How do we preserve the contributions of rural women?

Farm Bureau Women set up their Dairy Bar booth at the Hartford Fair in Licking County, 1956.

Farm Bureau Women set up their Dairy Bar booth at the Hartford Fair in Licking County, 1956.

October 15 is the International Day of Rural Women, an initiative of the United Nations to recognize “the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty.” [1]

 

According to the United Nations, rural women make up over 25% of the world’s current population.  Imagine how much larger that percentage must have been in past centuries when the majority of Americans were rural residents instead of urban dwellers.[2]

 

Such large numbers suggest a substantial cultural heritage, much of which is lost or masked to us because of lack of source material.  As noted historian Joan Jensen pointed out in her landmark work, With These Hands:  Women Working on the Land, “illiteracy, long and exhausting work hours, scarcity of uninterrupted leisure, and the absence of practical need for written communication–all affected the amount of written material that has come down to us.” [3]

 

This also begs the question – what about the stories and lessons embedded in rural women’s material culture – their objects and their built environment?  Given the dearth of archival sources, these become increasingly important in research and interpretation.  What happens to the physical remains of rural women’s heritage as agriculture continues to modernize and mechanize around the world and as farmland is gobbled up for development?  As the tools and buildings and cultural landscape disappear, so do the connections between their contributions and our current struggles.

How do we interpret the heritage of rural women when their places disappear?

How do we interpret the heritage of rural women when their places disappear?

As Jensen revealed in Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850, rural women’s economic role in pre-industrial America was far more substantial than usually credited.  That study and subsequent revelation required study of material culture such as butter churns and dairy facilities because of limited archival sources.

 

So as we talk about rural women today, let’s also turn our attention to exploring their historic place in society and encourage methods such as National Register nominations, marker programs, and museum/archives collection strategies, to preserve their own struggles and contributions so that we may benefit from lessons learned and be inspired.

 

As Jensen has said “My study of rural women has helped me when I am tired because then I think how hard they worked and for such long hours. Remembering those women and saying to myself ‘Come on Jensen,’ I can continue at the task before me.” [4]

 

Like to know more?   Explore http://www.un.org/en/events/ruralwomenday

[1] http://www.un.org/en/events/ruralwomenday/

[2] http://www.un.org/en/events/ruralwomenday/

[3] Jensen, Joan M. With These Hands: Women Working on the Land. Women’s Lives Women’s Work. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1981, p. xviii.

[4] <a href=”http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/articles/pages/4664/Jensen-Joan-M-1934.html”>Jensen, Joan M. (1934–) – U.S. Western, Women’s, and Rural History</a>

 

About Bari Oyler Stith, Ph.D.

Director, Historic Preservation Program, Ursuline College

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