Teaching Reflection: Women and Rural Life
Cherisse Jones-Branch, Ph.D.
Arkansas State University-Jonesboro
I have read substantially about women, agriculture, and rural life in the past few years. For that reason, in fall 2015, I decided to teach a course on this very topic in spring 2016. It simply made sense to me. I teach at Arkansas State University (ASTATE) in Jonesboro, Arkansas, founded in 1909 as an agricultural training school. ASTATE has long had a stellar agricultural program with an international reputation. Arkansas is still today an overwhelmingly agricultural state. Knowing this led me to then wonder, where do women fit into all of this?
It was with this query in mind that I designed a graduate course on women’s roles in rural life. Although this was a history course, I welcomed interdisciplinary perspectives and shared my course flyer campus wide, particularly with my colleagues in ASTATE’s Heritage Studies Ph.D. program and the Agricultural and Technology Department as I planned for spring 2016.
One of the of the things I treasure most about my membership in organizations like the Agricultural History Society and the Rural Women’s Studies Association are the colleagues whom I have met who have become critical resources for my research on rural Arkansas women. As I began to design my course for spring 2016, I naturally looked to their scholarship for direction. In particular, I contacted Pamela Riney Kehrberg at Iowa State University who very generously shared her undergraduate and graduate course syllabi on women in rural life. The scholarship she used in her courses, which I subsequently used in mine, covered the racial, ethnic, gender, temporal, social, political, economic, and geographic landscape of women’s rural lives. Using these resources, I challenged my graduate students to engage and then generate answers to the questions “What and who is a farmer?,” “Is there rural feminism?,” “How are racial and gender hierarchies constructed, understood, navigated, and negotiated in rural/agricultural spaces?,” and “Are they more fluid in these spaces?” They were then tasked with formulating their own questions to guide their growing understanding of rural women’s lives.
They loved every minute of it! My graduate students eagerly read such works as Juliana Barr’s, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands, Daina Berry’s, Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia, Jenny Barker Devine’s On Behalf of the Family Farm: Iowa Farm Women’s Activism since 1945, Lu Ann Jones’ Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South, Katherine Jellison’s Entitled to Power: Farm Women and Technology, 1913 to 1963, Melissa Walker’s All We Knew Was to Farm: Rural Women in the Upcountry South, 1919-1941, and Grey Osterud’s Putting The Barn Before The House: Women and Family Farming in Early Twentieth-Century New York. I introduced them to Joan M. Jensen’s pioneering scholarship on rural women, and shared with them my own burgeoning work on rural black Arkansas women. Additionally, they read Kelly Houston Jones’ article on Arkansas bondwomen and an article on rural blacks in the Arkansas Delta during the 1927 Mississippi River flood.
While the class focused on American women, I also wanted my students to make connections between rural women’s experiences internationally, and to consider the complexity of identity in rural spaces. I referred them to Linda Ambrose’s A Great Rural Sisterhood: Madge Robertson Watt and the AACW (Associated Country Women of the World), Margaret Kechnie’s Organizing Rural Women: The Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario, 1897-1919, and Gabriel N. Rosenberg’s The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America.
Because most of my students were native Arkansans and from small rural communities, I encouraged them to write about the history that had occurred right in their own backyards. They wrote wonderful papers about farm women and rice production in Weiner, Arkansas, educators in Tuckerman, Arkansas, Arkansas Rosenwald Schools for African Americans, and the impact of southern white migration on rural Arkansas women.
In the final analysis, the course was a resounding success. My students had never really considered the depth and complexity of women’s rural lives. For them and I suppose for many people the words “rural,” “agricultural,” and “farmer” meant “male.” They were surprised to learn about the voluminous and ever growing scholarship on rural women’s lives and astonished by the richly textured and deeply researched papers they produced by unearthing home grown topics and resources.
Teaching the course was rewarding and beneficial for me as well. I engaged my students and the course readings in ways that helped me generate new questions and analyses about my own research. I realized, we all realized, the profound connection between rural women’s lives nationally and internationally and the ways in which their experiences often occur in concert with each other. Teaching “Women in Rural Life” was a wonderful experience. One I hope to share with my students again in the very near future.