The Charreada in the U.S.: A National Sport in Another Nation

Editor’s Note: This post is the first in a new series featuring abstracts for past and upcoming conference presentations.  Publishing abstracts on this blog enables us to share ongoing research far beyond the boundaries of the conferences at which these presentations are given.  If you find an abstract interesting, we encourage you to contact the author directly (or email our editor at, and we’ll facilitate a connection).  We hope that you will share your abstracts, too!  


The Charreada in the U.S.: A National Sport in Another Nation

Elyssa Ford, Northwest Missouri State University

Like rodeo in America, the Mexican charreada evolved from ranching skills to a more formal competition. Eventually, both became symbols of their countries. The rodeo in the U.S. is seen as truly and deeply American, and the charreada does the same in Mexico, but for many Mexicans, it goes even further.  The event is a competition, but its real importance lies in the history and culture that imbues it and that is performed there. In this way, the charreada is a symbol of unity for Mexican people. It is the national sport and is closely tied to Mexican pride, self-identity, and citizenship. This identity transcends national boundaries as Mexican-Americans continue to see the charreada as a signifier of culture, heritage, and identity. Rather than participate in the American rodeo, Mexican American riders, especially recent immigrants, continue to ride in the charreada as a way to maintain their connection to Mexico.


This is an abstract that I have worked up and is tied to a chapter in my book manuscript, but I have not yet presented just this focus at a conference.  While this abstract does not specifically mention the rural, the charreada clearly is that because it is tied to rural, ranching roots and is undertaken by people with rural roots.  This is an especially interesting area for future study because the Mexican-American participants in the U.S. generally do not live in rural areas but in urban or urban-adjacent areas.  Likewise, this abstract does not mention the role of women in the charreada, but they find their own and often separate importance and meaning from the charreada than the men involved, but that is a discussion for another post!

New Year, New Way to Contribute

What are you working on?  We want to hear about it!  No time to write a new essay about your ongoing project?  No problem!

Once every three years, the Rural Women’s Studies Association hosts a conference where scholars and grassroots activists come together to learn from one another.  In between our triennial conferences, RWSA members gather at other conferences, such as the American Historical Association, the Agricultural History Society, and the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians.  These conferences are a fantastic way to highlight our research.  Valuable connections grow out of these in-person gatherings.

Unfortunately, conference travel is costly.  This blog grew out of conversations at our last RWSA conference in San Marcos, Texas, about ways that we could build connections among our members in between conferences, and to expand RWSA participation to people who find it difficult to travel to our conferences.  But we’re hearing from many of you that you are too busy doing your important work related to rural women to write about it for our blog.  We heard you, and that’s why we’re introducing a new way to contribute to this blog.  We’ll continue to publish thoughtful essays on rural women.  But we’d also like to feature shorter abstracts of roughly 200-500 words.

Have a new idea you’re wanting to try out?  Share it with us! The blog is a great place to start a conversation.

Submitting a conference paper proposal?  Share your abstract!  Think of it as academic recycling.  With the added benefit that people will get to hear about your work even if they can’t attend that conference.

Send your abstracts and submissions of any length to Cindy Prescott <>.

The Langham Place Feminists and Women Farmers/Farming for Women

The Langham Place Feminists and Women Farmers/Farming for Women

by Karen Sayer

Based on the research of Karen Sayer and Nicola Verdon

Our story begins in the mid-1860s with a paper read by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science in 1866. During the course of the lecture, she read out a letter from Matilda Betham Edwards in which it was argued that well-to-do British women were prevented from investing their money in land because they did not have the vote. Landowners wanted their tenants to exert power in parliament, which was impossible for the un-enfranchised widow or daughter of a farmer:

It is not perhaps sufficiently considered how large a proportion of women occupy and cultivate farms entirely on their own account, nor how sensibly a share in the suffrage would affect their interests. …Farming is a healthful, easy, and natural profession for women who have been brought up in agricultural counties, and have thus been learning it from childhood. Moreover, for holders of capital, it is a tolerably lucrative one. I know many and many a single woman living upon the narrow income derived from a fair property invested in funds, who would gladly hire land instead, and thus obtain a higher interest for her money. It seems to me not a little hard that a woman possessing capital should be deprived of the privileges other capitalists enjoy, but it seems harder still that she should be robbed of her livelihood, simply because an anomalous custom has shut her out from such a privilege. [1]

At that moment, the British public were far more interested in the work of labouring women. They were captured regularly within inflammatory statements such as that by Charles Dickens, who wrote in the first half of 1867 that field work ‘…converts girls into demons…’,[2] which was a typical representation of the women who worked in agriculture at the time. Quick to defend any woman’s right to work, the feminists of Langham Place responded to any and all labouring women’s critics: ‘The demoralisation [of field women] at present is great; but by removing the corrupting element, no further demoralisation need take place. …If deprived of this resource, their condition would be wretched indeed, as there is absolutely no other honest employment open to them.’[3] But, this range of differing statements highlight the need to address what was a dynamic and very complex relationship between class and gender in rural Britain during the second half of the nineteenth century. The changing perception of agricultural work and of farming for women, as discussed by contemporary commentators and the Langham Place Group, provides a particularly useful example of this dynamic in action.


Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, one of the more radical of the (largely-Liberal and Nonconformist) metropolitan Langham Place group’s members, was not directly involved in agriculture, but, as the letter suggested, Matilda Betham Edwards was. Brought up on a farm in Suffolk, when her father died Betham Edwards continued to manage the tenancy with her sister for two to three years, until the property was split up. After losing the farm, she travelled Europe with Bodichon and Betham Edwards became a full time travel writer, journalist and novelist on their return.[4]

The Langham Place feminists were far from being the first to outline the advantages of farming to women. As the Fussells noted back in 1953, the anonymous writer of Farming for Ladies[5] (1844) suggested that women should keep a cow, pigs and poultry in order to enjoy the benefits of the best cream, butter and eggs. This treatise, however, was typical of its kind in that it was aimed at wealthy women more interested in finding a diversion than in the practicalities of running a farm. As the Fussells themselves observed, Farming for Ladies was meant for suburban house-wives who had access to a little ground attached to their (villa) homes and time on their hands.[6] In that text, the work that was traditionally undertaken or managed by the farmer’s wife, was moved to an urban bourgeois setting, idealised and treated as a hobbyist’s accomplishment rather than an economically productive activity. Though it exhorted women to understand enough to ‘superintend’ the work done, Farming for Ladies fell entirely within the bounds of leisured domesticity. The Langham Place group’s approach was quite different; while building on the traditions of women’s farm work, they increasingly saw, and built a case for, agriculture as a suitable and lucrative business for the well-to-do woman.

First of all, in 1866, we can see that the Langham Place feminists had already decided farming was a suitable employment for women. However, as Betham Edwards’ letter makes clear, at this point it was only viewed as an acceptable occupation if the woman concerned had been brought up to it. All of the examples provided in her letter were of widows and daughters like herself who had been left tenancies on farms which they had worked or lived on, and this was relatively common, if awkwardly position in terms of what was deemed respectable ‘femininity’ in Britain at the time.[7] Assuming that the decennial Census data might be taken at least as a minimum figure, there were on average about 22,000 women farming in their own right in England and Wales during most of the nineteenth century, and they continued to number about 9-10% of all adults returned as farmers and graziers in the Censuses until the end of the period. And, in 1861 the Registrar General, George Graham, suggested that these women ‘often [displayed] remarkable talent in the management of large establishments’.[8] If the prizes awarded at agricultural shows are anything to go by, then many of them were demonstrably capable agriculturists.[9] Yet, as one of them wrote in a letter to the Field in 1870, only their male counterparts could join the Royal Agricultural Society of England. Why, she asked, should she be debarred from the benefits of ‘the “Royal”’ simply because she was a woman?[10]

Four years later, The Englishwoman’s Review — founded in 1858 as The English Woman’s Journal[11] — took up and widened the issue. Articles in the Review, like Bodichon’s paper, began by addressing the position of farmers’ widows. It was argued that widows of farmers should be allowed to occupy the farms that they had worked on all their lives, rather than be left at the mercy of sons who might turn them out. Next, they asked why women were not allowed to participate in the meetings held by any of the various local agricultural societies that sprang up from the 1840s to promote scientific farming, though they could and did take part in the agricultural shows held by those same societies. In other words, as it became increasingly clear that farming women suffered discrimination in law and practice, so the Langham Place group determined to support their cause. By 1879 they had moved on to suggesting that agriculture was a profession (a novel understanding in its own right in the UK at the time), and that it might studied as such by any woman of an appropriate social standing, in an article by Jessie Boucherette on ‘Agriculture as an Employment for Women’.[12]

The Langham Place group thus challenged dominant conceptualisations of respectable femininity for rural women throughout the second half of the nineteenth-century, by stretching the boundaries of what they might do to generate an income, regardless of class, and by tackling head-on issues of franchise, property- and land-ownership. As a consequence, they were also among the first British commentators to treat agriculture itself as a profession that might be learned like any other. When feminists like Barbara Bodichon and Matilda Betham Edwards argued, as they did, that women ought to take advantage of the agricultural depression by becoming farmers in their own right, they produced new maps of sisterhood that refigured the gendered relations of the countryside and the relationship of country to city.

[1] Leigh Smith Bodichon, B., ‘Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women’ (a paper read at the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, October 1866) published in Lacey, C.A., op. cit. pp.105-107.

[2] All  the Year Round, A Weekly Journal Conducted by Charles Dickens, with Which is Incorporated Household Words (London) December 1866-June 1867, p.588.

[3]The Englishwoman’s Review of Social and Industrial Questions (Reprinted London, 1980) No. III, April 1867,  p.196

[4]Black, H.C., Notable Women Authors of the Day (London, 1906) pp. 120-130; Todd, J., (ed.) Dictionary of British Women Writers (London, 1989) pp. 62-63; Buck, C., (ed.) Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature (Bloomsbury, 1992) p. 341. Her long standing interest in France and the French was rewarded in 1891 when she was decorated by the French government for her work on rural France.

[5] Probably Farming for Ladies: or, a guide to the poultry-yard, the dairy and piggery. By the author of “British Husbandry, viz. John French Burke, (pp. xviii. 511. J. Murray: London, 1844)

[6] Fussell English Countrywoman, p. 168

[7]Leigh Smith Bodichon ‘Reasons for the Employment of Women’ pp.106-107.

[8] Census for England and Wales for the year 1861, Vol. III, General Report (London 1863) p. 36

[9] The Englishwoman’s Review took to listing and commenting on the prizes awarded women farmers in the 1870s. E.g. ER No. XIV, April 1873, p. 156 ‘First Prize awarded to Mrs Mary Elizabeth Millington’ farming ‘890 acres of light land’ by RASE for best farm.

[10] November 5th Field 1870 cited by Englishwoman’s Review January 1871, No. V, p. 66

[11] This periodical covered most issues connected with women’s rights between 1866 and 1900 through debate, letters and clippings of public opinion.

[12]Women’s Review No. XIV, April 1873, p. 156; No. XVIII, April 1874, pp. 87, 144; No. LII, Aug. 1877, p.376; No. LIII, Sept. 1877, p.426.

Challenging Pioneer Memory

Challenging Pioneer Memory

Cynthia Culver Prescott, University of North Dakota


The June 2015 shooting of nine African-American worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist sparked many calls to retire use of Confederate flags not only in that state but throughout the American South.  Outrage over those killings and well-publicized killings of unarmed black civilians by white police officers galvanized public opinion in many parts of the United States against the display of the Confederate battle flag over the South Carolina state capitol and in the South more generally.   Activists have also worked to remove or relocate Confederate monuments that were erected during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on university campuses and in other public spaces.

Far fewer have protested the West’s 125 monuments celebrating generic white settlers and pioneer mothers.  “Cowboys and Indians” history may be passé, but highly gendered frontier narratives remain powerful.  A few Western communities have challenged monuments to white dominance embodied in pioneer-themed monuments in recent years, but monuments to generic pioneer mothers are still widely revered.  For example, Portland, Oregon, sought to make David Manuel’s 1993 Promised Land statue more inclusive by replacing planned excerpts from actual Oregon Trail diaries on its base with an inclusive-sounding quote of questionable historicity credited to Thomas Jefferson.  Critics attacked the statue as racist and as ugly, but no one publicly questioned its depiction of a strong, forward-looking pioneer father and son, docile mother and deceased daughter.

David Manuel, The Promised Land, bronze, Portland, Oregon, 1993

All pioneer monuments are not created equal.  Although they utilized similar imagery, the specific ways that frontier women and men were depicted in pioneer mother statues varied by artist and audience in important ways.  Moreover, changes in pioneer monument design reflected and helped to reinforce changing American racial and religious identity and gender norms.  In the early twentieth century, Americans erected dozens of statues to commemorate so-called “pioneers” who carried supposed “white civilization” westward.   By the 1920s, western monuments typically featured a sunbonneted “Pioneer Mother” striding westward with a young child, armed with a Bible or rifle.  After World War II, pioneer monuments usually represented a frontier family, emphasizing the role of the patriarch or adolescent son, with the pioneer mother playing a supporting role in the background.    In recent years, a few western communities have erected more inclusive monuments, but many more have erected yet more statues of sunbonneted white “pioneer mothers.”

Each monument’s design and location influences how it is viewed, and by whom.  The placement of a monument has a significant impact on the ways in which it is perceived by its viewers.  A lone white stone pioneer woman standing in an out-of-the-way cemetery in Ellis, Kansas, sends a very different message than a similar statue placed in a prominent location on a college campus quadrangle.  Placing a pioneer woman monument in front of a county courthouse or statehouse suggests a greater political role for women than does one placed in a community park or near a commercial structure.  A monument that stands alone encourages viewers to ponder what it commemorates, while several standing together that utilize similar iconography can reinforce one another, as do the Confederate monuments on Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue.  But placing a monument among other, seemingly unrelated sculptures can strike a discordant note that challenges viewers to ponder its significance (as does the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue), or can encourage the public to approach it as just another piece of public art without commemorative power.  Presumably most people who view David Manuel’s bronze pioneer family in Portland’s Chapman Square view it as just another piece of the city’s public sculpture collection, and do not recognize that The Promised Land and two nearby sculptures – a bronze elk and stone Spanish-American War memorial – all celebrate different aspects of nineteenth-century white conquest.

Charlie Norton, Spirit of the Prairie, bronze, Colby, Kansas, 1985

So should we tear down pioneer monuments?  Push them aside to decrease their visual impact?  Erect interpretive plaques that explain their historical context and intended meaning?  There is no one-size-fits-all solution.  But it is time for us to begin these difficult conversations, so that future generations will learn what happened in the past, and how our memories of the past have changed over time.  That is how we will build a more inclusive future.

This post is drawn from Cindy Prescott’s book, tentatively titled Pioneer Mothers and the All-American Family: Memory in the Making of the Settlers’ West, which is under contract with the University of Oklahoma Press.  To read more about this project, check out this post about her digital research methods, and her website,

Did You Miss Us?

Did You Miss Us?

Did you notice that we missed our last bi-weekly post?  The Rural Women’s Studies blog team works hard to recruit contributions from a wide range of people interested in Rural Women’s Studies.  Unfortunately, it seems that we’re all too busy researching and serving rural women to write about those experiences for this blog.

This semester your humble editor is devoting her sabbatical leave to completing a book manuscript, presenting at three conferences, writing two book reviews, and reviewing two manuscripts.  So please forgive me for being less on top of things than usual.

We hope to be back to our regularly scheduled programming soon.  To make that happen, NOW is the time for you to send us that article abstract, conference paper, or other project.  Encourage your neighborhood activists and graduate students to share what they’re up to, too.  We look forward to hearing from you!


Awards and Prizes for Rural Women’s Studies

Awards and Prizes for Rural Women’s Studies


All too often, Rural Women’s Studies are marginalized within more established disciplines and research areas.  Women’s Studies and gender history organizations focus on urban women.  Rural history groups focus on men.  This blog is just one of the ways that the Rural Women’s Studies Association and its members seek to promote the study of and activism serving rural women.  RWSA’s triennial conferences raise the visibility of our field, as do scholars who present on rural women at other conferences.  Another great way to raise the visibility of rural women’s studies is to apply for relevant awards and prizes.

Today we share a few awards that may be of interest to scholars of Rural Women’s Studies.  Help us to build this list!  Please share relevant prize announcements by commenting on this post, or share them on our Facebook page or our Twitter feed @RuralWomenSA.  Did you win an award or get your research published?  Let us know, so that we can celebrate with you and help spread the word about the great work being done in Rural Women’s Studies.


Western Association of Women Historians Awards:

Gita Chaudhuri Prize

The Gita Chaudhuri Prize is an annual prize that recognizes the best monograph about the history of women in rural environments, from any era and any place in the world, published by a WAWH member.

A rural community is defined by a group of people who:

  • live in a given geographical area with its own natural resources serving as a major bedrock support to produce agricultural crops and food products (grains, meat, fish, poultry, egg honey etc.),
  • may make profits from surplus goods taken to markets, which may include making handicraft works (potteries, needleworks, quilts, paintings on a canvas etc.) as marketable commodities.

The committee is especially interested in projects that include rural women who:

  • create local employment opportunities for others,
  • service others within the community for maintaining daily lives,
  • build a prosperous future for themselves and their children while raising their families, and
  • work in small or large ways for the well-being of the community members while advancing in their own lives

Read more about the Gita Chaudhuri Prize and see a list of previous recipients here.

Founders’ Dissertation Fellowship

The Founders’ Dissertation Fellowship is an annual award to graduate students who show promise of significant contributions to historical scholarship. Funds from these Awards may be used for purposes directly or indirectly related to the dissertation, such as expenses for research, attendance of scholarly conferences, and the preparation of the dissertation.

Read more about the Founders Dissertation Fellowship and a see a list of previous recipients here.



Southern Association for Women Historians Awards:

Julia Cherry Spruill PrizeThe Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for $750 is awarded for the best published book in southern women’s history. Only monographs are eligible.

Willie Lee Rose Prize:  The Willie Lee Rose Prize of $750 is awarded for the best book in southern history authored by a woman (or women). Only monographs are eligible.

Elizabeth Taylor PrizeThe A. Elizabeth Taylor Prize is awarded annually for the best article published during the preceding year in the field of southern women’s history. Editors, scholars, and authors are invited to nominate eligible articles for the prize.

Anne Firor Scott Mid-Career Fellowship: This fellowship is awarded every two years and provides assistance to scholars who are past the first stage of their careers, and are working on a second book or equivalent project in southern and/or gender history. The next award year is 2016.


Coalition for Western Women’s History / Western History Association Awards:

Armitage-Jameson Prize
The Armitage-Jameson Prize, first given in 2010, is awarded to the most outstanding monograph or edited volume published in western women’s and gender history. The Prize is named in honor of Dr. Susan Armitage and Dr. Elizabeth Jameson for their pioneering work in the field of western women’s history.

Irene Ledesma Prize
The Irene Ledesma Prize is a cash award of $1000 for graduate student research in gender and western women’s history. The Irene Ledesma Prize is named in honor of Dr. Ledesma’s important contributions to the fields of Chicana and working-class history.

Jensen-Miller Award

$500 Annual award for the best article in the field of women and gender in the North American West



Coordinating Council for Women in History Awards:

Catherine Prelinger Award – a $20,000 award to a scholar whose career has not followed a traditional path through secondary and higher education and whose work has contributed to women in the historical profession. Read more…

Ida B. Wells Graduate Student Fellowship – a $1000  annual award given to a graduate student working on a historical dissertation that interrogates race and gender, not necessarily in a history department. Read more…

CCWH/Berks Graduate Student Fellowship – a $1,000 award to a graduate student completing a dissertation in a history department. Read more…

Joan Kelly Memorial Prize – a $1,000 annual award for the book in women’s history and/or feminist theory that best reflects the high intellectual and scholarly ideals exemplified by the life and work of Joan Kelly. (1928-1982). Read more…



Agricultural History Society Awards:

Theodore Saloutos Memorial Award for the best book on agricultural history.

Henry A. Wallace Award for the best book on any aspect (broadly interpreted) of agricultural history outside the United States.

Everett E. Edwards Award for the best article submitted to Agricultural History by a graduate student.

Vernon Carstensen Memorial Award for the best article in Agricultural History.

Wayne D. Rasmussen Award for the best article on agricultural history not published in Agricultural History.

National History Day History of Agriculture and Rural Life Award.

The society established the History of Agriculture and Rural Life Award to raise awareness of agricultural and rural history among secondary school students interested in history. Projects in any of the National History Day categories are eligible, including papers, dramatic presentations, media presentations, and exhibits, both by individuals and groups at either the Senior or Junior levels. The prize is awarded in June at the campus of the University of Maryland during the awards ceremony of the National History Day Contest. In addition to two hundred dollars, students receive certificates of their achievement and a complimentary copy of the issue of the Society’s journal, Agricultural History, announcing the winner of the award.



National Women’s Studies Association:

Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Prize
The prize includes $1,000 and recognition for groundbreaking monographs in women’s studies that makes significant multicultural feminist contributions to women of color/transnational scholarship.

Learn more about the prize.

Sara A. Whaley Book Prize
Thanks to a generous bequest from Sara A. Whaley, NWSA will offer two $2,000 Sara A. Whaley book awards on the topic of women and labor. This prize honors Sara Whaley, who owned Rush Publishing and was the editor of Women’s Studies Abstracts. Each year NWSA will award up to 2 book awards for monographs that address women and labor.

Learn more about the prize.

NWSA-University of Illinois Press First Book Prize
The National Women’s Studies Association and the University of Illinois Press are pleased to announce a new competition for the best dissertation or first book manuscript by a single author in the field of women’s and gender studies. Applicants must be National Women’s Studies Association members. We welcome nonfiction manuscripts that exemplify cutting-edge intersectional feminist scholarship, whether the area of focus is historical or contemporary. The competition is open to scholars from all disciplinary backgrounds, but we especially encourage work that speaks effectively across disciplines, and projects that offer new perspectives on concerns central to the field of women’s and gender studies.

NWSA and the University of Illinois Press are pleased to offer a $1,000 advance to the winner.

Application details.
NWSA Graduate Scholarship
NWSA will award $1,000 to a student who, in the fall of the year of the award, will be engaged in the research or writing stages of a Master’s Thesis or Ph.D. Dissertation in the interdisciplinary field of women’s studies. The research project must enhance the NWSA mission. This opportunity is open to current NWSA individual members. (online application preview here)

Lesbian Caucus Award
The purpose of the annual NWSA Lesbian Caucus Award is to provide a $500 research award in recognition of a Master’s Thesis or Doctoral Dissertation research project in areas of Lesbian, Queer, and LGBT Studies that resonates with the mission of NWSA.

NWSA Women of Color Caucus-Frontiers Student Essay Award

The purpose of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) Women of Color Caucus-Frontiers Student Essay Awards is to discover, encourage, and promote the intellectual development of emerging scholars who engage in critical theoretical discussions and/or analyses about feminist/womanist issues concerning women and girls of color in the United States and the diaspora.

One (1) $500 award is available for women of color who are current graduate students and members of NWSA.

Prize-winning essays will automatically be considered for publication by Frontiers; all essays are subject to Frontiers peer review process. If winning essays are accepted for publication, additional revisions may be required.



American Studies Association:

Lora Romero First Book Publication Prize

The American Studies Association is delighted to announce the 2016 competition for the Lora Romero First Book Publication Prize. The prize consists of a lifetime membership in the ASA and is awarded every year for the best-published first book in American Studies that highlights the intersections of race with gender, class, sexuality and/or nation.


Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize

The Ralph Henry Gabriel Prize is awarded annually to the best doctoral dissertation in American Studies, American Ethnic Studies or American Women’s Studies. The prize honors Ralph Henry Gabriel, Professor Emeritus at Yale University, and a founder and past president of the American Studies Association.



Home and Happenstance: How Chance Encounters in the Archive Can Become Sources of Invention

Home and Happenstance: How Chance Encounters in the Archive Can Become Sources of Invention

Katie L. Irwin, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


In Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition, editors Alexis E. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo interject among the chapters that offer specific archival research strategies stories of “serendipity in the archives.” In these short narratives, scholars reflect on their unexpected archival moments and how “the role of chance” can shape one’s research.[1] Following their example, this post shares my own serendipitous journey of stumbling onto my dissertation topic – and my family – in an archive.

In the Spring 2012 semester, I was taking an Art History graduate seminar and was researching illustrations of farm women that appeared on the cover of The Farmer’s Wife magazine during the early 1930s. Thanks to my university’s library, which made available the full run of the magazine through its Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection, I had an enormous corpus to sort through. I was drawn to the 1930s in particular because the cover art didn’t match, or even slightly mimic, the photographic evidence that visually defined what American life was like for millions of people during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

To understand this discrepancy, I needed to develop a sense of how women had been photographed during this time. I thought of Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph of migrant farmer Florence Thompson and her three children from their time at a California pea picker’s camp in 1936. Knowing that Thompson worked for the Farm Security Administration, I headed to the Library of Congress’s digital collection of FSA/Office of War Information files. I was curious to see if any photos from my hometown were included, so I narrowed my search and navigated to the Charles County catalogue within the Maryland record. While reading through the names of image files, I saw a name that I knew well: Hardesty, which is my grandmother’s maiden name. Sure enough, my next click opened a photo that made me gasp because the woman pictured looked just like my mother:

John Collier, photographer. County supervisor talking over home plan with the Hardesty family resting on removed well top. Charles County, Maryland. July, 1941. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed August 22, 2016.)

The woman in this photograph is Esther Hardesty, my great-grandmother. Her husband, John, is beside her, and two of their four children join them at their removed well top while a county supervisor explains the new water system for their tobacco farm. Once the initial shock had settled, I started poring over the other 27 photos contained in the “Hardesty Well Project” collection. Their captions revealed that FSA photographer John Collier visited the Hardesty farm in July 1941 to document a new well installation; as he photographed this project, Collier also took a few photographs of my then-eight year old grandmother, Joyce, and her three young brothers. I had only seen one of these photographs before, and I didn’t know the others existed, let alone were available through the Library of Congress. Yet the photograph that I could not turn away from was one that pictured my great-grandmother sitting on her porch with her husband, a health officer, the supervisor of home economics, and a county supervisor surrounding her from all sides.

John Collier, photographer. Health officer, county supervisor and supervisor of home economics discuss home plan with the Hardesty family. Charles County, Maryland. July, 1941. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed August 22, 2016.)

At first, it was the symmetry that grabbed me – how the four figures visually echoed one another in both posture and gaze as they turned to the sitting Hardesty. Their framing appeared almost too perfect, which Nan Johnson noted when she mentioned that the photo looked like a tableau during my talk at the 2015 Feminisms and Rhetorics conference. As I lingered with the photo, its composition raised questions specific to the scene: What was my great-grandmother thinking as these people surrounded her? How did she view the agents’ arrival at the family farm and their instruction about water management? Did she have a conversation with them or perhaps question what they advised, or did she accept the knowledge they brought into her world?

My training in visual communication led me to other interpretations. When I teach Visual Politics, an upper-level Communication course that explores the role of the image in shaping public life, my students and I spend the semester reading photographs and other modes of visuality (like public memorials and embodied performances). We situate those visuals in their unique historical, social, political, and ideological contexts to understand their effects, both in the short-term and across time and space. Just as I challenge my students to interpret in multiple ways the subjects of our consideration, my critical sensibilities invited me to read Collier’s image with the same spirit. On the one hand, it looked like everyone was turning to Hardesty for her acceptance or approval. Read this way, the photo communicates the notion that she was, at least in this instance, the decision-maker; she had power. Yet I also saw the opposite: everyone was telling her what to do. Read this way, it seemed like Hardesty was denied the opportunity to make judgments about issues significant to her and her family’s wellbeing.

Of course, rural women’s lives and labor are never as black-and-white as these photographs. As I recently learned, the agents were turning to my great-grandmother because she could read the information, whereas her husband could not.[2] Her literacy, I’ve realized, signified a claim to power within the complicated matrix of gender in rural culture. Her labors of literacy included keeping the family’s records, managing account books, and submitting recipes to local papers for prize money to supplement the family income. In 1987, Hardesty spoke with John Wearmouth as part of the Southern Maryland Studies Center’s Oral History Collection project. During their conversation, Wearmouth was noticeably fascinated at my great-grandmother’s account books. “Lots of people did these things,” he said about the innovative practices that earned extra money. “The difference is you kept track of it.” Hardesty, who had earlier noted that she always enjoyed math in school, replied: “I just made up my mind I was going to do it.”[3]

I didn’t know it then, but my research trajectory changed that day in 2012 when I happened upon Collier’s photos of my family. I read histories of rural life and rural change. I became fascinated with President Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission and its task of visiting rural people and learning about their problems so that it could recommend how to improve rural life. I found inspiration in Charlotte Perkins Gilman when, in a January 1909 Good Housekeeping article, she questioned of Roosevelt’s all-male assemblage: “Why are there no women on this commission?”[4] I came to see my great-grandparents’ well demonstration project as an echo of the Smith-Lever Act and earlier agricultural extension and home demonstration programs.

I’m now writing my Ph.D. dissertation about U.S. rural women from the 1920s and how their words and practices sustained, challenged, complicated, and redefined popular perceptions of rural womanhood and rural life during an era of change. I’m analyzing a broad range of materials including farm women’s letters, magazine articles, photographs, advertisements, conference proceedings, speeches and other public statements, home demonstration reports, and rural women’s club materials. My goal is to understand how these materials constituted various forms of agency within rural women’s lived experiences. Now, I see that Collier’s photo of my great-grandmother sitting on her farm porch with the agents around her organizes the research questions I’m asking in my project: Whose knowledges, experiences, and worldviews matter when rural culture is viewed as requiring assistance? How did home and field technologies influence how rural women talked about power and choice in their everyday experiences? In what ways did women’s interactions with authorities shape women’s possibilities for public expression? What types of appeals did white and African American women make as they negotiated raced, classed, and gendered perceptions of rural womanhood?

While visiting my family in Maryland this July, I had the opportunity to sit down with my grandmother to talk about her memories from Collier’s visit, the well project, and her life on the farm more generally.

Katie Irwin, photographer. Joyce Cooksey, daughter of Esther Hardesty, discusses Collier’s visit to the Hardesty farm. July 26, 2016. La Plata, Maryland.

As we pored through her mother’s materials that she has collected and preserved over the years, I realized the wonderful irony that has settled over my research. My archival trips have taken me to the Iowa Women’s Archives, the Minnesota Historical Society, and soon, to North Carolina State University’s Special Collections. I’m also incorporating primary sources from the University of Illinois Archives, the University of Iowa Special Collections, and Cornell University’s Rare and Manuscript Collections.[5] Yet despite all of these travels and amazing resources, I never would have imagined that the archive I would come to find most enriching is the one in my grandmother’s house.


Katie L. Irwin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is the Nina Baym Dissertation Completion Fellow for 2016-17. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Rhetoric Society of America. You can reach her at, and you can find her on Twitter at @katieirwin.

[1] See Lori Ostergaard, “Open to the Possibilities: Seven Tales of Serendipity in the Archives,” in Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition, ed. Alexis E. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), 40-41.

[2] Joyce Cooksey, interview with the author, July 26, 2016.

[3] Esther L. Hardesty, interview by John Wearmouth, February 18, 1987, La Plata, Maryland. Courtesy, Southern Maryland Studies Center, College of Southern Maryland, SMSC Oral History Collection.

[4] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “That Rural Home Inquiry,” Good Housekeeping, January 1909, 120.

[5] A special thank you to Chris Skurka for helping with the Cornell materials.