Representing Rural Women
Margaret Thomas Evans, Indiana University East
In Representing Rural Women, we seek to highlight the complexity and diversity of representations of rural women in the U.S. and Canada from the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries. The 15 chapters in the collection offer fresh perspectives on representations of rural women in literature, popular culture, and print, digital, and social media. The chapters in the collection explore a wide range of time periods, geographic spaces, and rural women’s experiences, including Mormon pioneer women, rural lesbians in the 1970s, Canadian rural women’s organizations, and rural trans youth. In their stories, these women and girls navigate multiple settings and address the complex realities of rural life, create spaces for self-expression, develop networks to communicate their experiences, and seek to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes of rural womanhood. The authors in the collection consider the ways that rural geography may allow freedoms as well as impose constraints on women’s lives, and ultimately how cultural representations of rural womanhood reflect and shape women’s experiences. Ultimately the essays reveal that there is no one rural woman’s story, but a multiplicity of stories.
The connecting thread of the collection is representation, as all of the authors consider how rural women have been represented and/or have represented themselves in multiple mediums and to a range of audiences. We have divided the collection into two sections: rural women as represented in literature and film and rural women directly representing themselves and their lived experiences. The chapters in Part I raise critical questions about representations of women’s roles in rural communities, including how they attempt to maintain community and how they attempt to break free from its restraints, how they experience belonging and exclusion. The first two chapters, for instance, examine representations of migrations, the first from urban to rural and the second from rural to urban, considering the opportunities and obstacles in each type of community. Other chapters examine diverse rural life in settings that span the United States: Appalachia, the Midwest, the Ozark Mountains, the South, and the West.
The chapters in Part II focus on how rural women have sought avenues for self-representation and ways to convey their stories. Through logbooks, magazines, websites, social media, blogs, and television, they have carved out spaces to record their voices, develop networks of rural women, and articulate their determination and demonstrate their resourcefulness to survive. In some cases, we witness individuals and groups of women finding ways to thrive in the rural world, while in others we see women struggle to find a way to exist in what can be homogeneous, isolated spaces. These essays also challenge readers to consider preconceived notions of rural women and rurality.
The first section of the collection begins with Adam Nemmers’s chapter, “‘Gone Country’: Literary Depictions of the New Woman in Rurality.” Nemmers examines novels that depict migrations from urban to rural spaces in the early twentieth century. These migrations stand in stark contrast to the mass exodus from rural spaces in the era, as a largely agrarian economy shifted to an industrial one. In Laurie Cella’s chapter “Reassessing the American Migration Experience: The Dollmaker’s Gertie Nevels as an American Working-Class Heroine,” she examines the unflinching portrayal of migration from rural spaces in Harriette Simpson Arnow’s The Dollmaker (1954) and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939). In the third chapter, “A Quiet, Debilitating Ailment: Racial Isolation and Rural America in Willa Cather’s and Zora Neale Hurston’s Experimental Fiction,” Jericho Williams also considers how mid-twentieth-century authors confront the rural, specifically how racial divides impact women’s relationships within rural communities. The next chapter, “Ginseng-Gathering Women: The Underground Economy in Five Appalachian Novels” by Jimmy Dean Smith, focuses on women ginseng gatherers, known as “sangers,” in five late twentieth and early twenty-first-century novels about the southern mountains: Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman (1962), Lee Smith’s Oral History (1983), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997), Ann Pancake’s Strange as This Weather Has Been (2007), and Ron Rash’s Serena (2008). In her chapter “The Potential to Reform Rural Fingerbone: Sylvie’s New Western Revolution in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping,” Amanda Zastrow notes while Robinson’s 1980 novel has been hailed by many critics as a landmark feminist text, few have examined its rural American West setting. Jim Coby’s chapter “Rural Spaces and (In)Disposable Bodies in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones,” posits that Jesmyn Ward, in her National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones (2011), helps to redefine the borders of Southern literature. Salvage the Bones revolves around the plight of Esch Batiste, a young African American girl living in the fictional coastal town of Beau Sauvage, Mississippi, and explores the days just prior to, of, and following Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall. The seventh chapter, “Codes of Kinship: Rural Poverty and Female Resilience in Winter’s Bone,” is an examination by H. Louise Davis and Whitney Womack Smith of how Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone (2006) and Debra Granik’s film adaptation of the novel (2010) approach rural poverty and gender inequality. This first section of the collection concludes with “Rural Trans Girlhoods in Young Adult Fiction,” by Barbara Pini and Wendy Keys. In this chapter the authors examine the representation of rural life for three trans characters in contemporary young adult novels: Brian Katcher’s Almost Perfect (2009), Rachel Gold’s Being Emily (2013), and Meredith Russo’s If I Was Youth Girl (2016). Pini and Keys note that despite the growth in scholarship on sexualities in rural spaces, trans lives remain crucially underexplored.
Amy Easton-Flake’s chapter, “Poetic Representations of Mormon Women in Late Nineteenth-Century Frontier America,” opens the second section of the collection. She discusses how rural Mormon women founded the Woman’s Exponent in 1872, which they proclaimed to be the first journal “owned by, controlled by and edited by Utah ladies.” The mission of the Exponent included supporting one another and correcting common misrepresentations of Mormon women as ignorant, oppressed, coerced, and even enslaved. As Nancy Cook notes in the next chapter, “Lightning Strikes, Burned Bread & Chipmunks: Women Lookouts in the American West,” the American West has a long tradition of lookout literature, typically by men who went in search of solitude, adventure, and a contemplative life. However, many women “manned” lookout towers in the West throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and kept records of their experiences. Agatha Beins and Julie R. Enszer’s chapter “A Life in the Country: Lesbians and Feminists Living on the Land” subverts the usual assumption that the Women’s Liberation Movement was solely an urban phenomenon by examining how feminism—and particularly lesbian-feminism—flourished in rural spaces. Feminists living in rural communities, particularly intentional land communities, networked to share information and strategies for living and fomenting revolutionary consciousness. Two print journals, Country Women and Maize, publishing during the 1970s and 1980s, provided a communications vehicle for rural women to share information about living conditions, instructions on practical skills, political analyses about their lives, and creative and artistic work. Eli Erlick, in “On Rural Transgender Visibility,” examines the underrepresentation of rural trans youth and the intersecting relationships of transgender, rural, and youth communities. Erlick notes that, despite the fact that trans people exist in every part of the world, there is a “metronormative” assumption that trans exists solely in urban spaces. This leaves rural trans people invisible in the rhetoric of the movement but, as Erlick describes, hypervisible within small towns and rural areas where “passing” becomes impossible. Transitioning to a focus on digital representations, Margaret Thomas-Evans’ chapter “Visual and Digital Representations of Canadian Rural Women’s Organizations,” considers how rural women in the Women’s Institutes of Ontario, Canada, are utilizing websites and social media to connect with each other and to record their histories. These organizations have transformed how they record their history and represent their organizations over the past 120 years, from handwritten minutes and printed programs to websites and social media accounts. By harnessing the power of the Internet, once isolated rural branches are now better able to maintain records, raise their visibility, and strengthen regional, national, and global networks of rural women. In “‘Pining for High Fashion?’: Rural Women Writing on Fashion Online,” Holly M. Kent continues the focus on digital self-representations by rural women. Kent challenges pervasive stereotypes about rural women and fashion, examining the work of all too often marginalized or invisible female rural fashion bloggers. While the fashion blogosphere is still dominated by urban women, particularly urban coastal women, rural fashion bloggers are nonetheless a significant presence in online fashion spaces. Finally, Elizabeth Thompson’s chapter “Fantasies and Phobias: De-Mythologizing Contemporary and Historical Depictions of Rural Women,” looks at the industry of rural cultural tourism through one its most successful examples: lifestyle celebrity Ree Drummond, “The Pioneer Woman.” Drummond parlayed life on a working cattle ranch in Oklahoma into a multimillion- dollar-enterprise, with a blog, Food Network television show, books, merchandise, and a 25,000 square-foot restaurant and store. Using her tagline “keepin’ it real,” she presents artfully packaged self-representations of her life as an accurate representation of contemporary rural womanhood.
Representing Rural Women seeks to complicate traditional notions of the rural and rural womanhood by providing a range of essays on rural women’s representations. While these fifteen essays present multiple perspectives and diverse experiences, there are many more voices and stories to be shared in order to develop a more complete and nuanced portrait of what it has meant, and what it continues to mean, to be a woman in rural Canada and the U.S. We hope this volume will act as a catalyst for continuing scholarly conversations in the rich field of rural scholarship.
Representing Rural Women, edited by Margaret Thomas-Evans and Whitney Womack Smith, will be released on July 5, 2019. Rowman & Littlefield has generously offered our readers a 30% discount using discount code LEX30AUTH19 when purchasing from their site. You also can pre-order your copy in hard cover or Kindle from Amazon.