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Feminists have long argued that women need to be understood as makers of history, not passive bystanders to it. They have also insisted, rightly, that women are just as rational as men, and perhaps even more so when one considers how sensible their impatience with sexism seems in comparison with some men’s regrettably persistent belief in their own inherent superiority. In Putting the Barn before the House: Women and Family Farming in Early Twentieth-Century New York, Grey Osterud returns readers to both of these familiar themes in feminist criticism, albeit subtly, and in a way that thankfully (if sometimes narrowly) avoids reducing the story of women’s involvement in American farm life during the first half of the twentieth century to pure hagiography.
Based primarily on a rich archive of oral histories that Osterud began collecting more than thirty years ago, Putting the Barn Before the House explores the history of women’s participation as laborers and businesspeople on family farms in New York’s Nanticoke Valley, an area particularly well known for its dairying operations. Like a number of recent studies that deal with women’s contributions to American agriculture, and rural life generally, Putting the Barn Before the House rejects the notion that early twentieth-century farm women were merely drudges whose lives were defined primarily in terms of thankless labor extracted from them by domineering husbands and fathers. Just as importantly, it also refuses to silo the history of rural women’s experience in the kitchen. Rather, Osterud advances a highly compelling argument that farm women in the Nanticoke Valley possessed a sound and thoroughly pragmatic understanding of their interests as both women and farmers—realistic enough, in any event, for them to recognize right along with farm men that any aspirations [End Page 183] they might have to live comfortably and respectably depended first and foremost on the success of their businesses. Indeed, so obvious was this fact to many farm women, Osterud contends, that it was often they who insisted that scarce profits be reinvested in stock and equipment, even in cases where husbands and fathers might have been willing to spend on indoor plumbing, store-bought clothes, or any number of other modern conveniences. And, of course, Osterud’s study also makes clear once again that American farm women knew they had to work, both in the house and outside of it, in order to maintain the value of what many clearly understood to be their own investments.
Overall, Putting the Barn before the House succeeds marvelously in accomplishing what it sets out to do, both argumentatively and methodologically. It is particularly successful on the latter front. To be sure, during the past fifteen or twenty years, many studies have carried a brief for oral history research, but few have done so as persuasively as Osterud’s. Nor have many studies done a better job of harmonizing information gleaned from oral histories with source material found in more traditional archives. On this level alone, then, Putting the Barn before the Horse deserves to be read and widely emulated, especially by feminist historians who seek to shed new light on aspects of women’s historical experience that are reflected only faintly elsewhere.
That said, the same cohort of feminist historians who will undoubtedly be happy to learn from Osterud’s excellent methodological example may also take issue with some features of her analysis, particularly the way she tends to resolve certain conceptual tensions by loosening the working definition of key terms, including the term “agency.” As Osterud explains, agency, for her purposes, amounts to “a woman’s acknowledging both her constraints and choices and taking responsibility for her actions” (47). Fair enough. But this is not exactly the same understanding of women’s agency that launched the feminist revolution, either in the streets or on the page. For one thing, Osterud’s definition of...