Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Advocate

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.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Advocate

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.

nelson_blogpost_wilders-on-porch
Wilder and Almanzo (left) posed with neighbors near Mansfield, Missouri, circa 1920. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

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.

Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder

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.

pioneer-girl-perspectives_frontcoverIn 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

 

pgp-cover-art_low-res_150dpi

When Scholars Collaborate: New Book on Rural Women

When Scholars Collaborate: New Book on Rural Women

Linda M. Ambrose, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Canada

lambrose@laurentian.ca

 

ambrose_web

 

There’s a new book about rural women and it’s hot off the press! We are very pleased to announce the release of: Women in Agriculture: Professionalizing Rural Life in North America and Europe, 1880-1965, edited by Linda M. Ambrose and Joan M. Jensen and published by University of Iowa Press, 2017. https://www.uipress.uiowa.edu/books/2017-spring/women-agriculture.htm

 

 

The book consists of ten chapters written by contributors from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. In addition to Ambrose and Jensen, the authors are: Maggie Andrews, University of Worcester; Margreet van der Burg, Wageningen University; Cherisse Jones-Branch, Arkansas State University – Jonesboro; Amy L. McKinney, Northwest College; Anne L. Moore, University of Massachusetts Amherst; Karen Sayer, Leeds Trinity University; and Nicola Verdon, Sheffield Hallam University.

We are very excited to say that this publication is the result of collaborations that were nurtured at the Rural Women’s Studies Conferences and Agricultural History Society meetings over the past few years. The book reflects our ongoing transnational conversations, which have expanded the history of rural women from the United States to other countries, and continues to grow by uncovering previously untold stories and contributing to discussions and debates about feminism in rural settings. The collection advances our understanding of female experts, women’s collective action, and the local responses to advice offered from state and educational authorities. We focus as well on rural women’s greater participation in postsecondary education, paid work, and public roles.

The essays in this volume profile women whose work was embedded in specific national contexts and together they form a collective biography of women who graduated into a world that was not always prepared to welcome them into the public life that professions demanded. It was also a time when various academic social sciences—economics, sociology, and political science—were emerging. Middle-class men were already creating these new disciplines and prescribing more traditional gender roles for these New Women. Professional women contributing to food sciences, commodity production, and community outreach sometimes encountered opposition from men (a resistance we call the “new patriarchy”). At times, however, these women received important assistance from men, especially those who shared a common rural background and an interest in rural life and agricultural production. Given the complexity of this history of women entering rural professions related to food, it is important to explore both practice and policy through a lens that is gendered. Thus, a primary goal of our book is to emphasize the intersection of food studies and gender studies.

The scholarship of these authors forms part of the ongoing conversations within various disciplines of history—agriculture, gender, education, and public policy. By joining these ongoing scholarly discussions to food studies, we introduce new issues not always recognized as crucial to food studies. We framed our book as a discussion of the work done by various rural professionals who made major contributions to food production, food security, and food science. The essays recover untold stories of women who were significant to history in various ways, but most importantly, the collection emphasizes how food studies can be enriched by paying close attention to gender. The volume is listed in the Food Studies and Women’s Studies series from the University of Iowa Press.

A session dedicated to the story behind Women in Agriculture will be held on June 10 as part of the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Agricultural History Society in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The editors, several of the authors, and two reviewers of the book will participate. For details on the AHS program see: http://www.aghistorysociety.org/meetings/

 

“Dear Miss Cushman”: The Dreams of Eva McCoy, 1874

“Dear Miss Cushman”:

The Dreams of Eva McCoy, 1874

Sara Lampert, University of South Dakota

 

As an early republic historian working on the gender history of commercial entertainment, I am always on the lookout for Carrie Meebers, or women and girls who can open up the longstanding trope of the country girl seduced by the city. Carrie Meeber is the heroine of Theodore Dreiser’s turn-of-the-century novel Sister Carrie. This is a quintessentially urban tale: Carrie is awakened to the seductions and possibilities of mass culture and urban life by her explorations of the city. Her rural girlhood and the dreams that brought her from Waukesha to Chicago are dispensed with in the first page as the rural landscape of her Wisconsin childhood rushes by on her train bound for Chicago. These gestures deploy familiar tropes, rural girlhood as ennui. Carrie releases a faint sigh for “the flour mill where her father worked by the day” and the “familiar green environs of the village,” but as then train picks up speed, “the threads which bound her so lightly to her girlhood and home were irretrievably broken.”[1]

ambition3
http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/volpe/theater/theater/ambition3.jpg

 

Dreiser does not give us a chance to spend more time with Carrie in Waukesha, to read her letters with sister Minnie in Chicago, survey the sheet music on her parlor piano or open the chest in which Carrie might have kept press clippings and women’s periodicals and catalogs. How might her rural girlhood have shaped her expectations about the world she would exit into at other end of the train line?

 

3g13410v
Charlotte Cushman.  Half plate daguerreotype, ca. 1855.  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZC4-13410.

 

In Washington D.C. while researching 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman, I briefly stumbled into the world of Eva McCoy, a girl from rural Illinois who penned a piece of fan mail to her idol in 1874.[2] The letter survives today taped into a red bound volume in the Charlotte Cushman Papers in the Library of Congress. It is likely that the letter was received and read by Cushman’s life partner Emma Stebbins, and later saved by Stebbins, who took on the weighty task of managing Cushman’s legacy after the actress’ death from breast cancer in February 1876. The letter was preserved and later mounted, along with miscellaneous fan mail, much of it from the 1870s and much of it from other women.

In 1874, when McCoy wrote to Cushman, she was living in Thomson, Illinois, a town on the Mississippi River that by 1880 counted a population of only 390 people. McCoy painted a portrait of financial depravation matched by frustrated ambition. At only twenty-three, she was “‘alone in the world’ having my own resources to depend upon for existence.” Like Cushman’s other correspondents, McCoy balanced appeals to necessity with testimonial to her passion for the stage. She explained, “Since I was a very little girl, I have been desirous of becoming an actress; however, I have never had an opportunity of becoming educated for the Stage.”

Here was the reason for her letter. McCoy wanted instruction, but not from the “gentlemen…managers of the Stage.” Though she readily admitted to an “adventurous and courageous nature,” McCoy feared for her virtue: “strange men may be ‘hideous monsters’.” Instead, she fantasized about coming to live and study with Cushman. She promised, “I will love you as a darling sister, or a mother,” “be obedient,” and “become your own.” Whether as a “servant or companion,” McCoy only hoped to “sustain a relation” to Cushman in “whatever capacity it may please you to place me.” She enclosed a photo.

McCoy’s desperate and passionate appeal was not unusual. Other women and girls who wrote to Cushman struggled to frame professional desires and naked worship of their celebrity object in a more socially acceptable narrative of economic necessity, often describing poverty and family need. Like McCoy they collapsed the fantasy of student in the role of devoted servant to their desired object. As Cushman’s biographer Lisa Merrill has demonstrated, throughout Cushman’s life and career, women were drawn to her, whether because of her performances and the inspiration and lessons that they read from her life and career. Cushman’s determination to be breadwinner for her widowed mother and siblings was an established feature of her biography, which also shaped her reputation as a true woman who was both virtuous and charitable. Merrill points out, however, that some women may well have read the “code” of female erotic desire in Cushman’s relationship with Stebbins or her performances of male roles like Romeo.[3]

Correspondents like McCoy dreamed that Cushman would be moved to aid them. McCoy’s letter in particular reminds us that Cushman’s publics included girls and women who had never seen her perform, would never see her perform, but for whom Cushman’s celebrity held significance and inspiration.

But was Eva McCoy exactly as she appeared? Was her careful appeal actually a careful manipulation of sympathy or did it conceal an even sadder truth?

McCoy had lived in rural Illinois her entire life. Her parents John Vallette and Clarinda (Walker) Vallette came to DuPage, Illinois from the Northeast in 1839 during a period of rampant land speculation in the Big Woods.[4] Their daughter Evaline was born a decade later, the eldest of three. In 1860, her father was earning a living as a “homeopathic physician” with only $100 to his name owning real estate worth $1000.[5] After serving briefly as a hospital steward with an Illinois regiment toward the end of the war, he seized the opportunity of new settlement made possible by postwar railroad construction.[6]

In 1866, he went into partnership in the dry goods business with the widow of a local physician and druggist. Their new home would be a small village laid out by the Western Union Railroad in a valley on the banks of the Mississippi River at the western edge of the state.[7] The new partnership and move to Thomson was a boon to the family fortunes. In 1870, Vallette boasted a personal estate worth $5000 and $3000 in real estate. The former “homeopathic physician” now titled himself “medical doctor” on the federal census. His son clerked in the family business and his daughter was married to a young lawyer, Daniel McCoy.[8]

The couple had married in November 15, 1865. He was twenty-two, she eighteen.[9] By 1870, Daniel possessed a respectable personal estate of $1000. After 1870, he disappears as does Eva McCoy, though we know that in 1874 she was writing Charlotte Cushman hoping for…something.

Where was Daniel McCoy in 1874? Born in Ohio, he was one of the many Daniel McCoys who served in Illinois regiments in the Civil War. Was he the Daniel McCoy who had served with the 45th Illinois Infantry and died March 18, 1873, laid to rest in Peoria, Illinois?[10] Perhaps he had been mustered out for the very injury that would cause his death eight years later. Perhaps Eva’s loneliness was not that of a widow but of a deserted wife. Most likely he died and she hauled stakes. Though its unlikely she received a reply from Cushman, perhaps writing the letter gave her the courage to leave the comfortable estate her father had built for himself in Thomson and try her luck in Chicago, travelling by the Western Union Railroad, a little bit older and perhaps with a bit more saavy, though less ultimate success, than Sister Carrie Meeber.

 

[1] Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (Penguin Books, 1994), 3.

[2] Eva McCoy to Charlotte Cushman, November 15, 1874, Charlotte Cushman Papers, Library of Congress.

[3] Lisa Merrill, When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and her Circle of Female Spectators (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999).

[4] The History of Carroll County, Illinois (Chicago: H. F. Kett & Co., 1878), 425.

[5] 1860 U.S. census, Wheaton, Du Page, Illinois, page no. 195, dwelling 1451, family 1494, John O. Vallette, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com).

[6] Rufus Blanchard, History of Du Page County, Illinois (Chicago: O.L. Baskin & Co. Historical Publishers, 1882), 121.

[7] History of Carroll County, 365.

[8] 1870 U.S. census, York Township, Carroll, Illinois, page no. 36, dwelling 278, family 278,  John O. Vallette, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com); 1870 U.S. census, York Township, Carroll, Illinois, page no. 34, dwelling 257, family 257, Daniel McCoy, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com).

[9] Illinois State Marriage Records, Illinois Marriage Index 1860-1920 [database online], Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com) based on Illinois State Marriage Records.

[10] Daniel McCoy, Pvt. Co. C, Regt. 47, Illinois Infantry, date of death March 18, 1873, digital image, Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, 1879-1903 [database online], Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com) based on Card Records of Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, ca. 1879-ca. 1903.

Cowgirls and the Discourses of Patriarchy and Feminism in Country/Western Music

 

Editor’s note: In the months leading up to the 2017 “Big Berks” conference (the triennial Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities, which will be hosted by Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, USA, on June 1-4, 2017) , we will be highlighting research on rural women that will be presented at that conference.  This week, we share another abstract from a session focused on rural women, “The Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture,” that will include several members of the Rural Women’s Studies Association.

 

Cowgirls and the Discourses of Patriarchy and Feminism in Country/Western Music

Renee M. Laegreid, University of Wyoming

 

“Cowgirls” emerged on the music scene as singers/songwriters and as the subject of songs by both male and female artists in the mid-1930s. The popularity of western music helped create an image of western women who, despite stepping outside traditional feminine boundaries, retained traditional attitudes toward sexual purity and domesticity. The emergence of Honky Tonk music in the 1950s blurred the distinction between cowgirls and working class women; Western music became increasingly identified as Country, and lyrics featuring cowgirls shifted away from the innocent pleasures of riding across the range to drinking in bars, cheating on spouses, and flaunting sexuality. While some female Country Music artists wrote songs protesting patriarchal attitudes toward women, in the heavily male-dominated music industry, since the 1970s songs about cowgirls have become increasingly fixated on their demimonde world of cowboy bars, beer, and sexual license. The emergence of Western Music Association in 1988 provided a forum for singer/songwriters to counter this stereotypical cowgirl image with songs that speak to the diversity of western women.

danielle_klebanow_photography-12

This lightning session presentation combines music history and theory with gender studies, examining the popularization of country western music in the 1920s, the historical development of this musical genre related to women—more specifically, cowgirls—as the subject of songs, and individual composers whose songs interrogated the evolving discourse over women’s changing roles in society. This presentation addresses a significant gap in western women’s and gender scholarship by connecting the cultural significance of cowgirls with an analysis of country music history.

 

Other presentations as part of the “Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture” session will include:

Gender, Rurality and Imaginary for National and Commercial Purposes

Editor’s note: In the months leading up to the 2017 “Big Berks” conference (the triennial Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities, which will be hosted by Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, USA, on June 1-4, 2017) , we will be highlighting research on rural women that will be presented at that conference.  This week, we share another abstract from a session focused on rural women, “The Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture,” that will include several members of the Rural Women’s Studies Association.

Gender, Rurality and Imaginary for National and Commercial Purposes,

with special emphasis on the Netherlands from 1870s onwards.

 

Dr Margreet van der Burg, Wageningen University

 

My interest for the portrayal of rural life and culture has been awakened by researching the late 19 C worries about the extinction of long lived national cultures in many European countries. Though, the attempts to preserve these cultures as being essential to a nation’s culture, have also reinforced the objectification and stereotyping of rural cultures. They are largely deprived from being part or voice in a dynamic historical process.
In my work so far I showed how this objectification turned into stereotyping and images that were eagerly used for branding and packaging of national pride, national inclusiveness, purity and innocence, cleanliness, harmony – with nature. When showing rural people, esp. in farm sceneries and /or (extended) farm families, the imaginary is often symbolically associated with well-respected virtues such as reliability, and used for both national and commercial purposes. Although some campaigns also focused on gaining the support of rural people, most are symbolically oriented to getting the goodwill of foreign or urban inhabitants who are supposed to value the packaged meanings of rurality without being part of these rural cultures themselves. This applies also to ‘others’ gendered meanings. Ruralism still directly affects rural women and men when encountering urban biased stereotypes in their lives.

In my work I systemized the set of features in rural iconography often used; what mismatches between the actual portrayal and reality seem to be most powerful in various cultural contexts and how their symbolic meanings are culturally connected to the various techniques applied. I am working on identifying various forms and intersecting hierarchies of meaningful misrepresentations and connecting these to how they are exploited in various systematic ways over time. In my contribution I will present this work in progress with illustrations from especially Dutch origin.

 

 Other presentations as part of the “Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture” session will include:

Pioneer Mother Monuments and the All-American Family

Editor’s note: The triennial Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities – will be hosted by Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, USA, on June 1-4, 2017.  In the months leading up to the “Big Berks” conference, we will be highlighting research on rural women that will be presented at that conference.  This week, we share an abstract from a session focused on rural women, “The Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture,” that will include several members of the Rural Women’s Studies Association.

 

Pioneer Mother Monuments and the All-American Family

Cynthia Culver Prescott, University of North Dakota

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Bryant Baker, Pioneer Woman, 1929, Ponca City, Oklahoma

In the early twentieth century, communities throughout the United States erected commemorative monuments to their white forefathers sculpted by prominent artists.  Both scholars and the wider public have largely ignored the numerous monuments commemorating white settlement of the American West that were erected after the supposed closing of the frontier in the 1890s.  Even less scholarly and public attention have focused on postwar monuments to white settlers erected in response to more recent social change.

During the 1920s, changing gender norms, xenophobia, and rural nostalgia combined to produce a common iconography of a sunbonneted white woman carrying white “civilization” westward, armed with either a Bible or rifle.  Despite the growing popularity of cowboys and Indians in film and television, public interest in these “pioneer mothers” declined after World War II.  Centennial celebrations inspired small towns to erect statues by local artists depicting frontier families.  Most western urbanites largely ignored these pioneer monuments in their midst.

manuel-promised-land
David Manuel, The Promised Land, 1993, Portland, Oregon

Yet even as interest in older monuments waned, the New Western History and the rise of heritage tourism collided to inspire a new wave of more varied pioneer monuments beginning in the 1990s.  Assessing public reception of the monuments erected from the 1890s to the present uncovers the ways that Americans used western mythology to enshrine particular notions of white civilization, to define American nationhood, and to grapple with social change.

 

 

Another abstract from the Berks “Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture” session is available here