MORE THAN A FARMER'S WIFE: Voices of American Farm Women, 1910-1960. By Amy Mattson Lauters. Columbia: University of Missouri Press. 2009. A NEW HEARTLAND: Women, Modernity, and the Agrarian Ideal in America. By Janet Galligani Casey. New York: Oxford University Press. 2009.
Two new works on American women and rural culture during the first half of the twentieth century, by communications scholar Amy Mattson Lauters and literary critic Janet Galligani Casey, illustrate divergent approaches to similar historical and textual material. While both analyze periodical literature, notably the nationally circulated monthly The Farmer's Wife, which reached millions of readers, these authors reveal quite different intentions.
Lauters's More Than a Farmer's Wife systematically reviews issues of this and other magazines of the era (Farm Journal, Country Gentleman, Saturday Evening Post, Ladies' Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping), to explore the publications' representations of rural women. Based on oral histories and questionnaires solicited from approximately two hundred women who grew up on farms, Lauters finds both cohesion and dissonance between magazine images and women's lived experiences. By contrast, literary critic Casey, who notes that her work is "less about the empirical facts of farm life than about its abstractions" (3), uses the periodical to set a contextual platform for the real focus of her work, novel-writing and photography by women that departed from stereotypical images of rural life.
Of the two works, Lauters's study of magazines and women's remembrances of their farm experiences is comparatively pedestrian. "I wanted to know which was the more accurate image: farm woman as victim, or farm woman as a respected part of the business of farming" (153). She concludes that general magazines of the era largely ignored rural culture, while farming-oriented magazines lifted high the image of the respected farm woman. Meanwhile, rural women were struggling with the vagaries of weather, family circumstances, and shifting economic conditions as they sought to succeed as business partners with men. By 1960, Lauters reports that a significant urban/rural divide had developed, with city dwellers increasingly viewing farm women as "plain, unsophisticated and even a marginalized 'other' in American culture" (160) at the same time that farm women were deeply involved in the business aspects of agriculture. Lauters finds that American rural women in mid-century, while marginalized, nevertheless found validation in forming connections across the miles, communicating as readers and letter-writers of rural-oriented magazines. Her larger point is that long before computerized social networking offered communitybuilding possibilities for people with similar interests, rural women were identifying with each other through the medium of nationally circulating periodicals. …