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!
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/
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.
Something Old, Something New: Merging Historical Research with Modern Concepts of Sharing
Hope Mitchell, Iowa State University
Reading through past RWSA blog posts, I was really intrigued by both Jenny Barker-Devine & Cynthia Prescott’s posts about the ways in which they are taking advantage of new technologies and platforms in order to not only further their research, but also to make it more accessible. After graduating from Iowa State University with my M.A. in History, I knew that a job in academia was not for me. Instead I took a position at Iowa State’s library as their Digital Repository Specialist. This left me plenty of time to pursue my one true passion by night: prostitution, more specifically the study of prostitution in the nineteenth century Midwest. While I love my prostitutes of the past and could talk about them endlessly, this blog post is not actually about prostitution. Instead, it is about ways in which I utilized technological resources provided by our institutional repository to make my research accessible to readers around the world which has ultimately benefited me in ways I never could have imagined.
In my current position as the Digital Repository Specialist at Parks Library, I help faculty members from across campus make their works available through our repository. This entails a lot of reading through copyright transfer agreements, publisher’s policies, negotiating permissions on behalf of our authors and coming up with creative ways to display and share the broad range of scholarly outputs our faculty produce. Additionally, I am also expected to practice what I preach, so when my thesis was digitized and I was sure that I had no immediate plans to publish it, I choose to make it available through the repository. Little did I know that one simple action would open me up to a whole slew of exciting opportunities, both big and small.
Okay, let’s start with the big opportunities. Since making my research available through our repository, I have not only been approached by editors to produce articles for their journals, but also by publishers who are interested in converting parts of my thesis into a larger volume and even a screen writer from Los Angeles who is potentially interested in putting together a documentary about the history of prostitution in Des Moines. Granted, some of these offers most certainly came from vanity publishers, but many of them were legitimate professionals interested in my research. By making my scholarship available through our repository, and with little to no effort on my part, my research was able to reach a broad range of interested parties. As a result, I have just recently submitted the final copy of my manuscript for a book about a historic neighborhood in Des Moines that was once rife with prostitution and am also in the process of putting together an article for the Annals of Iowa. Could I have achieved these successes without our repository? Maybe, but I certainly would have had to work a lot harder to make people aware of my research.
Among the smaller successes I attribute to the access our repository has provided to my research are the countless individuals who have reached out to me with their own personal stories about the ways in which prostitution shaped their families. While these stories are not only interesting and helpful for my future research, they also feel like a major victory. When I began my research on the history of prostitution in Iowa so many people told me that I wasn’t going to find anything because, “we didn’t have [prostitution] in Iowa.” Boy, were they wrong! After sharing my thesis through our repository, I waited for what I assumed would be the inevitable backlash and few months ago it seemed as if it had finally arrived. I received an email from a woman in Oregon with the subject line, “My Ancestor is in your Dissertation…” I braced myself for a serious lashing, assuming that this reader was going to tear me apart for dragging up some old shameful family history. You see, I referenced several court cases in my thesis about a woman named Maggie. During her trail, many concerned citizens complained that Maggie’s brothel was not just a nuisance to the community, but was also a danger to the children she was raising there. One of those children was the great-great grandmother of the woman who emailed me. Rather than being ashamed of Maggie’s wild ways, she was actually thrilled to gain greater insight into her family history. I was able to send her a couple scans of newspaper articles and court records that she otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. While this certainly wouldn’t count as a major academic breakthrough, I’m sure we can all acknowledge how great it feels when we stumble upon strangers who are just as excited about our research as we are.
When I talk to some of my colleagues, both graduate students and faculty alike, encouraging them to participate in the repository, I generally receive the same response: “Oh! I really need to send you my stuff. I have a couple articles in the works, but other than that I haven’t really done much lately….” I’m quick to remind them about that conference they just presented at, or what about the syllabus they just developed for that amazing class, or the presentation they gave for a local interest group? While these types of scholarly works may not be nearly as prestigious as peer-reviewed articles or book chapters, they are still important for a variety of reasons. Not only do they demonstrate academic service, which can certainly be helpful during the tenure & promotion process, but it is also an excellent means of testing the waters for future scholarship by gauging interest in the various topics you’re working on. And finally, in my humble opinion, sharing the products of our research, no matter how big or small, should not be limited by how pretty or prestigious they may seem. In sharing my works through our repository, I have not been blasted by a hoard of internet trolls denouncing me a terrible historian or a disgrace to the state of Iowa, but instead I was welcomed by a diverse community of fellow historical prostitution-lovers who are excited to help me advance my research.
So, before I climb down off my soapbox, if there is one thing you take away from this blog post let it be this: rather than relegating the broad range scholarship that we are all constantly producing to the digital graveyard that is our hard drive, consider sharing those one off presentations or super cool lesson plans. We owe it to these amazing women that we are studying to share their stories and you have no idea who they could potentially reach, what opportunities it might send your way or whose research you could further.