Agrarian Women: Wives and Mothers in Rural Nebraska, 1880-1940

Agrarian Women: Wives and Mothers in Rural Nebraska, 1880-1940

Agrarian Women: Wives and Mothers in Rural Nebraska, 1880-1940

Agrarian Women: Wives and Mothers in Rural Nebraska, 1880-1940


Agrarian Women challenges the widely held assumption that frontier farm life in the United States made it easier for women to achieve rough equality with men. Using as her example the family farm in rural Nebraska from the 1880s until the eve of World War II, Deborah Fink contends instead that agrarianism reinforced the belief that a woman's place was in the home, her predestined role that of wife and mother.
Drawing on court records, wills, deeds, and census data as well as memoirs and interviews, Fink develops a nuanced, persuasive picture of the hardships -- and the occasional pleasures -- of farm life on the plains. Herself the great-granddaughters of Nebraska settlers, she vividly conveys the isolation, environmental rigors, marital tensions, and psychological stresses of child-rearing experienced by many women who nevertheless paid dutiful homage to the agrarian ideal.
Even after farms had become well established in the area, the lives of rural women were not significantly eased, and rarely were they able to effect major changes in their own lives. When the agricultural boom collapsed during the 1920s, more women began to supplement farm income with earnings from jobs in local towns. But the cultural assumptions about women's domestic roles remained unchanged. Even if they worked outside the home and outside the farm, wives were still responsible for raising the children and maintaining the household.
Although sparse population, political marginality, and the agricultural economy have created a unique rural culture in the United States, Fink shows that gender contradictions have not been confined to urban life. Agrarian Women will spark fresh debate about the nature of the family farm and the ideology that has sanctified it.
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In the 1880s, an Illinois farmer who seemed to be in a rut had an exciting way out. in Nebraska, according to reports, were millions of acres of fertile, free land waiting to be farmed. There was no nobler calling than farming, no better way to bring up a family than on the Nebraska prairie. All it took was hard work. the land would provide ample wealth for the settlers and for uncounted generations of their descendants.

In 1883 Mary and Charles Lederer heeded the call and left the stifling tedium of their Illinois farm for Nebraska, where new opportunity awaited. Traveling with them to Nebraska were the four people they most wanted to know the prosperity and promise of a new life -- their active, mischievous sons Louis, 8; Charles, 6; Noah, 4; and John, 1. After a number of months moving around and getting to know Nebraska, they got their farm. in 1885 they settled in Pierce County in east-central Nebraska. While Charles and the older boys broke the ground and tilled the fields, Mary set up housekeeping in a new sod house and tended to everyone. During the next ten years, she gave birth to five more children.

Mary Lederer, my great-grandmother, became a family legend as a pillar of strength. Although she and Charles never prospered as farmers, they raised their eight surviving children well. Mary midwifed childbirths and nursed sick neighbors; she sang hymns in the country church; she loved pretty things; and she never went to pieces. She worked. "For her untiring devotion, God gave her blissful resting," eulogized son Louis after her death in 1938 (Lederer 1944).

But what did Mary Lederer herself have to say about her life of devotion? Her husband, writing his memoirs in later life, declared that going to Nebraska was the kind of rash move that young people . . .

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