, including being awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Agriculture by Montana State University in 1963.  She cherished her career, independence, and ability to live her life as a “New Woman.”

 

[1] “Letter to Jackson Martindell,” Merrill G. Burlingame Papers, 1880-1990, Collection 2245, Box 41, 17.

[2] “Letter to parents,” January 16, 1921, Elgin, Oregon. Harriette E. Cushman Papers, 1893-1978, Collection 1253, Box 1, folder 8. Special Collections,  Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana.

[3] “Letter to parents,” January 23, 1921, Elgin, Oregon. Cushman papers, Box 1, folder 8.

[4] “Letter to parents,” February 2, 1921, San Francisco, California. Cushman papers, Box 1, folder 8.

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