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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 22.1 (2001) 1-20

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"I'd Rather Be Dancing":
Wisconsin Women Moving On

Joan M. Jensen

Some years ago, while sitting with my aunt drinking coffee, I asked her why she left her Wisconsin farm for the city of Milwaukee. What was there to do, she asked in return. Meet a boy down at the bridge? What did she do in the city, I asked. She said she had first worked in a candy factory and roomed with the family of a young friend. The year was 1916. What did you do after work, I persisted. We went dancing, she replied, every night except Monday. Why never on Monday, I asked. Because, she responded with a smile, the dance hall was closed on Monday.

Dancing is one way to transcend place and space. Migrating is another. Rural women embraced both types of mobility. In this article I explore the parallelism between work and recreation by looking closely at these two types of mobility--dancing and migration. I use the experiences of young women in central Wisconsin during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for this exploration. Recreational opportunities, in addition to the need for access to better employment, influenced the decision of rural women to migrate to urban areas. City dance halls offered a larger and more varied social group, better facilities, and more exciting and fashionable music, all with less likelihood of community supervision, than did country dance halls.

Feminist scholars talk about the importance of space and place in shaping women's experiences. I, also, think that the ways space and place constrain and offer opportunities in women's lives is an important phenomenon. The context of women's working lives is strongly affected by the productive economy of the area and the accessibility of collective services. Patterns of work, culture, and migration are interrelated. 1 Mobility is essential for women: for economic support, to integrate production and reproduction, and to take advantage of opportunities for personal development and autonomy. Ideologies about appropriate behavior and responsibilities for women, and a variety of other conditions, can [End Page 1] constrain women. Why did the twentieth-century countryside become a place where young women felt more constrained in their choices and in their mobility than in either the nineteenth-century countryside or in twentieth-century cities? Nineteenth-century immigrant daughters had access to rural dances and to some work, and thus had spatial mobility. Later, cities offered rural women expanded access to dance and jobs.

Migration of rural women in the United States is difficult to quantify. Farm people numbered 32.5 million in 1915 and 9.4 million in 1971. Yet surprisingly few detailed historical studies of that massive migration exist for the period before the 1930s. Recent studies of black urban migration are an important exception and provide many insights into the process. Manuscript censuses record the place of birth by state, making interstate migration the easiest to document quantitatively. Intrastate migration is much more difficult to trace because census records give no county of birth, nor do they tell how long one has lived in any one place. Dates of immigration to this country are included, but that is little help in locating the children of immigrants. To track young people from countryside to city before the 1930s, scholars are dependent mainly on qualitative records, including family histories, that discuss individual migration patterns and experiences. While quantitatively limited, these records allow us to sketch a probable framework for the experiences of young women as they abandoned rural life for jobs and recreational opportunities in nearby towns and cities.

Rural migration studies did not occupy scholars seriously until the 1950s. In the 1930s, historians gave attention to immigration history, and rural sociologists studied rural communities. After World War II, when government and private agencies funded studies of developing countries, rural sociologists shifted much of their attention away from the United States. Rural sociologist George W. Hill, who studied Wisconsin immigrant communities in the late 1930s, abandoned...


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