RWSA 2018 Reflection: Historical methodology and the McLennan sisters
What a fantastic Rural Women’s Studies Association conference at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, USA! In the coming weeks, we will be sharing highlights of and reflections on #RWSA2018.
At RWSA 2018, Daniel Samson presented a short biography of Bell McLennan (1826-1883), the wife of James Barry, a 19th-century Nova Scotian miller, printer, fiddler, and diarist. The challenge was to write her biography based on his diary. Barry’s was in some ways a typical farmer’s diary recording mundane matters of weather and work, but it was also framed deliberately as a literary production and endeavoured to represent a life much more so than most. But it was a male life, and though attentive to matters of the domestic world, politics, and literature it was rarely attentive to his wife – except when she displeased him. How, Samson asks, can we see Bell’s McLennan’s life through her husband’s diary, a diary near completely devoid of her perspective?
“Hamer held the committee’s attention as she spoke from memory about her eviction from the Marlow plantation and her brutal beating in the Winona jail. After less than 10 minutes she concluded: ‘If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?’”
“Only 17.49 percent of biographies on Wikipedia are of women, and the site’s top article categories relate to the military, war, and sports. To counter that pattern, the program provides training to faculty members and students on how to conduct the editing process on Wikipedia. The women’s-studies group has assembled the largest cohort of students editing Wikipedia articles through the foundation, which also teams up with other academic associations.”
“The exhibit features a fraction of the 23,000 items Caroline Schimmel has collected for more than 45 years…Schimmel began collecting narratives long before many collectors were interested in women’s history. In women’s stories of the wilderness she found both courage and desperation. “Things had to be pretty dreadful for women to leave and set out for the unknown,” Schimmel says. “In the nearly half century of gathering stories of the women who leave hearth and home, I never cease to be amazed.”
Katrina Jagodinsky, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
In a few months, members of the Rural Women’s Studies Association will gather in Ohio to discuss “Surviving & Thriving: Gender, Justice, Power, and Place-Making.” Such concerns are fundamental to the histories of six women featured in Legal Codes & Talking Trees: Indigenous Women’s Sovereignty in the Sonoran and Puget Sound Borderlands, 1854-1946 (Lamar Series in Western History: Yale University Press, 2016). In telling the remarkable stories of Akimel O’odham, Duwamish, Salish, Sauk-Suiattle, Yaqui, and Yavapai women and their communities, understanding the legal regimes they navigated proved important, of course, but no more so than comprehending the places and the people they knew, they loved, they might have hated. The book considers Native women’s efforts to invoke state protections against sexual violence, to retain custody of their children in an era of Indian abuses, to inherit property from white fathers, and to retain lands stolen through belligerent and bureaucratic violence. Through their gendered articulations of justice and power, each of these women challenged the legal violence of settler-colonial place-making in an era of dispossession, and rural communities continue to grapple with the legacies of these challenges in their efforts to not only survive, but thrive in the twenty-first century.
Prescott, Arizona has a bloody past and a racially-fraught present. It is located in the aboriginal territory of the Yavapai, a stunning, transitional landscape on the northern fringes of the Sonoran Desert buffered from Spanish and American intrusions by the scarcity of water and the tenacity of tribal neighbors who fended off outsiders for generations. The U.S.-Mexican War made Yavapai lands part of New Mexico in 1854, and the discovery of gold nearly a decade later made Yavapai people and their lands vulnerable for American expansionists. Dinah Foote was born into the era of forced marches that the American military had practiced in the Southeast in the 1830s and perfected in the Southwest in the 1860s and 1870s. After being forcibly removed to the San Carlos Apache reserve, already home to a people with a different language group, Yavapai families like Dinah’s were forced to send their children to the Santa Fe Indian School. Dinah struggled in Santa Fe, and the superintendent complained about her “moral influence” on other girls, but she remained confined there until 1900, when she turned eighteen and returned to San Carlos. By then, Dinah’s relatives had made an unsanctioned return to their Prescott homelands that officials loosely tolerated because of declining conditions at San Carlos and an increased demand for cheap laborers in the Prescott vicinity. Dinah married Robin Hood, a Yavapai veteran of the Arizona Indian Wars, when she joined her family camped on the outskirts of Prescott and worked with her relatives and neighbors to reconstitute Yavapai life as they knew it at the onset of the twentieth century.
Known to us primarily because of a 1913 murder in the Yavapai camp that Prescott journalists sensationalized and Supreme Court jurists debated in Arizona’s first year of statehood, Dinah Foote Hood’s family participated in the continued Yavapai resistance against dispossession and violence at the hands of their American Prescott neighbors. Subject to sexual violence, physical assault, and daily degradation, Dinah Hood and her relatives nonetheless remained on Yavapai lands until tribal leaders—including renowned Yavapai basket-maker Viola Jimulla and prominent Prescott citizens—secured federal recognition of their lands in 1935 and established a postage-stamp sized reserve that included the camp Dinah’s family claimed when they escaped San Carlos.
Federal, state, and local archives tell this story from a distance. Archival records from the turn of the twentieth century rarely name particular Yavapais, often misidentify them in photographic and manuscript accounts as Apaches, and depict them as ephemeral in addition to anonymous Indians. What they obscure is the intimate proximity of Dinah Foote Hood and her Yavapai relatives to the Prescott community. For a more accurate view of the daily engagement between Yavapais and Americans in this small town that was at one time Arizona’s territorial capital, you have to walk along Granite Creek, a rare perennial stream that flows between the Yavapai County Courthouse at the center of Prescott’s historic downtown plaza and the Sharlot Hall Museum, Library, and Archives named for Arizona’s first territorial historian. This tributary of the Verde River also flows past Fort Whipple, erected in 1864, and now maintained as a hospital and administrative grounds for the Veteran’s Administration. Between these sites of military and judicial power lies the Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribe’s reservation, itself a representation of the power of rural Indigenous women’s strenght and leadership. My opportunity to walk this creek bed and its surrounding banks came through an invitation from Linda Ogo, Director of the YPIT Cultural Research Department, and tribal archaeologist Scott Kwiatkowski.
As we talked and walked along an active archaeological site, Ogo and Kwiatkowski explained what the archives had not about the return of Dinah Hood’s family to their homeland. In the decades following the 1875 Yavapai removal, Americans expanded Prescott’s municipal infrastructure and used the Granite Creek banks between the Fort and the Courthouse as a dumping ground for their trash. Yavapais returning from San Carlos and elsewhere occupied this jurisdictional wasteland unoccupied and disregarded by Prescott residents. Women like Dinah Hood used glass shards from trash heaps as scraping tools for crafting and recycled discarded tin and cardboard to construct their homes. They also walked to the town plaza less than a mile from their camp to sell baskets and firewood while their sons, husbands, and fathers worked for neighboring ranchers and farmers, labored in the railyard or lumber mill, and picked up odd jobs at the Fort that overshadowed their camp.
Records and recollections indicate that Yavapais found some allies and advocates among their Prescott neighbors, but they also found plenty of others quick to demean and abuse them. Despite their close comings and goings, despite sharing conflicts and contracts, Prescott residents for the most part failed to know the Yavapais who lived amongst them as neighbors or as friends, and except when they were immediately useful, considered them as novelties. Born in 1882, Dinah Hood survived personal and collective abuses as she persisted in raising children who served in the U.S. military, who served in tribal office, and who served each other at family reunions in later generations. Dinah’s children became American citizens in 1924, supported the WWII Yavapai veterans who pushed Arizona to allow Native people to vote in 1948, and have helped to build tribal communities with growing economies, strengthening cultural practices, and increasingly powerful political influence.
Today, the Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribe is one of the largest employers in a town that, like many rural communities, is seeking ways to sustain itself into the twenty-first century. Place-making is a significant part of these rural efforts to thrive. The descendants of those who survived and committed nineteenth-century atrocities share the same grocery stores, the same playgrounds, and the same cafes, but they do not share the same histories. Collective efforts have been made and are underway to establish common ground in the past and present, but there remains in Prescott, as in much of the United States, a palpable divide in historical interpretation that rural women concerned with gender, justice, and power frequently occupy. Like Dinah Hood did a century ago, Yavapais today are reaching out to non-Indians in their homelands for financial opportunity with a firm understanding of the contentious histories between them. In order to transition from surviving to thriving, rural communities like Prescott need to consider the historical and contemporary implications of gender, justice, and power in their place-making. Incorporating and perhaps even emphasizing Yavapai histories of surviving and thriving as a fundamental component of Prescott’s past and present would be an ideal place to start.
Rural women’s studies scholars are uniquely positioned to serve the communities we write about in facing and acknowledging our painful pasts head on. In focusing its attention on women like Dinah Hood, Legal Codes & Talking Trees takes up these troubling histories in an effort to highlight the sophisticated strategies of Indigenous women to make legal and moral claims on their communities of Indians and non-Indians alike. Those claims continue to be pressed, of course, and they should be celebrated rather than suppressed or diminished. Remaking the heroes of our rural communities will take time and cause occasional discomfort, but historians have much to contribute in this campaign and rural women’s stories may be at its heart. As tribes throughout the United States become more invested in neighboring rural community’s economic development, sometimes encountering hostility from non-Indian residents as they do so, confronting the past to secure the future becomes all the more essential. Unraveling rural women’s entanglement in the settler-colonial project requires looking in on our own family histories of dispossession and conquest where we ought to acknowledge and address historical wrongs, but we might also find histories of alliances and advocacy that can pave the path toward the future. Dinah Hood relied on Yavapai friends and family to sustain herself in a hostile homeland, but her contemporary Viola Jimulla regularly reached out to non-Indian officials and allies to leverage Yavapai interests into political and economic authority. Today’s Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribal Board of Directors likewise reach across hostile histories to forge fruitful partnerships as they work to ensure their community will thrive into the twenty-first century and beyond. Making stories like Dinah Hood’s more widely known through works like Legal Codes & Talking Trees is hopefully helpful in turning histories of surviving into thriving futures as our rural communities engage in place-making with gender, justice, and power firmly in mind.
My book Farmers Helping Farmers: The Rise of the Farm and Home Bureaus, 1914-1935(LSU Press, 2016), examines rural America during a period when many forces were colliding simultaneously. Science was colliding with the traditional methods of agriculture; the “virtues” of rural life were colliding with the “virtues” of urban life; and the traditional notions of gender roles on the farm and in society in general were colliding with a broadly emerging drive by women for greater power, authority and autonomy in America. My book examines these conflicts and how farm people, and women in particular, negotiated these conflicts through their work with farm and home bureaus at the local level.
Although I did not perceive this as I was researching and writing the book, now, with some distance, I have come to see that these broad cultural and societal conflicts mirrored a tension that existed in my own family experience. I guess in some ways I have been living with my book my entire life and will likely continue to do so. I unabashedly admit that this book is part of me. My love for the topics of agriculture and rural life and how they intersect with family and gender reflect who I am and from where I came. Even so, when writing the book, I was constantly aware of my own subjectivity.
Recently, however, my understanding of that subjectivity has shifted as I think about the connections between the process of historical writing and one’s own constructed experience of the past. My understanding of my own past rural world has shifted as a result of closely examining the gendered organizational life of men, women, and children through my research. Perhaps it is only because I am older—and maybe wiser—that I now understand how I am constantly renegotiating my memory of the past and that that, in turn, has a relationship to my historical work, previous and ongoing. In particular, I am now more aware of the ways in which gender has structured my own experiences on the farm.
I grew up on farm a mile outside of a town of 650, where it seemed everyone was connected or related in some way or other. My family and relatives on the paternal side had been farming there for many generations. I remember that the first time my husband visited where I grew up, my Dad said to him, both proudly and regretfully, “I was born on that hill over there, I grew up on that other hill over there, and I will die on this hill here in between.” Besides being morose in a stoic Midwestern German Catholic way, it articulated the passion for the land, the love of farm life despite all its hardness, and the deep-rooted connection to place that smell, landscape, family, memory, and community life all bring together.
So, I grew up within this milieu, in which there was an explicit, ongoing tension over past and future, over heritage and opportunity, and it took an “outsider” to really see that. Again, I am going to turn back to a family illustration: After that same visit, my husband said the whole experience felt surreal to him. He had grown up in six different countries on three different continents, and yet he felt he had never experienced a place like this. He said that on the one hand it felt like my father would not have seemed out of place as a captain in the Austro-Hungarian Army circa 1897. And on the other hand, my father seemed thoroughly modern in using his laptop to trade soy and corn futures on the Asian exchanges. I was unsettled by the notion of contradiction, but as I thought about it, I realized he had captured some of the same tensions of the place and period that are the subject of my book.
This very personal introduction is important, because in some key ways my interest in the topic as well as my perspective was informed by seeing things through my family’s eyes. Thus, I wanted to bring a human dimension to my study of the farm bureau, and that led me to take a very different approach to studying its history. The local farm and home bureaus were entwined with the powerful key forces reshaping America in the early twentieth century—science, expertise, and bureaucratization. But how they affected rural lives was historically contingent. Ignoring this contingency has too often led to dismissing the bureau as just another story of agricultural modernization. But, one cannot understand the bureau movement without closely examining its connection to the daily lives of the men, women and children who were part of it. My book shows how the farm bureau and home bureau movement was a site where we can see how individuals made science, expertise, and organization part of their value system. And they tried to do so in ways that did not seem to contradict their past values.
Previous scholarship, which concentrated on bureau men and their relationship to national policy, had failed to address gender or closely examine women’s important role in the bureau. The book highlights how during the early twentieth century the role of women and their positions of power in the family, the farm, and rural America as a whole began to change and expand both dramatically and exponentially. And part of that change was driven by the farm bureau and home bureau movements.
As I researched and wrote, it became clear to me that women’s participation in the farm bureau movement was not a simple story. The patterns of how female participants built organizations, used science, and made claims to authority and power varied. The fact that women had even established home bureaus in some states had been overlooked or marginalized. These home bureaus mostly functioned as separate entities (although they had links to the farm bureau) and provided a strong home base for home demonstration agents. The home bureau institutions allowed women to claim a particular kind of authority that rested on an ideology of separate spheres. In addition, the science of home economics often reinforced a separate spheres ideology that idealized women as homemakers and consumers and men as farmers and producers. Some female members accepted separate spheres ideology and drew on home economics science to bolster authority that reached from the home into the community. This provided a certain amount of limited power.
Yet, I found that female participants in the bureau movement employed a variety of organizational, scientific, and rhetorical strategies. They selectively and strategically juggled gender ideologies. Some joined the farm bureau themselves. In some states, instead of forming home bureaus, participants formed women’s auxiliaries that were subsumed under the local farm bureaus. This structuring both imposed limitations and offered advantages in different ways than did the home bureaus. Moreover, some female members rejected separate spheres ideology and claimed that they had important roles as producers, partners on the farm, and citizens of the agricultural realm. In this perspective, separate spheres ideology contradicted so-called traditional patterns of rural life where women had shared in agricultural work or been responsible for production important to the household economy. In holding on to productive roles, women sought to gain an alternative source of authority on the farm and in public life.
There was a stark political dimension to these developments. Through the Extension Services, the state had a hand in attempting to prescribe appropriate roles for rural men and women. The farm bureaus and home bureaus, though private voluntary organizations, worked with the Extension Services of the United States Department of Agriculture to demonstrate scientific information to Bureau members. As a whole, this book reveals the evolving relationship among gender, the state, scientific knowledge, and rural citizens at the grassroots level.
In completing this book, I gained a greater awareness of how my thinking about rural life as I grew up was fundamentally gendered, a result of cultural conditioning. I thought of the farm and farm work primarily as my father’s domain. Indeed, my whole sense of heritage was predicated on connections I drew between males and farming. It was my father and his family’s longstanding farming tradition that I connected to and which shaped my constructions of the past. My mother grew up in a town and knew little—so I thought—of the ways of agricultural work. Instead she focused her energies on raising a family. I heard often the joke about my “poor dad,” the farmer who had four girls and no sons to take over. I am not certain how my sisters felt about that, except they always thought of themselves as “tomboys” who helped out Dad.
And yet, after my Dad passed, my Mom took over managing the farm, which she had not previously done visibly at any level. At 82 she started talking about rotation, soil conservation, fencing, and farm records. It was almost completely seamless—as if she had been doing it all along. She enjoyed delving into farm talk and making decisions about how the farm would be run. It was a type of authority that she had never fully held. I had no idea that she had any notion of the mechanics of running a farm, much less all the USDA programs. Despite being an academic studying the empowerment of women in agriculture, I had unintentionally discounted my own mother’s ability to understand and run a farm. Before completing this book, I was unable to see how sharply gender ideologies had shaped my own family.
I continue to rewrite the past and future, then, as I think about this book and its topics. I like to think that I have made a contribution to understanding the incremental changes in daily life that some women and farm families experienced one hundred or so years ago. But in addition, the process of completing it has taught me how to explore my own subjectivity in more sophisticated ways. I understand, now, that I am constantly reconstituting my past, and that that reconstitution affects my historical work. As a result of my work on this book, I have gained new sensitivity to my own relationship to gender constructions on the farm. And so, though the book is published, it is never really finished.
“This is all the home I now have”: Deserted and Widowed Homesteaders
Rebecca S. Wingo, Macalaster College
Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History is a co-authored book by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo. Their book is now available through Amazon and the University of Nebraska Press. The authors encourage you to visit their website to explore what they advance as new understandings of the Homestead Act that challenge and provide nuance to some of the accepted scholarship about the law. There you will also find their data, maps, and graphs of the network of witnesses in each township. The following is an adaptation of their findings on deserted and widowed women homesteaders in Nebraska presented by Rebecca S. Wingo at the Western History Association conference in November 2017.
Edward Wells, a blacksmith in Broken Bow, Nebraska, fell ill in early December 1887, the same month he was scheduled to finalize his homestead claim. On December 5th his two witnesses appeared at the land office during his scheduled appointment to testify that he was unable to make the hearing. Abner Brown stated of Edward, “He now requires constant daily nursing—he is not able to lie down and sleep but must sit in a chair to sleep—cannot wear anything but large slippers on his feet.” The land agent pushed the hearing back until December 15th. In his stead, his wife Delila Wells appeared and testified that her husband had died. Her testimony was not enough. Her witnesses had to verify her statement. Thomas Parrott, a witness and boarder on the Wells’ property, said that he,
knows from personal knowledge that the Claimant said Edward J. Wells is now dead, that he was personally present in the house of said Claimant on above described land at the time of the death of said claimant – that said claimant died sitting in a chair, at 3 o’clk and 15 minutes P.M. on Friday, December 9th A.D. 1887 in the said house on their said land–that he has been personally acquainted with said Edward J. Wells since the year 1881 and that he is positive, and cannot be mistaken, that the person whom he saw die as aforesaid was the identical person who made original Homestead Entry No. 9497.
When Wells signed her “X” on her final claim, the land agent signed the final affidavit “Edward J. Wells by Delila Wells his wife,” but then smudged out “wife” and wrote “widow” instead.
The last days of Edward’s life were hard on Wells and complicated even more by the necessity of complying with the General Land Office’s bureaucratic timeframes and appointments. Because of her clear hardship, Wells’s male neighbors and friends came together to help finalize her claim. Her testimony speaks to determination and cooperation as well as sadness. When asked about her residency on the land, she responded, “Actual & continuous—Have had no other home or place to live.” She continued, “I want this land for my own personal home—this is all the home I now have.”
Wells was one of 64 women in our study area who proved up their homestead claims and received title to their land. They comprised 10.3 percent of all study area homesteaders, which is a percentage roughly on par with other samples of women homesteaders across the West. Our study area included 621 homesteaders in ten townships in Custer and Dawes counties, Nebraska, where the majority of the land transferred from the public domain via homesteading. That said, there were more than 64 women using the Homestead Act to build homes, farms, and futures. There were 407 married male homesteaders, or, 407 other women homesteaders not counted because of nineteenth-century conventions. We know from many other accounts that wives were critical to the success of homesteads; their income from sales of butter and eggs often saved the family from starvation when the crops failed or were destroyed. In many cases they also joined men in the heavier work in the fields. While this blog focuses on a few of the 64 women who homesteaded in their own names, we should not lose sight of the larger group of married women who also struggled to succeed at homesteading.
And among those 64 women, widowed and deserted women homesteaders occupied a strange legal space, and—like Wells—often relied on cooperation and support from male neighbors. Within our Study Area, the local community often rallied to support nontraditional women’s homestead claims, particularly inheritance and desertion. However, these women also helped each other in interesting ways.
Inheritance cases like Delila Wells’—whose witnesses had to verify her claim that her husband was indeed dead—were not all that unique. For example, Elizabeth Cramer’s husband died in October 1886, and approximately one year later she sought to prove up the inherited claim. Her statement and those of her witnesses pertained to her deceased husband, not to her own right to the claim. Cramer further had to prove to the Land Office that she was in fact the widow of Paul Cramer. One of her witnesses testified when asked, “Have known her for years. Is the person she claims to be.” Complicating matters, she was unable to reach the land office on her scheduled date due to a severe storm, provoking yet another sworn statement from her witnesses validating her delay. Without the testimony of her neighbors as to her identity, intent of claim, and reason for her tardiness, she may well have lost her land.
Cramer identified her profession as “Keeping house & farming for self alone,” but we also catch a glimpse of the importance of her community: she made additional money after her husband died keeping house for a neighbor. During her time of need, her neighbors ensured her a steady income and her right to the homestead. As inheritance cases like Cramer and Wells demonstrate, support from neighbors and others in the local area was often crucial for a claimant to secure her land patents.
Desertion occurred in only two instances within our Study Area. These women had trouble asserting a right to the land because of both misinformation and legal barriers. They, like their widowed counterparts, relied on the advocacy of their male neighbors to secure their patents. For example, Mary Candee and her husband, Russell, built their homestead in Dawes County in 1887. Twenty-seven years old at the time, Candee found herself running the homestead alone after Russell abandoned her and their four children in April 1891. Candee continued to reside on the land and make improvements in compliance with the law, but she failed to understand the legal nuances of the time limits to file.
Mary Candee’s Proof of Posting. Image courtesy of Fold3.com.
Candee knew that without finalization, her husband’s claim to the land expired after seven years. She wrongly concluded that she had to wait until Russell’s claim expired to re-file on the land, then wait five more years to prove-up and earn the title in her own name. That would total 13 years of continuous residency with no title to show for it. According to the law, however, if she could simultaneously demonstrate her husband’s failure to prove-up and her own success, she could count all her years toward her own claim. This stipulation meant that her claim would expire when Russell’s did—in 1894 instead of 1899 like she believed. Candee nearly missed her window. She realized this only in the seventh year. Two men—Lincoln and William Shove—testified on her behalf that her residence was continuous since 1887, her husband did indeed desert her and her children, and her improvements were legitimately hers alone. Candee undeniably worked hard to improve her claim, which included a buggy shed, cave, frame barn, hen house, and log house worth approximately $350. Without the support of her neighbors and the leniency of the land agent, however, Candee easily could have surpassed the time limit to file, and lost the land and her improvements to another settler.
In the other desertion case, Mary Steinman of Custer County was left with an inherited homestead and four children to care for after her husband, William Gardner, died in 1881. She remarried to Jacob Steinman in 1882. In 1883 Jacob abandoned her, and thanks to 19th century law, Jacob’s name was now on the claim. Not to be stymied by two marriage failures (although I’m sure William didn’t mean to die), Steinman swore an affidavit at the Land Office on her own behalf: “For the last two years my husband…has deserted me and has not contributed to myself or family.” Interestingly, her two witnesses both testified that she was “formerly” the wife of Jacob, and further testified to her status as “head of a family,” shifting her claim status from Widow/Remarried/Abandoned to Head of Household in order to prevent Jacob from returning to claim the property. In other words, her neighbors helped her accomplish a legal status that she would otherwise have been denied. Steinman’s case demonstrates not only the power of community, but also the necessity of it.
Testimony of one of Steinman’s witnesses that she is the “head of a family.” Image courtesy of Fold3.com.
There’s a thread throughout the examples I just gave about the importance of men in women’s homesteading. Just marinate in that irony for a second. Our data, however, shows that women were intentionally pushing forward their own social and legal liberation through the act of witnessing. Out of 557 male claimants, only in two instances did men use women as witnesses. Women, though, called upon other women as witnesses at over ten times the rate as men. With little exception, women witnesses provided the same information in the same vernacular as male witnesses, leaving no discernable difference between male and female testimony. Whether or not to use a male or female witness would seem to have been decided by social norms, or perhaps the preferences of the local land agents.
Though women were rarely listed as possible witnesses, and even more rarely called to testify, Dawes County contains the only instance in which women serve as both of the witnesses, in Josephine Lane’s claim. They were all widows. Lane asked Martha Bowdish and Ellen Abbott to testify on her behalf, and used them rather than the two men listed in her Proof-of-Posting. Bowdish and Abbott testified on behalf of Julius, Lane’s husband who had died on April 19, 1891, before he could finalize his claim. The witnesses discussed “his” improvements (worth $1500) for “his” family on “his” land. Rather than acknowledging the property as inherited by Lane, the women gave testimony for the deceased. What’s more interesting is that at the time of each of their proofs, Bowdish, Abbott, and Lane had geographically closer male neighbors. They bypassed them in favor of choosing their female friends nearby.
Delila Wells’ words are haunting: “This is all the home I now have.” But for some women, the homestead was more than a home. It was a place to challenge the status quo and their own place in it. The use of women as witnesses in the claim process, even though rare, indicates social as well as legal change, spurred on by women, for women. Women homesteaders—not just those who claimed land in their own names—often formed the heart of social activity on the Great Plains, but they hardly occupied an equal place in the legal sphere. And that went double for widowed and deserted women, many of whom started the process as part of a married partnership. Women pressed the bounds of imposed limitations with and sometimes without the help of their male counterparts. The women homesteaders in the Study Area also press the bounds of current homesteading scholarship, suggesting that widowed women may have more commonly taken advantage of a presumed single woman’s law than previously thought.
 See in particular, Sheryll Patterson-Black, “Women Homesteaders on the Great Plains Frontier,” Frontiers 1 (Spring 1976): 67-88; Elaine Lindgren, Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota (University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 52; and Paula Bauman, “Single Women Homesteaders in Wyoming, 1880-1930,” Annals of Wyoming 58 (Spring 1986): 39-53.
 On the importance of the homesteader’s wife’s work, see Barbara Handy-Marchello, Women of the Northern Plains: Gender and Settlement on the Homestead Frontier, 1870-1930 (St. Paul: Minnesota State Historical Society, 2005), Chapter 3.
Gender and the Routledge History of Rural America:
An Editor’s Point of View
Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, Iowa State University
When I proposed the Routledge History of Rural America, my desire was to edit a book that provided a state-of-the-art view of the topic. I wanted for the book to reflect, as much as possible, the broad range of material now available on rural American history. As such, it was very important to me that it provide, wherever possible, a healthy dollop of the history of rural women. Of course, my experience with rural women’s history dates back to a time when the literature was very, very thin. My first introduction to the topic was in a seminar Joan Jensen taught while visiting the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 1988. She told us that it was the first graduate level course on rural women’s history taught in the U.S., and I believe it. There was very little literature from which she could draw, and the historiographic papers we wrote required that we travel a very great (historical) distance in the literature to find enough material. My paper was on rural women and migration, and I had to dip back into the 1940s in order to find enough material.
In The Routledge History, the authors of the chapters have included discussions of gender wherever appropriate, and there is a chapter dedicated to rural women’s history, written by Jenny Barker Devine. She draws on a vast array of both primary and secondary materials in order to tell a story about rural women that spans generations and regions. In my own chapter on rural childhood, I have written it as the story of both boys and girls, since gender shaped expectations of child life to a degree that is quite foreign to most of us living in the early 21st century. At the same time, gender was not always destiny in the way that we might think that it was. My own grandmother, Elsie Swafford Riney, was the first of six children. She was born in 1910. Her sisters, twins, arrived in 1913, and her brothers, also twins, arrived in 1916. Another sister was born many years later. Because of her place in the birth order, she became her father’s “hired man,” working in the fields in addition to helping her mother with housework. Girls might do the work of boys, if circumstances required it. In her family, the circumstances required that a girl act as a boy, until the boys were old enough to work alongside their father.
The illustration for the cover (chosen with more than a little help from the editorial staff and friends), literally has a woman at its center. An FSA photograph from Great Depression Iowa, it shows a farm family, mother, father, little boy, and toddler girl, posed at the door of their home. The woman is front and center, holding her daughter, with her washing machine prominently displayed. She wears a dress that she probably made, and her daughter also wears a homemade dress. This farm was as much her work as her husband’s, and this photograph depicts a reality I want The Routledge History of Rural America to convey.
Whenever I tell people that I am a rural historian, most stare blankly back at me. More than one student has adopted a zombie-like air, with glazed eyes and a vacant expression usually reserved for the most boring of subjects. My next question, “what does it mean to be rural,” is usually met with that dreadly black hole of silence instructors fear so much. This reaction is predictable, primarily because of modern America’s own disconnect with rurality. Despite enjoying a bounty of cheap food and fiber, most of us deal with rural life only in the most tangential of ways. Americans, including many instructors, are essentially caged in by their own assumptions, unable to connect with or grasp the wider importance of rural spaces in the nation’s narrative. After all, only twenty percent of Americans today live in rural spaces. Whereas over forty percent of Americans engaged in agricultural production in 1900, a mere two percent do so in 2017. When American popular culture depicts rurality, the result is more likely to be dueling stereotypes than anything of real substance. Sometimes people will wax nostalgic about a non-existent idyllic rural past. Others are more content to peddle clichés of ignorant and inbred hicks. But the reality of rural life and its past is far more complex and engaging than these tropes could ever convey.
Perhaps no other aspect of American society has undergone such a dramatic transformation and yet received so little attention in the halls of America’s universities. Despite revolutionary changes to rural communities since the Civil War, most of American rural history has been confined to a few well-trodden topics (i.e. Populism) or ignored completely. This is partly due to the fact that ruralness itself is difficult to define. Does rurality merely boil down to population numbers? Or must it be associated with the more traditional professions of farming, hunting, herding, lumbering or mining? Maybe rural America’s association with specific regions have limited American understanding? Or perhaps cultural assumptions about who embodies the rural (white, cis-gendered, traditional men) have left further exploration daunting? This and other ambiguities have limited the incorporation of rural history in the classroom. Luckily, recent works within the field offer opportunities to reintroduce this history to students. Books covering issues of globalization, gender and sexual identity, state control and resistance, racial justice, perceptions of food and environment, and many other topics have enriched the recent historiography of rural America.
Easily one of the most prominent themes explored in this historiography is the transformation of agriculture within the global political economy. Agriculture has always been a transnational enterprise. However, interaction between different ecologies, foods, and ideas accelerated in the twentieth century, intertwining peoples and places across vastly different environments. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is explored in Sterling Evans’ Bound in Twine (2013). Recounting the history of binder twine, Evans traces the emerging dual dependency (“a henequen-wheat complex”) between Mexico, the United States, and Canada. By demonstrating these environmental and economic connections, students are shown the concrete causes and effects of globalization. In a similar vein, Edward Dallam Melillo’s Strangers on Familiar Soil (2015) determines how parallel environmental conditions in Chile and California created deep cultural and agricultural connections between these distant regions. Melillo’s book can challenge students to rethink their assumptions about borderlands and how those boundaries do not necessarily have to be physically connecting to shape environmental systems. For example, his discussion of nitrate, a chemical mined in Chile and utilized in California’s agriculture, displays how the desire for this commodity influenced labor structures in both places. Studying the environmental links between the United States and Mexico, Tore Olsson’s Agrarian Crossings(2017) discusses how institutional efforts to reshape the US and Mexican countryside in the early twentieth century had wider consequences for North America’s agricultural development. All of these works showcase the critical role agriculture played in the development of global relations in the western hemisphere. Professors interested in demonstrating the interplay between the environment and the growth of capitalism or discussing diplomatic forces on a transnational level will find rural history to be a strong resource.
Other scholars from a variety of directions have also shown how actions in rural spaces have widespread consequences for the rest of the nation. Susanne Freidberg’s Fresh: A Perishable History (2010) outlines the conception of “freshness” in society, showing how different ideas of health, food, and technology, along with a growing conceptual divide between urban and rural, fundamentally changed the way people viewed food production and consumption. Freidberg’s book is an excellent example of how rural and urban society interact and influence social perception food and health. Its emphasis on changing cultural conceptions of freshness can demonstrate how fluid culture and society actually are and the ways technology influences changing cultural ideas. While Fresh centers on food, other recent works emphasize the wider political ramifications of rural political agency on the rest of the nation. Charles Postel’s The Populist Vision(2007) challenges the dominant narrative of the American Populist Movement. Instead of describing the Populist as reactionaries angered by a changing economic system, Postel argues that this group actually envisioned a reformed society that met the needs of everyone. His chronicle of this thoroughly modern group of progressives is a tool for teaching new perspectives on old subjects. Finally, Shane Hamilton and his various works on food, policy, and politics also underscore how rural people influenced America’s political and economic development since the Second World War. His book Trucking Country(2008), which connects the advent of free-market conservatism with the development of the rural trucking industry, provides another opportunity to study the rise of new conservative ideology and the culture wars it sparked during the 1980s and 1990s. Hamilton’s monograph can help history instructors present a more complex view of emerging political rhetoric in the twentieth century by demonstrating how political movements can originate from popular unrest among overlooked groups of people. Each of these scholars shows how growing socio-economic pressure on rural communities influenced American consumerism and politics in the twentieth century. They also invite classroom discussion on historical agency and the role all Americans play in changing the nation.
The study of twentieth century history is known for its greater focus on identity and societal interactions on cultural, ideological, and social levels. Historians have recognized complexity in the bonds between peoples, giving voice to those once deemed unimportant, and exploring the diverging methods of various social movements. Yet many scholars fail to extend this understanding of historical intricacy and social change to rural America, lingering in what scholar Colin Johnson calls the “metro-normative gaze.” That is why books that challenge this oversight are so valuable for rural history in the twentieth century and should be further incorporated in our classrooms.
The study of rural identity and place has been one of the most vibrant areas of research in the last decade, with books complicating America’s oversimplified perception of the countryside. Jenny Barker Devine’s On Behalf of the Family Farm (2013) considers the action and ideology of rural women in postwar America within a feminist framework. This challenges students’ basic assumptions about the urban origins of social movements in the mid-twentieth century while also complicating the picture of American feminism. Colin Johnson’s Just Queer Folks (2013) examines gender non-conformity and sexuality in early twentieth-century rural America. Both Johnson’s book and Gabriel Rosenberg’s The 4-H Harvest (2015) discuss how the state attempted to impose rigid conceptions of hetero-normativity on rural spaces. By exposing students to queerness in rural America, these histories reveal a surprisingly complicated version of rural spaces and the ways in which urban outreach has stifled, rather than enlightened, the countryside.
Along with gender and sexuality, other scholars have used the lenses of race, class, ethnicity, borderlands, and migration to investigate rural divisions of labor and life. Both of Cindy Hahamovitch’s books (The Fruits of Their Labor  and the more recent No Man’s Land ) explore the interactions of agricultural institutions, migrant labor, oppression, and power. Each book also sheds light on the hidden costs of America’s modern foodways, asking readers to examine their own role in food production and consumption. These socio-economic costs, both on the human actors and wider labor networks, are also a major theme in Greta de Jong’s You Can’t Eat Freedom(2016), which traces the connections between Black labor displacement and social activism in the South in the postwar period. Both Hahamovitch and de Jong expose how changes in rural spaces shaped the global political economy and socio-cultural experiences of all of those involved. Each one of these works adds much needed nuance to our conceptions of rurality. They all demonstrate a level of complexity of “the rural” that can challenge urban and even rural students to think beyond their basic assumptions and experiences. All offer revisions to a historical narrative that places agency solely in the hands of urban peoples. Ultimately, all of this scholarship can reemphasize to students one aspect of the most transformative change of the twentieth century: the transition from traditional agrarianism to a highly industrial and capitalistic food and fiber system.
On the surface, the rural ideal looks simple: white, male, robustly independent, and virtuous in the vein of the Jeffersonian tradition. This is the image that is often presented to me when I ask my students to describe what a rural person looks like, in spite of the fact they themselves are a diverse group of people who often come from a diverse range of rural spaces.
Yet, this suggestion of homogeneity is a false image. It is true that rural people live in sparsely populated areas and are often involved in the production of commodities, but their other shared characteristics are much more difficult to identify. Such factors as cultural values, community configuration, and the organization of the political economy (not to mention other local features) make finding commonalities across rural people and communities extremely difficult. What makes the study of rural identity so interesting is the process of understanding why we have such a simplistic view of rural life and pulling back the layers of this misperception for students to see. My own students’ understanding from the first time I ask about rurality to the last exhibits a noticeable increase in critical thinking and an understanding of history.
So, to instructors who wish to broaden the scope of their American history classroom I say: go cage-free. What you can explore in an urban setting you can also do in rural areas; what you teach about labor, gender, politics, culture, and environmental history, you can teach about rural history. The history of rural spaces is not just a parallel to events taking place in urban areas. Instead, it is an essential component of understanding our interconnected past and adding to our future.