I recently returned from the annual meeting of the Western History Association in San Diego, California. Held at a resort hotel overlooking the beach and separated by freeways from both Old Town San Diego and southern California’s suburban sprawl, this year’s WHA conference was in an ideal location to examine the boundaries between rural and urban spaces, as my panel sought to do:
Leisure and Living in Wide Open Western Suburban Spaces
In popular imagination, the West is a land of wide open spaces or family farms – in other words, a rural place. Scholarship on the region in the twentieth century emphasizes the urban West. But as the housing subdivisions sprawling from San Diego to Santa Barbara, Phoenix and Las Vegas highlight, a rapidly growing percentage of westerners both live and vacation in suburban spaces. Exploring examples as varied as a Wild West theme park located on an Indian reservation, pioneer statues in New Urbanist exurbs, and tours highlighting ethnic identity in a small college town and labor in North Dakota’s oilfields, this panel explores the intersection of tourism, western mythology, and cultural identity in suburban western spaces. Meeting such diverse individuals as Sunbelt homeseekers, 1930s car camping families, “Occupy Wall Street” protesters, and nudist tourists suggests the range of westerners’ experiences in these places. Taken together, our varied presentations query the boundaries of natural, rural, urban, and suburban spaces, and the complex interrelationships between traveling and living in the twentieth-century West.
Our fantastic panel brought a wide range of disciplinary approaches to this question. Lawrence Culver (History, Utah State University) examined the role of climate in promoting the growth of suburbs and outdoor recreation in southern California. Phoebe Young (History, University of Colorado at Boulder) demonstrated the ways that camping blurs the boundaries between nature and urban development. Sarah Schrank (History, California State University, Long Beach) explored notions of “naturalness” in nudist tourism. I (Cynthia Prescott, History, University of North Dakota) compared uses of cowboy art and local pioneer monuments to create an appearance of historicity in suburban locales. Laura Barraclough (American Studies, Yale University) examined the relocation of a Wild West theme park from a wealthy white suburb to an American Indian reservation outside Phoenix, Arizona. Natchee Barnd (Ethnic Studies and Native American Studies, Oregon State University) shared ethnic studies tours of a college town in Oregon’s richest agricultural region. And Bret Weber (Social Work, University of North Dakota) introduced a tourist guide to industrial production in the rural northern Great Plains.
Taken together, these diverse presentations grappled with notions of race, class, sexuality and nature in diverse places across the American West and throughout the twentieth century. In retrospect, though, I recognize that none of our presentations grappled in any meaningful way with gender. Yet most if not all of these topics are shaped by gendered discourse. “Wild West” imagery is overwhelmingly masculine. North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch was famously populated by “man camps” – and fascination with that single-gender temporary housing helped to motivate the study that produced Weber and William Caraher’s tourist guide. But campgrounds and suburban neighborhoods are conceived of as the natural home of nuclear families. Suburban homes that were once the domain of women as full-time homemakers have become increasingly deserted during the day as married women have entered the workforce in large numbers and leisure time is increasingly devoted to ever-longer commutes and shuttling children to organized sports and other scheduled activities. These changing family structures should be compared to those in both urban and rural places, and could be fruitfully compared to far more static memory of earlier gender and family roles.
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
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.”
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?
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
The couple had married in November 15, 1865. He was twenty-two, she eighteen. 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? 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.
 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).
 Illinois State Marriage Records, Illinois Marriage Index 1860-1920 [database online], Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com) based on Illinois State Marriage Records.
 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.
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.
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: