It can often be challenging to identify and access archival collections and artifacts related to rural women and men. All too often, materials related to rural people have been lost because later generations failed to recognize their value. Yet many valuable collections remain undiscovered by researchers because they are held by county or local museums whose small staff and budget limit their ability to publicize and provide access to their holdings. We are excited to share Museums of Minnesota, a new blog initiative hosted by H-Midwest, which is part of the H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.
At Museums of Minnesota, a variety of local historical institutions have posted entries highlighting particularly exciting archival collections and artifacts from their collections, many of which relate to rural people. For example, check out the image reproduced below in which two young men in a rural setting pose in fancy women’s hats. We encourage our readers to read these blogs and visit the websites and collections of these local Minnesota archives and museums. We hope you’ll tell us about your own favorite collections related to rural women!
Upon completing my coursework for a master’s degree in history, I moved back to the family farm to finish researching and to write my thesis. Moving back home with one’s parents while completing a degree is not so unusual. That summer, however, I also had a job on the farm: hired girl. (And, that was official job title I typed on the W-2 form.) My duties included: cooking when my mother was gone, moving machinery to and from the fields, running errands, canning, and helping out as needed. The cooking would be significant because at the time my mother served as chairwoman of the Farm Bureau Women’s Committee and, as such, was also a member of the North Dakota Farm Bureau Board of Directors. She traveled for meetings and special events, and when she was gone I did the cooking. Quite frankly, there were days when I made almost no progress writing that summer because I was busy cooking, getting lunch ready, and then canning. As a hired girl, I continued a long work tradition in Norwegian America that also hearkened back to Norway. The type of labor, though, differed historically in the two countries.
In Norway, most women in rural areas spent a portion of their youth working as servants on farms. The farm buildings and barns were clearly the domain of women. This meant women milked cows, mucked out the barns, raked and stacked hay on the hesje (a special fence to dry hay), and fed and watered the typically shedded livestock, among other duties. Seasonally, women might plant and harvest crops, although this varied regionally. On larger farms, some young women were hired to provide domestic labor in the house. The farmwoman oversaw these household and barnyard activities. Of the servants, the budeie (or dairymaid) was the most important on the farm. She spent her summers at the high mountain pasture (sæter) milking cows and goats and processing the milk into butter and cheese, which were crucial for the farm economy; she milked cows and did barn chores the rest of the year. The dairymaid performed gendered labor, and men rarely served in that role. The farm labor of female servants was crucial for the success of Norwegian farms. 
When Norwegian immigrants arrived in the United States in large numbers after the American Civil War, they encountered a very different system of agricultural production undergoing labor changes. Increasingly, as historian Joan Jensen has noted, by the mid-nineteenth century men took over milking responsibilities on American farms in states like Pennsylvania.  For young Norwegian immigrant women who hired out, they may or may not have continued the gendered labor practice from Norway of female milkers. Hired girls, especially those who worked for Americans, often worked in the house and not in the barn. Bertina Serina Kingestad hired out to an American farmer in Illinois in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and she appreciated the fact that she no longer milked cows or mucked out barns.  Other Norwegian American hired girls continued to milk cows. Young women might also move regularly in search of employment.
Harvest was a particularly busy season that required additional labor on farms. As a young, unmarried woman, American-born Anna Billet Monson provided domestic labor on the North Dakota farm owned by her half-sister and brother-in-law in the mid-1910s. The image below shows Anna Billet Monson and the male threshing crew that included her brother-in-law and his father (my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather), as well as men from their Norwegian American community. The photograph encapsulates significant differences between hiring out in Norway and the United States. Monson’s role as the hired girl focused on home and hearth, although her American-born half-sister did continue to milk the cows.
The tradition of girls and young women hiring out in Norwegian America continued long after the Department of Agriculture declared the day of the hired girl had “pass[ed”] in 1920. Indeed, my paternal grandmother appears in the 1930 census as a servant on the farm of her future husband. My grandmother’s experience was quite common for Norwegian American farm girls in the 1930s and 1940s.  Girls and young women hired out in Norway and in Norwegian America, albeit working in agricultural systems that often differed. In both, these hired girls helped make agriculture successful.
See this previous post for a discussion of gender in contemporary Norwegian farming.
 For Norwegian agriculture see, Reidar Almås, ed., Norwegian Agricultural History (Trondheim, Norway: Tapir Academic Press, 2004); Brit Berggreen, “Idealmønstre og realmønstre: Kryssing av Kjønnsrollegrenser i norsk bondekultur ca 1850-1920″ (Ph.D. diss., University of Oslo, 1990); Brynjulv Gjerdåker, “Continuity and modernity 1815-1920,” in Norwegian Agricultural History, 236-295; Jon Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers: The Migration from Balestrand, Norway, to the Upper Middle West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Øyvind Østerud, Agrarian Structure and Peasant Politics in Scandinavia: A Comparative Study of Rural Response to Economic Change (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1978); and Eilert Sundt, Sexual Customs in Rural Norway: A Nineteenth-Century Study, trans. and ed. Odin W. Anderson (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1993).
 Joan M. Jensen, Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 93. For Norwegian American agriculture, see Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers.
 Lori Ann Lahlum, “Women, Work, and Community in Rural Norwegian America, 1840-1920, 90-92, in Norwegian American Women: Migration, Communities, and Identities, eds. Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011).
 Florence E. Ward, “The Farm Woman’s Problems,” United States Department of Agriculture Department Circular 148 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1920), 10; Anna Anderson, 1930 roll census for Norma Township, Barnes County, North Dakota.
I finally carved out time to read Anne F. Hyde’s masterful Empires, Nations and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860. Once I picked up Hyde’s 650-page volume, I had trouble putting it down. Winner of the prestigious 2012 Bancroft Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History, Hyde’s 2011 book is part of a University of Nebraska Press series that reassesses the field of United States Western history. Hyde brings together the latest scholarship in ethnohistory, colonialism and settler colonialism into a wide-ranging yet highly engaging narrative of the trans-Mississippi West. By tracing the networks built by prominent interethnic families engaged in the fur trade, Hyde makes sense out of the seeming disorder of global economies and geopolitics. She guides her reader through the complex and often messy world of hunters, merchants, and politicians from St. Louis to San Francisco, from Fort Vancouver to Santa Fe, and from the Great Lakes to the Arkansas Valley.
By focusing on a few prominent families, such as the Chouteaus in Missouri, McLoughlins in Oregon, Vallejos in California, and others – such as Stephen Austin and Kit Carson who seemed to be everywhere at once, Anne Hyde brings to life the complexities and contingencies of fur trade and frontier life. Hyde’s narrative provides a culturally complex picture because she focuses on the interethnic family networks that these “great men” built in places that became known as the American West. She painstakingly reconstructs these Euro-American men’s marriages and informal unions with French, Anglo-American, and Native women from many different Indigenous nations, and their resulting children and broader kinship networks. Perhaps even more clearly than the rich scholarship of the fur trade, Hyde demonstrates the centrality of these interethnic family relationships to the history and culture of the region. Native women provided needed labor and cultural knowledge, and offered entrée into Native cultures. White traders survived and even thrived largely because of their relationships with Native women. And, as Hyde makes equally clear, many of them struggled to maintain or abandoned those familial ties in the 1850s and 1860s as American racial understandings hardened around fixed categories. In memory, a Catholic Canadian of Scottish and French descent could become the white American “Father of Oregon,” but his Cree and French Canadian wife could not become the “Mother of Oregon” (and John McLoughlin’s Ojibwe first wife gets forgotten altogether).
Yet as Hyde admits in her introduction, “[m]uch of what I describe is really an updated version of ‘great man’ history” (Ecco 2012 ed., p. 21). Rich collections of correspondence among Euro-American businessmen reveal their thoughts and actions and, in some cases, their ethnically mixed sons. While their Native and mixed race wives and daughters contributed greatly to the overall success of their undertakings, these women’s experiences and perspectives remain frustratingly unclear if not completely invisible. Hyde does an admirable job of attempting to recreate these women’s experiences, but too much of what we would like to know about them is simply not in the written records. The lives and thoughts of these fur trade women – like those of Native men and women throughout the region who did not marry prominent white traders – receive little attention in the available written sources.
Uncovering the history of rural women is extremely challenging due to their dual invisibility as both rural people and as women. Studying them is challenging because rural people and women often failed to leave much written record. Moreover, these groups were long disregarded by scholars, archivists, and even their own descendants, so what records they did create have been lost to us. All of these challenges are exaggerated in regard to women of color, who were even less likely to be literate and their experiences less likely to have been recorded and preserved. And while many Indigenous cultures valued women’s contributions and granted women authority in ways that white society did not in the early nineteenth century, those traditions tended to be oral rather than written, and had very different conceptions of time than did the Euro-American culture out of which the historical profession developed.
Important work has been done uncovering the contributions of Native and mixed-heritage women in the fur trade, particularly in the Great Lakes region and eastern Canada. Those scholars’ innovative methods could be applied to other regions and cultural contexts. Much more research is needed to uncover nineteenth-century Native women’s lives. At the same time, much more work should also be done to preserve contemporary Indigenous women’s voices throughout the American West and around the world.
Anne Hyde gives us a sweeping yet intimate narrative of the worlds that Euro-American traders and Native peoples built in the early-nineteenth-century West. It should also serve as a call to arms to delve deeper into researching, documenting and preserving Native women’s voices both past and present.
Following up on our previous post about building relationships between academic programs and community partners, this week’s post highlights an exciting new partnership between Saint Mary’s College faculty and students and TREES, Inc., a grassroots organization that promotes inclusion of transgender individuals in small towns and rural areas.
Transgender Advocacy and Activism in the Midwest: A Partnership
by Jamie Wagman, Meghan Buell, Jordan Lolmaugh and Alex Shambery
How can Gender Studies majors learn about transgender history, rights, and activism beyond the college classroom? How can students apply their knowledge of feminist theory and methods to practical problems? What does being an ally and an activist look like? These are the questions we are asking and answering in creating a Transgender Studies internship program at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, a program we will discuss at the May 2018 Rural Women’s Studies Association conference.
Jamie Wagman, Assistant Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies and History at Saint Mary’s College; Alexandria Shambery, rising senior and political science and Gender & Women’s Studies double major at Saint Mary’s; Jordan Lolmaugh, rising junior and Gender and Women’s Studies and Psychology double major at Saint Mary’s; and Meghan Buell, founder and president of TREES Inc., a Transgender Resource, Education and Enrichment Services non-for-profit established in 2015 to combat transgender suicide and murder rates, will be presenting a panel entitled, “Sowing the Seeds of Love”: Promoting Transgender Inclusivity and Visibility in Policy and Training Programs in the Heartland. Their presentation is slated for 2:15-3:45 on Friday, May 18.
We will be discussing our new Transgender Studies internship program within the Gender & Women’s Studies major at Saint Mary’s, a one to three credit internship program that assigns texts from leading historians and scholars Susan Stryker, Leslie Feinberg, Anne Balay and Transgender Studies Quarterly journal articles and then pairs a student major to come up with a project with the help of Wagman and Buell. This fall, for example, Shambery will be examining the language, practices, and policies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (DOA) and making recommendations by creating new sample materials. “Through my research I hope to gain a better understanding of how the DOA provides a welcoming workplace for Trans people,” Shambery explains. “I believe our government should lead the way in efforts toward a loving and inclusive environment for the LGBT community. I see my research as a way to hold the DOA and the U.S. Government accountable for how they train, educate, and treat their employees.”
Lolmaugh will be working on a transgender-inclusive sexual assault prevention and education brochure, which will be used by regional non-for-profits Buell works with when she travels throughout the year to small towns to educate corporations, higher education institutions, hospitals, and non-for-profits on transgender inclusivity. Lolmaugh said she is hoping to gain more knowledge about how to be an ally to transgender people. “I’m very passionate about working with survivors of violence, and through my studies I’ve noticed a lack of research regarding intimate partner violence and transgender people. The narrative regarding IPV is very heteronormative and cis-gender based. Hopefully with this internship, I can not only provide some much needed research, but also provide TREES with information to better assist and inform people,” Lolmaugh said.
Buell and Wagman began working together and designing student service learning assignments in the fall of 2016, and three students that semester worked with Buell to design a local memorial to honor transgender people who died from fatal violence, create content about transgender-friendly children’s books, and research the policies regarding the participation of transgender student athletes in high school sports throughout the Midwest. After the completion of these projects, Buell and Wagman agreed to keep collaborating on student-designed internships. Buell values the work of Saint Mary’s students. “As a nonprofit organization working in rural communities, TREES, Inc. is glad to have the Gender and Women’s Studies program at Saint Mary’s College as a local resource from which to gain a national perspective of transgender inclusion,” she explained. “Each student we have had the opportunity to work with has shown us that communities from all over the United States are as diverse as the individuals within them. We are glad to have such a strong working relationship with the college.”
We’re excited to share our ongoing experiences in this project at the May conference.
Pedagogy in Public: Academic Programs and Community Partners
Elyssa Ford, Northwest Missouri State University
For many public history programs, it is important to maintain close relationships with community partners. Such relationships offer ways for faculty to remain involved in the community and in the field, real-world projects and experiences for students, a source of internships and assistantships, and the hope of full-time job opportunities post-graduation. Yet sometimes these projects leave someone “on the edge” — the students who may be unprepared or uninterested in the project, the community institutions who may have not been included as equal partners or who might find themselves left with an unfinished or unusable project, and even the theoretical basis of the class, which may get pushed to the side in order to complete a client-based project on time.
This working group was held at the 1025 National Conference of Public History. It addressed an array of issues that often arise in class projects and relationships with community partners, and it aimed to establish a set of best practices to help academic programs and cultural institutions move forward in creating these relationships in a more mutually beneficial way. To do this, we wanted to avoid getting stuck in the cycle of individual project “show and tell” and instead pushed participants to think about larger questions, including how to initially find community partners and create those relationships, how to maintain those partnerships in a healthy way, and what to do when problems arise. In addition, we focused on the central question of what is and should be the purpose of projects and partnerships like this. Is the focus bringing hands-on experience and practice to students? Is it fulfilling a professional, usable end product for a client? Is it based more broadly on the idea of civic engagement and offering a service to our communities? These are important questions and certainly will promote discussion among academics and perhaps encourage cross-university relationships as a way to form a support system. However, we wanted to think not just about these relationships from the viewpoint of the college or university, but to extend this conversation to the community partners themselves. These partners are often left “on the edge” or the periphery of project formation and completion, so it is important to bring them to the center of this discussion. What are you looking for in these relationships? Are they worthwhile to your organization? From your viewpoint, what needs to be done to promote better relationships and communication streams?
The working group included approximately 15 members from academia, from cultural institutions, and from the graduate student community. With this mix, we were able to see how academics already engage with community partners or who are considering reaching out to the community and establishing partnerships, how community partners have viewed these relationships or what questions they have in trying to set up these relationships, and what students who have completed class/individual projects and internships have gotten out of the projects and to assess their readiness to undertake the project.
While on the surface this may seem to have little relevance to RWSA members, it closely aligns with an interest at the last conference, which was to how to form better and stronger and closer relationships with community members and community activists. Perhaps organizations like the RWSA should look to the public history field for guidance as public historians have long grappled with how to best form these ties and to overcome the town-gown barriers.
In our previous post, we highlighted an exciting new volume from the South Dakota Historical Society Press, Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal (2017). In this post, we highlight an essay that appears in that volume that we think will be of particular interest to our readers, regarding Laura Ingalls Wilder as an advocate for farm women and farming.
Paula Nelson, University of Wisconsin in Platteville
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books immortalized her family’s efforts to build homes and farms on the nineteenth-century frontiers of Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota. In my small town in southern Minnesota, my grade-school teachers read to us from Wilder’s novels almost every day after recess. Her words changed my life. She described the beauty of the prairies, from the tiniest flowers to sweeping vistas and enormous skies. Her words and appreciation of place helped me articulate my love of the grasslands. Wilder’s reflections on family, memory, and time (along with its passing) laid the foundation of my personal principles for the study of history: individuals matter; everyone has a story to tell; human nature, personal history and experience, and circumstance profoundly shape the lives of everyone.
Laura Ingalls Wilder began her writing career as a farm columnist long before she became a novelist. Laura and Almanzo settled in the Missouri Ozarks in 1894 and lived on their Rocky Ridge Farm until their deaths. Laura was known regionally as a successful chicken farmer. In 1911, the editor of the Missouri Ruralist read her paper on chickens and promptly offered her a job as columnist for the publication. Laura began a long career as an ardent advocate for farm women, their families, and farming as a way of life and a calling.
Wilder wrote her columns during a time of crisis and rapid change. World War I, woman suffrage, the changing roles of women, rapid industrial change, mass migration from the countryside into the big cities, automobiles, radio, mass advertising, and the birth of consumer culture—all posed challenges to traditional ways for farmers and their families. Wilder wrote as a steadying force for her farm audience. She believed that farm wives had the opportunity, more so than in any other occupation, to be full partners in the enterprise, as she and Almanzo were. Some of her ideas might surprise her modern fans. She saw suffrage for women as an obligation rather than a right and opposed it. She feared the impact of the vote, and of politics generally, on women’s most important role, rearing the next generation of children to be good, productive citizens. Wilder did not share the suffragists’ belief that women voting would bring wonderful social reforms. In her opinion, women were not a class apart but instead were individuals who would vote according to their personal inclinations. When suffrage became law, however, she urged women to do their duty and vote.
Wilder’s columns in the Ruralist resonated with her love of the farm. Love of nature, the changing seasons, the birth of livestock, birds, flowers, the rhythms and rituals of farm work animated her days. Even as the mass movement from farms to cities continued, Wilder extolled the beauty in nature to remind women that their most important and primary duty to their communities and the nation was raising the next generation of farmers and citizens.
Wilder’s vision of farm life continues to be a lodestone for me. Since first hearing a Little House novel, I have frequently dreamed of being a farmer in Wilder’s time.
Cross-posted by permission of Paula Nelson and the South Dakota Historical Society Press.
To celebrate the 150th birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder in 2017, the Pioneer Girl Project of the South Dakota State Historical Society has released a new book on the writer’s legacy.
In 2014, the South Dakota Historical Society Press released Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, which became a national bestseller. The new book, Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder takes a serious look at Wilder’s working life and at circumstances that developed her points of view. This rich source book from these Wilder scholars from across North America also explores, among other topics, the interplay of folklore in the Little House novels, women’s place on the American frontier, Rose Wilder Lane’s writing career, the strange episode of the Benders in Kansas, Wilder’s midwestern identity, and society’s ideas of childhood.
The book’s contents include:
“Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder,” an Introduction by editor Nancy Tystad Koupal
“Speech for the Detroit Book Fair, 1937,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder
“The Strange Case of the Bloody Benders: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and Yellow Journalism,” by Caroline Fraser
“‘Raise a Loud Yell’: Rose Wilder Lane, Working Writer,” by Amy Mattson Lauters
“Pioneer Girl: Its Roundabout Path into Print,” by William Anderson
“Little Myths on the Prairie,” by Michael Patrick Hearn
“Her Stories Take You with Her: The Lasting Appeal of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” an interview with Noel Silverman
“Laura Ingalls Wilder as a Midwestern Pioneer Girl,” by John E. Miller
“Women’s Place: Family, Home, and Farm,” by Paula M. Nelson
“Fairy Tale, Folklore, and the Little House in the Deep Dark Woods,” by Sallie Ketcham
“The Myth of Happy Childhood (and Other Myths about Frontiers, Families, and Growing Up),” by Elizabeth Jameson
“Frontier Families and the Little House Where Nobody Dies,” by Ann Romines