Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Farm Women, Class, and the Limits of Nostalgia

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Farm Women, Class, and the Limits of Nostalgia

Article excerpt

A note to the reader: I wrote this essay as a talk at the banquet at the Illinois State Historical Society Annual Meeting, December 1998. As such, it has a certain informality of tone that varies considerably from the usual academic presentation. I decided, as I revised it for publication, to retain the original talk, and to provide the amplifying scholarly references in extended footnotes. I'm inspired to do this by the new work with hypertext formats made possible by the World Wide Web. Think of the note numbers as hypertext links.

One day, a while after I'd begun field work in Union County, I struck up a conversation with a woman in the shoe store in Anna. I told her I was interested in the history of the area, and particularly old farm houses. She reminisced about the farm she'd grown up on. It turns out the old house was gone; they'd built a new one when she was a young child, back in the fifties. There was a story: Her mother had long nagged her father for a new house. He invested in all kinds of other things for the farm, but the house stayed decrepit. Finally, one day, her mother had enough. While the father was in town, she recruited her son and together they chopped down one wall of the house. Needless to say, she got her new home.

I had long known that women did not have first call on the farm's resources. My mother had told me about a neighbor woman who threatened to divorce her husband if he didn't take some of the money he was spending on big farm equipment and build her a new house. But when I began to research the changing farm life in southern Illinois, I knew very little about farm women. I was born during World War II and grew up during the period when farming changed from horse to tractor, from largely self-provisioning to completely dependent on purchased inputs. One of my earliest memories is watching electric lines being strung to the house - the single biggest technological change in farming. The women I knew cooked and gardened and canned and sewed, and they worked in the factories and offices in town. But agricultural producers were men.

The story my shoe store acquaintance told me was not inconsistent with this division of labor. Men were producers, responsible for the cash income, while women were consumers, responsible for caring for the family's needs in the home.' But, I was to find out, this story was flawed. It was the present read into the past - the worst mistake a historian (or an anthropologist) can make.

I know that many of you are only vaguely interested in farming. The great wars which mobilized the passions of the citizenry often seem more significant in leaving imprints on the present. In the twentieth century, popular movements in labor, civil rights, and women's rights have reshaped the contours of daily life. Nonetheless, a nostalgia for an agrarian past permeates much of our culture. Go into any small town cafe, and even some chain family restaurants, and you will see icons of our agricultural history decorating the walls. Relics of the past - sad irons, harness pieces, iron kettles - fetch outrageous prices at auctions, causing old folks to shake their heads in wonder at the junk younger people value. Many of those who buy these old things are professional antiquers, who search the backroads for artifacts to sell to upscale city folk. So I know the story I sought to understand was broadly interesting, not just the province of people living in a "backward," dying culture.2

There are highly practical reasons for trying to understand agricultural history, as well. Farmers produce the raw materials for virtually everything we eat, and agricultural products provide a major part of our international trade. Rural areas also preserve much of the wildness that remains, and the uses of these lands are one of the most contested areas of environmental politics. Farming and rural life are, therefore, central to our future, as much as they have formed our past. …

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