Feb. 21, 1997
Historian Says Farm Wives a Happy Lot
by Ellie Walradth
UW-RF News Bureau
History sets a pattern for the future, and that is just what 19th century women living in the rural Midwest were doing for today's society.
UW-River Falls history Professor Kurt Leichtle has been studying farm publications and personal diaries written in the 1880s by women who lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota and has found that they do not fit the "unhappy farmwife" stereotype that time and has history has given to them.
"Women were less unhappy and more in control of their lives than history books give them credit for. The letters I read were positive and hopeful; they were written by women who had a firm sense of their identity," Leichtle says.
Leichtle began his search by studying past issues of a Midwest farm journal called "The Farmer." A collection of letters written and edited by women was published in an "Our Household" section of each issue, providing an intimate portrait of farm life from a woman's perspective.
"I feel like I know a number of these women just by reading their letters," Leichtle says.
While reading the 1880s writings, Leichtle says a sense of optimism and enthusiasm came through in the women's voices as they shared money-making ideas that included growing vegetable gardens, collecting antiques and writing.
He says that the letters were written by women who were excited about the future and the opportunities they knew their daughters would have to travel, balance careers, gain educations and enter equal partnerships with their husbands.
The letters actually served as a forum for farm women to directly write to and respond to each other through the magazine, Leichtle says.
"Women found a sense of community through the publication . . . they would write in and talk about entering the circle (of letter writers). They would ask if they could enter the circle."
Leichtle says that one of the themes created by the "Our Household" page was "Take Time for Yourself," and this reflected the tone of the rest of the journal.
"The Farmer offered a common sense approach to life. It encouraged women to be strong, and it was more radical than other urban-based magazines."
Another journal published in Philadelphia around the same time had a column called "Advice for the Lovelorn" that quickly went astray from what the editors had in mind. Leichtle says the column evolved from advice on relationships to advice on vocations. Within four months of its launching, the editors killed the column.
By denying women public identities, Leichtle says, society tried to protect what it felt should be a system of ideals for womens' behavior. But he believes that the system failed because it did not reflect reality.
He says those idealized views contended that women must remain "morally pure" because it was their responsibility to raise children. To do this, they needed to be sheltered in the home away from the temptations that men encountered in the workforce.
This dominant view in the media and in the public's eye created untrue stereotypes about men and women. But Leichtle believes the letters women wrote to "The Farmer" spoke the truth and were the real reflections of reality.
"As a historian, I can see the world operating in the context of those letters. They fit the vision of the world-the women's views were practical."
This "common sense and practicality that just made sense" can be attributed to The Farmer's continued success today, he believes.
Of course, Leichtle has found proof that pessimistic and unhappy women also existed in the 19th century. He remembers reading about one woman who suffered from depression and eventually died from exhaustion.
Leichtle cautions that until he expands his research, he cannot conclude that these enthusiastic, hopeful women spoke for the majority. But he remains convinced that they did.
"My impulse is to say that 19th century women were more able to withstand life than we give them credit for-I am very optimistic."
In addition to farm publications, Leichtle has been researching women's personal diaries in the archives at UW-RF where he has found more evidence to support his claims.
The diary of a woman named Jenny Andrews detailed the lives of a couple who more closely fit today's standards for husbands and wives, Leichtle says. She and her husband worked together, and she was active in the community.
"Andrews was a firmly grounded, whole person-the type of woman the history books don't acknowledge existed," Leichtle says.
By the time women were given the right to vote in 1920, Leichtle says, society began to acknowledge that equality was essential to maintaining the social web.
As an historian, Leichtle sees this research suggesting a pattern for the future. He believes that men and women are outliving the stereotyped gender roles created by past generations.
"Societal roles are constantly in a state of flux. We come to understand the perameters and limits by looking at the past."
Society is still figuring out how to separate the roles into practical ones that avoid outdated stereotypes, Leichtle says.
He believes the new vision society ultimately will adopt will not be gender-based. Male and female roles will be defined by function. It will become acceptable for individuals in a relationship, rather than society, to decide who will be the child-rearer and who will be the wage-earner.
"But we are still looking for that pattern," he says, and adds:
"Society is happiest when it has one."