Academic journal article The Historian

Interview with Joan Jensen

Academic journal article The Historian

Interview with Joan Jensen

Article excerpt

Born in 1934 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jensen received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles. Since 1976, she has been a professor at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, retiring there in 1993 to devote more time to writing. Her prolific publication of over ten books and sixty articles in the past two decades has broken new paths in North American history, particularly her studies of rural women and her multicultural approach to women in the western United States. Jensen has been accorded professional acclaim, held leadership positions in several organizations, and served on the editorial board of The Historian. She lives in Las Cruces, where this interview was conducted in October 1993 by Roger Adelson.

THE HISTORIAN: Why is the history of North American rural women important?

JENSEN: Their history has been neglected despite the fact most of our foremothers lived on farms or in rural areas throughout most of North America's history. History neglected rural women partly because few of them were literate before the 1830s. Unable to communicate in writing, and with little energy or time to spare for it, they did not need to write until they became isolated from their kin when living on single-family farms. Historians have recently found far more records than they expected. By looking through state and county archives, searching through local periodicals, collecting women's letters and journals, reading novels and poetry, as well as by relying on the tools of anthropology and oral history, we now have a rich documentary record at our disposal. Although history will continue to focus on the urban elite, we now have to acknowledge that most people, including most women, worked on the land until the twentieth century. The manual work of rural women has a long history. Native American women cultivated and processed corn, which sometimes led to their high status; Hispanic women often held property in common; the legal right of European women to own as well as work the land was secured by Roman law, but the Anglo tradition discouraged women from doing field work and prevented them from inheriting land. Although such cultural and legal differences are significant, for centuries women have worked on the lands of North America. Their non-field productive tasks with textiles, dairy, and poultry products were also vital to family farms. In short, most of us have fanning foremothers whose historical significance has only recently been demonstrated.

THE HISTORIAN: You have written about your mother's family - poor German immigrants who farmed in northern Wisconsin?

JENSEN: One of the things I'm trying to do in my writing now is to talk more about myself, because it's important for historians and other scholars to let people know how their background might influence what they write. I've been using my mother's family history in my research on immigrant farm women from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. My mother's mother emigrated from Bohemia to Wisconsin, where she married an Austrian immigrant, bore five children before he died, then married a farmer from Bavaria and had three more children. My grandmother's first marriage was happy, but the second was not. At sixteen my mother ran away from home, as did most of her younger sisters. Grandma Schopp lived with my family when I was a teenager. "I ain't so baticular," she often said, content with her one trunk of possessions. She spoke German with my mother, who never did so with me.

My mother was silent about her childhood of rural poverty. Her feet had been deformed by wearing shoes that did not fit; she always made sure that I did not appear at the front door barefooted because someone might think I had no shoes. Growing up in the lower middle-class suburbs during the 1940s and 1950s, which were very prosperous decades in the United States, I did not worry about my family's income and felt sure that hard work could get me whatever I wanted. …

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