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  • Less Work for "Mother":Rural Readers, Farm Papers, and the Makeover of "The Revolt of 'Mother'"
  • Ellen Gruber Garvey

The powerful reverberations of Mary Wilkins Freeman's "The Revolt of 'Mother'" lasted for decades.1 The story, which connected issues of gender, control of finances on the farm, and the role of the home in keeping the family united, was read in city and rural homes, high school and college classrooms, and was performed in public readings and amateur theatricals. It furnished a starting point for early twentieth-century discussions of the lives of farm women and inspired other stories about farm women's control of finances and improving the lives of rural families. One such story was Nina Sutherland Purdy's "Mothering: The Story of a Revolt" (1916), reprinted here.

Nina (pronounced Nine-uh) Sutherland Purdy was born in Delaware County in rural New York in 1889, the year before "The Revolt of 'Mother'" was published. Her stories and articles appeared intermittently from 1915 through the 1940s in venues ranging from the elite, like the children's magazine St. Nicholas, to the popular. Her writings included two children's books, a 1916 antiwar story entitled "The Safety-Pin," a series of "Mandy" stories published in Woman's World (discussed below), a group of biographical articles in the 1920s for Everybody's Magazine, and pieces for pulp magazines like Love Story and All-Story Cavalier Weekly. Purdy also worked on at least one radio serial. Despite her range of venues, however, she seems to have published sporadically. She married three times and lived in New York City as a writer. Making her own compromise between rural and city life, however, she spent part of each year at the family farm in Downsville, dying nearby in 1952. Purdy's own movement between rural and city life as an educated woman with a BS and an [End Page 119] MA was representative of larger trends of the time. These biographical details and the publication circumstances of both "Mother" stories illuminate the relationship between Mary Wilkins Freeman's 1890 "Revolt of 'Mother'" and its 1916 partial namesake.

Woman's World, Farm Women's Discontent, and Consumerism

Purdy's five stories for Woman's World in 1915 and 1916 are about the forward-looking Mandy, head of the Benson Hollow Women's Neighborhood Improvement Society and a central character in "Mothering: The Story of a Revolt." Mandy encourages women around her to be more sympathetic mothers and to enjoy themselves.2 Unlike an earlier generation of regional writers who were attentive to the specifics of their localities, Purdy created characters who speak a kind of all-purpose country dialect, as though to give them a rural tone but not to exclude readers who lived in different parts of the country. Characters in Mandy's Benson Hollow, for example, speak roughly the same dialect as do characters in "Honeymoon Overdue," a later story set among nineteenth-century southern New Jersey lumbermen. Purdy's stories, then, represent a new offspring of regionalism: ruralism without region. Sinclair Lewis's Main Street exemplifies such work, suggesting that the small town locale is representative rather than specific: "The town is, in our tale, called 'Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.' But its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere. The story would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois, and not very differently would it be told Up York State or in the Carolina hills" (3). Although Purdy herself was from New York's Catskill Mountains, in "Mothering" and her other stories for Woman's World, Benson Hollow is located in indeterminate rural space, unanchored in specific landscape or history. Even its cows, hay, and strawberries could be raised nearly anywhere.

Instead of regional specifics, the stories emphasize tension between the farm and the alluring city. This pull between rural and urban life was highly relevant in the 1910s, which saw the beginnings of a national discussion of farm life that focused on women. Theodore Roosevelt's 1908 Country Life Commission suggested that farm women be helped with their heavy workloads; a 1913 Department of Agriculture survey followed. The revelation that women were streaming...


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