It can often be challenging to identify and access archival collections and artifacts related to rural women and men. All too often, materials related to rural people have been lost because later generations failed to recognize their value. Yet many valuable collections remain undiscovered by researchers because they are held by county or local museums whose small staff and budget limit their ability to publicize and provide access to their holdings. We are excited to share Museums of Minnesota, a new blog initiative hosted by H-Midwest, which is part of the H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.
At Museums of Minnesota, a variety of local historical institutions have posted entries highlighting particularly exciting archival collections and artifacts from their collections, many of which relate to rural people. For example, check out the image reproduced below in which two young men in a rural setting pose in fancy women’s hats. We encourage our readers to read these blogs and visit the websites and collections of these local Minnesota archives and museums. We hope you’ll tell us about your own favorite collections related to rural women!
Upon completing my coursework for a master’s degree in history, I moved back to the family farm to finish researching and to write my thesis. Moving back home with one’s parents while completing a degree is not so unusual. That summer, however, I also had a job on the farm: hired girl. (And, that was official job title I typed on the W-2 form.) My duties included: cooking when my mother was gone, moving machinery to and from the fields, running errands, canning, and helping out as needed. The cooking would be significant because at the time my mother served as chairwoman of the Farm Bureau Women’s Committee and, as such, was also a member of the North Dakota Farm Bureau Board of Directors. She traveled for meetings and special events, and when she was gone I did the cooking. Quite frankly, there were days when I made almost no progress writing that summer because I was busy cooking, getting lunch ready, and then canning. As a hired girl, I continued a long work tradition in Norwegian America that also hearkened back to Norway. The type of labor, though, differed historically in the two countries.
In Norway, most women in rural areas spent a portion of their youth working as servants on farms. The farm buildings and barns were clearly the domain of women. This meant women milked cows, mucked out the barns, raked and stacked hay on the hesje (a special fence to dry hay), and fed and watered the typically shedded livestock, among other duties. Seasonally, women might plant and harvest crops, although this varied regionally. On larger farms, some young women were hired to provide domestic labor in the house. The farmwoman oversaw these household and barnyard activities. Of the servants, the budeie (or dairymaid) was the most important on the farm. She spent her summers at the high mountain pasture (sæter) milking cows and goats and processing the milk into butter and cheese, which were crucial for the farm economy; she milked cows and did barn chores the rest of the year. The dairymaid performed gendered labor, and men rarely served in that role. The farm labor of female servants was crucial for the success of Norwegian farms. 
When Norwegian immigrants arrived in the United States in large numbers after the American Civil War, they encountered a very different system of agricultural production undergoing labor changes. Increasingly, as historian Joan Jensen has noted, by the mid-nineteenth century men took over milking responsibilities on American farms in states like Pennsylvania.  For young Norwegian immigrant women who hired out, they may or may not have continued the gendered labor practice from Norway of female milkers. Hired girls, especially those who worked for Americans, often worked in the house and not in the barn. Bertina Serina Kingestad hired out to an American farmer in Illinois in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and she appreciated the fact that she no longer milked cows or mucked out barns.  Other Norwegian American hired girls continued to milk cows. Young women might also move regularly in search of employment.
Harvest was a particularly busy season that required additional labor on farms. As a young, unmarried woman, American-born Anna Billet Monson provided domestic labor on the North Dakota farm owned by her half-sister and brother-in-law in the mid-1910s. The image below shows Anna Billet Monson and the male threshing crew that included her brother-in-law and his father (my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather), as well as men from their Norwegian American community. The photograph encapsulates significant differences between hiring out in Norway and the United States. Monson’s role as the hired girl focused on home and hearth, although her American-born half-sister did continue to milk the cows.
The tradition of girls and young women hiring out in Norwegian America continued long after the Department of Agriculture declared the day of the hired girl had “pass[ed”] in 1920. Indeed, my paternal grandmother appears in the 1930 census as a servant on the farm of her future husband. My grandmother’s experience was quite common for Norwegian American farm girls in the 1930s and 1940s.  Girls and young women hired out in Norway and in Norwegian America, albeit working in agricultural systems that often differed. In both, these hired girls helped make agriculture successful.
See this previous post for a discussion of gender in contemporary Norwegian farming.
 For Norwegian agriculture see, Reidar Almås, ed., Norwegian Agricultural History (Trondheim, Norway: Tapir Academic Press, 2004); Brit Berggreen, “Idealmønstre og realmønstre: Kryssing av Kjønnsrollegrenser i norsk bondekultur ca 1850-1920″ (Ph.D. diss., University of Oslo, 1990); Brynjulv Gjerdåker, “Continuity and modernity 1815-1920,” in Norwegian Agricultural History, 236-295; Jon Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers: The Migration from Balestrand, Norway, to the Upper Middle West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Øyvind Østerud, Agrarian Structure and Peasant Politics in Scandinavia: A Comparative Study of Rural Response to Economic Change (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1978); and Eilert Sundt, Sexual Customs in Rural Norway: A Nineteenth-Century Study, trans. and ed. Odin W. Anderson (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1993).
 Joan M. Jensen, Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 93. For Norwegian American agriculture, see Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers.
 Lori Ann Lahlum, “Women, Work, and Community in Rural Norwegian America, 1840-1920, 90-92, in Norwegian American Women: Migration, Communities, and Identities, eds. Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011).
 Florence E. Ward, “The Farm Woman’s Problems,” United States Department of Agriculture Department Circular 148 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1920), 10; Anna Anderson, 1930 roll census for Norma Township, Barnes County, North Dakota.
I finally carved out time to read Anne F. Hyde’s masterful Empires, Nations and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860. Once I picked up Hyde’s 650-page volume, I had trouble putting it down. Winner of the prestigious 2012 Bancroft Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History, Hyde’s 2011 book is part of a University of Nebraska Press series that reassesses the field of United States Western history. Hyde brings together the latest scholarship in ethnohistory, colonialism and settler colonialism into a wide-ranging yet highly engaging narrative of the trans-Mississippi West. By tracing the networks built by prominent interethnic families engaged in the fur trade, Hyde makes sense out of the seeming disorder of global economies and geopolitics. She guides her reader through the complex and often messy world of hunters, merchants, and politicians from St. Louis to San Francisco, from Fort Vancouver to Santa Fe, and from the Great Lakes to the Arkansas Valley.
By focusing on a few prominent families, such as the Chouteaus in Missouri, McLoughlins in Oregon, Vallejos in California, and others – such as Stephen Austin and Kit Carson who seemed to be everywhere at once, Anne Hyde brings to life the complexities and contingencies of fur trade and frontier life. Hyde’s narrative provides a culturally complex picture because she focuses on the interethnic family networks that these “great men” built in places that became known as the American West. She painstakingly reconstructs these Euro-American men’s marriages and informal unions with French, Anglo-American, and Native women from many different Indigenous nations, and their resulting children and broader kinship networks. Perhaps even more clearly than the rich scholarship of the fur trade, Hyde demonstrates the centrality of these interethnic family relationships to the history and culture of the region. Native women provided needed labor and cultural knowledge, and offered entrée into Native cultures. White traders survived and even thrived largely because of their relationships with Native women. And, as Hyde makes equally clear, many of them struggled to maintain or abandoned those familial ties in the 1850s and 1860s as American racial understandings hardened around fixed categories. In memory, a Catholic Canadian of Scottish and French descent could become the white American “Father of Oregon,” but his Cree and French Canadian wife could not become the “Mother of Oregon” (and John McLoughlin’s Ojibwe first wife gets forgotten altogether).
Yet as Hyde admits in her introduction, “[m]uch of what I describe is really an updated version of ‘great man’ history” (Ecco 2012 ed., p. 21). Rich collections of correspondence among Euro-American businessmen reveal their thoughts and actions and, in some cases, their ethnically mixed sons. While their Native and mixed race wives and daughters contributed greatly to the overall success of their undertakings, these women’s experiences and perspectives remain frustratingly unclear if not completely invisible. Hyde does an admirable job of attempting to recreate these women’s experiences, but too much of what we would like to know about them is simply not in the written records. The lives and thoughts of these fur trade women – like those of Native men and women throughout the region who did not marry prominent white traders – receive little attention in the available written sources.
Uncovering the history of rural women is extremely challenging due to their dual invisibility as both rural people and as women. Studying them is challenging because rural people and women often failed to leave much written record. Moreover, these groups were long disregarded by scholars, archivists, and even their own descendants, so what records they did create have been lost to us. All of these challenges are exaggerated in regard to women of color, who were even less likely to be literate and their experiences less likely to have been recorded and preserved. And while many Indigenous cultures valued women’s contributions and granted women authority in ways that white society did not in the early nineteenth century, those traditions tended to be oral rather than written, and had very different conceptions of time than did the Euro-American culture out of which the historical profession developed.
Important work has been done uncovering the contributions of Native and mixed-heritage women in the fur trade, particularly in the Great Lakes region and eastern Canada. Those scholars’ innovative methods could be applied to other regions and cultural contexts. Much more research is needed to uncover nineteenth-century Native women’s lives. At the same time, much more work should also be done to preserve contemporary Indigenous women’s voices throughout the American West and around the world.
Anne Hyde gives us a sweeping yet intimate narrative of the worlds that Euro-American traders and Native peoples built in the early-nineteenth-century West. It should also serve as a call to arms to delve deeper into researching, documenting and preserving Native women’s voices both past and present.
In our previous post, we highlighted an exciting new volume from the South Dakota Historical Society Press, Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal (2017). In this post, we highlight an essay that appears in that volume that we think will be of particular interest to our readers, regarding Laura Ingalls Wilder as an advocate for farm women and farming.
Paula Nelson, University of Wisconsin in Platteville
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books immortalized her family’s efforts to build homes and farms on the nineteenth-century frontiers of Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota. In my small town in southern Minnesota, my grade-school teachers read to us from Wilder’s novels almost every day after recess. Her words changed my life. She described the beauty of the prairies, from the tiniest flowers to sweeping vistas and enormous skies. Her words and appreciation of place helped me articulate my love of the grasslands. Wilder’s reflections on family, memory, and time (along with its passing) laid the foundation of my personal principles for the study of history: individuals matter; everyone has a story to tell; human nature, personal history and experience, and circumstance profoundly shape the lives of everyone.
Laura Ingalls Wilder began her writing career as a farm columnist long before she became a novelist. Laura and Almanzo settled in the Missouri Ozarks in 1894 and lived on their Rocky Ridge Farm until their deaths. Laura was known regionally as a successful chicken farmer. In 1911, the editor of the Missouri Ruralist read her paper on chickens and promptly offered her a job as columnist for the publication. Laura began a long career as an ardent advocate for farm women, their families, and farming as a way of life and a calling.
Wilder wrote her columns during a time of crisis and rapid change. World War I, woman suffrage, the changing roles of women, rapid industrial change, mass migration from the countryside into the big cities, automobiles, radio, mass advertising, and the birth of consumer culture—all posed challenges to traditional ways for farmers and their families. Wilder wrote as a steadying force for her farm audience. She believed that farm wives had the opportunity, more so than in any other occupation, to be full partners in the enterprise, as she and Almanzo were. Some of her ideas might surprise her modern fans. She saw suffrage for women as an obligation rather than a right and opposed it. She feared the impact of the vote, and of politics generally, on women’s most important role, rearing the next generation of children to be good, productive citizens. Wilder did not share the suffragists’ belief that women voting would bring wonderful social reforms. In her opinion, women were not a class apart but instead were individuals who would vote according to their personal inclinations. When suffrage became law, however, she urged women to do their duty and vote.
Wilder’s columns in the Ruralist resonated with her love of the farm. Love of nature, the changing seasons, the birth of livestock, birds, flowers, the rhythms and rituals of farm work animated her days. Even as the mass movement from farms to cities continued, Wilder extolled the beauty in nature to remind women that their most important and primary duty to their communities and the nation was raising the next generation of farmers and citizens.
Wilder’s vision of farm life continues to be a lodestone for me. Since first hearing a Little House novel, I have frequently dreamed of being a farmer in Wilder’s time.
Cross-posted by permission of Paula Nelson and the South Dakota Historical Society Press.
To celebrate the 150th birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder in 2017, the Pioneer Girl Project of the South Dakota State Historical Society has released a new book on the writer’s legacy.
In 2014, the South Dakota Historical Society Press released Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, which became a national bestseller. The new book, Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder takes a serious look at Wilder’s working life and at circumstances that developed her points of view. This rich source book from these Wilder scholars from across North America also explores, among other topics, the interplay of folklore in the Little House novels, women’s place on the American frontier, Rose Wilder Lane’s writing career, the strange episode of the Benders in Kansas, Wilder’s midwestern identity, and society’s ideas of childhood.
The book’s contents include:
“Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder,” an Introduction by editor Nancy Tystad Koupal
“Speech for the Detroit Book Fair, 1937,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder
“The Strange Case of the Bloody Benders: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and Yellow Journalism,” by Caroline Fraser
“‘Raise a Loud Yell’: Rose Wilder Lane, Working Writer,” by Amy Mattson Lauters
“Pioneer Girl: Its Roundabout Path into Print,” by William Anderson
“Little Myths on the Prairie,” by Michael Patrick Hearn
“Her Stories Take You with Her: The Lasting Appeal of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” an interview with Noel Silverman
“Laura Ingalls Wilder as a Midwestern Pioneer Girl,” by John E. Miller
“Women’s Place: Family, Home, and Farm,” by Paula M. Nelson
“Fairy Tale, Folklore, and the Little House in the Deep Dark Woods,” by Sallie Ketcham
“The Myth of Happy Childhood (and Other Myths about Frontiers, Families, and Growing Up),” by Elizabeth Jameson
“Frontier Families and the Little House Where Nobody Dies,” by Ann Romines
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/
We’re highlighting panels of interest at the upcoming Seventeenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities to be held June 1-4, 2017, at Hostra University in Hempstead, New York, USA. While these panels do not necessarily bill themselves as being about rural women, all of those we’ve chosen to highlight will examine issues of rurality in significant ways.
Berks Panels of Interest, Part V
s1093 – American Empire through the Eyes of Indigenous Women: Paradigms, Sources and Challenges
This interdisciplinary session explores the creation of a useable past for activists and historians that embraces both indigenous and imperial women in territories dominated by the United States, 1898-2000. Its three case studies are also offered as paradigms for the study of women in modern empires comparatively and globally considered. Focusing on examples of indigenous women’s responses to American imperial power since 1898—in North America, the Philippines and Central America–the papers address questions designed to help us analyze and understand the options that indigenous women chose in their interactions with imperial coercion. Our commentator will compare those options.
The papers ask:
How did Native traditions of women’s leadership promote the survival of Native people in North America, 1900-2000? by Laurie Arnold of Gonzaga University;
How did the adoption of women’s rights agendas by Philippine women enable them simultaneously to support and oppose American colonization, 1898-1930? by Febe Pamonag of Western Illinois University;
How did Mayan women’s participation in resistance movements in Guatemala limit American colonization, 1960-2000? by Rachel O’Donnell of York University, Toronto.
Using indigenous language sources, the papers explore patterns of cultural revival, assimilation and resistance. Each pattern was present to some degree in all the cases, but each paper helps us understand why one pattern prevailed as indigenous women adopted different strategies in different circumstances.