Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 22.1 (2001) iii-xvii
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Joan M. Jensen and Anne B. W. Effland
Rural women have always lurked in the background of historical narrative, appearing and disappearing like objects caught in the headlights of a car playing over the landscape at night. Over the past twenty years, growing numbers of scholars from all disciplines have illuminated the lives of this rural majority in books and articles, in papers and discussions. Most interpretations focus on the transition of agriculture to a specialized, capital-intensive enterprise coupled with the absorption of rural lives into the broader American consumer economy as the primary agent of change. Because of this research, rural women are far more visible today than they were in 1980, and we know a great deal more about the rural cultures within which they worked to sustain their own lives and those of their families.
The term "rural" is still relatively new in United States scholarship. "Non-urban" does not quite describe the field, although a number of scholars still define rural as everything that is not urban. More precisely, rural women are a part of land-based communities in areas of low population density. They live and work on the land in open country, in crossroad clusters of households, or in villages and small towns. Rural women include not only those who work on the land producing food and fiber, but also those who live in sparsely populated areas but work in towns that serve as centers for farming and ranching, mining and timber enterprises.
The following essays are samples of recent scholarship that contributes to a body of work that examines rural women's lives in new ways, scholarship that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Like the earlier works, these essays contest assumptions that value urban over rural life or adopt development theories that assume that depopulating of rural areas is inevitable, if not beneficial, for cultures. [End Page iii]
No one history of rural women exists, even for the United States. Indeed, the articles here provide only a sampling of a variety of approaches being used today by scholars studying rural women's lives. While all of the authors represented here are academically trained scholars, a large and flourishing body of work is emerging that seeks to explain rural women's experiences through diverse forms other than scholarly writings, such as through the literary, visual, and performing arts, and through the writings of women leaders and activists.
Two major categories of inquiry evolved for the study of women living on land in the Americas, the study of women who settled (voluntary and involuntary) and the study of Native women. Because much of the early scholarly research grew out of settler history, scholars often worked out of that framework as well, even when they included women of different racial and ethnic groups. By the 1990s, scholarship more closely based on Native perspectives, as well as work within ethnic studies disciplines, was moving these earlier interpretations from the center of rural studies. The newer interpretations defined their work more clearly in terms of differences, whether the differences were ethnic and racial, regional, or defined by work. In a growing field marked by such diversity, it remains a challenge to represent rural women through the small, carefully designed studies that scholars have usually produced.
The task of dealing with women's lives in the matrix of diverse cultures has charged the new research with a particular vitality. It reaches for new perspectives through diverse methodologies, revisits older issues with new sources, and constantly seeks new ways to look at the lives of groups of women who might have been on different sides of issues. For example, it often deals with tensions and hostilities among groups--settler and Native, black and white, Anglo and Hispanic--as well as gender, economic, religious, and other divisions within groups.
The Path So Far
Beginning in the early 1980s, historians concentrated first on documenting that white women settlers and their female descendants did, in fact, "work" on...