The Past, Present and Future of Rural Women’s Studies
By Cynthia Prescott, Department of History, University of North Dakota
Editor’s Note: As the 13th triennial conference of the Rural Women’s Studies Association approaches, we are taking some time to revisit perspectives on the RWSA and past RWSA conferences. Here, RWSA blog editor Cynthia Prescott responds to reflections on her experiences in RWSA that she wrote for this blog following our last conference in 2015 and looks ahead to this year’s conference.
Be sure to join us at the RWSA 2018 conference on May 17-19 at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, USA.
The Past and Future of Rural Women’s Studies (From 2015):
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.
Rural Women’s Studies Today (2018)
Reading back over this post from 2015, I am struck both by how much has changed and how much as stayed the same. Now solidly a mid-career scholar — a “mother” in both my personal life and the RWSA — I still look forward to triennial RWSA conferences as a way to reconnect with and be inspired by friends and colleagues who share my passion for rural women. I was thrilled to see 5 panels on rural women at the 2017 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities (which we highlighted on this blog: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Yet my place as a scholar has shifted over the past two decades.
My research interests have shifted from the work roles of 19th-century farm women to the ways that those rural women have been remembered — or forgotten in the 20th and 21st centuries. My research now focuses on the ways that American frontier women have been commemorated, specifically in pioneer monuments. You can read more about this research here , here and here, and by checking out my website: http://pioneermonuments.net.
Since the 2015 conference, I have worked to expand RWSA’s social media presence. RWSA’s Facebook page), tweets (@RuralWomenSA), and this blog represent ways to maintain intellectual connections among our members between conferences. Moreover, they offer opportunities to welcome other interested people who might not otherwise have heard of RWSA. We now have 382 “likes” and 385 “followers” on Facebook (up from 300 just last fall), and more than 100 followers on Twitter. Within two weeks of its launch, our blog had 341 views from 207 visitors in 20 nations on 4 continents. While we of course hope that these new followers will attend future conferences, social media offers amazing opportunities to build and sustain our network beyond the fairly small group of women and men who are able to travel to triennial meetings.
Social media is incredibly powerful, but fun tweets are not enough. I enjoy looking for quality content to share via Facebook, Twitter, and this blog. Yet we need your help to continue growing our organization by sharing with your friends. We need your help to produce and share high-quality content on all of these social media platforms. (PLEASE contribute to this blog! We’d love to hear what you’re working on or thinking about.) We especially need your help to build bridges between academics and grassroots activists. That founding vision for RWSA remains both the most exciting and the most challenging part of what we seek to do.
In 2012 I spoke as one of the daughters of the RWSA about the future of the organization on a plenary at the Fredericton conference. At this year’s RWSA conference, the Plenary Roundtable on Thursday, May 17 from 1-2:30 p.m. will provide a wonderful opportunity for you to hear perspectives of both RWSA “grandmothers” and “granddaughters” — those who came before me and those who now represent the future of the organization. You won’t want to miss “Grandmothers and Granddaughters of the RWSA: What Generation Gap?”
Join the conversation!
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.