I think about the women of my Midwestern rural childhood and I wonder how they feel about the resurgence of interest in their life, the borderline obsession of their way of living by affluent, urban women. Pinterest, farm blogs, Martha Stewart, and other celebrity entrepreneurs have taken their rural culture, repackaged it and sold it to the urban consumer.
This "rural chic" lifestyle has gained in popularity with a rebirth of canning, do-it-yourself crafting, and scratch cooking. Don't get me wrong, I think all of these things are amazing skills that should be passed along. The sheer amount of information transfer happening means that these skills won't die out or get lost. I want to keep encouraging these women to continue to get better and perfect the skills that my mother and grandmother passed down to me. But I think it is hilarious when I read blogs of failed attempts, botched canning operations, or sewing projects that look like someone did it with their eyes closed. Rural chic enthusiasts are trying and I'll always applaud experimentation, but the part of me that is my mother always thinks, you think that is your best?
In the same breath, I'm appalled that despite this resurgence and interest in rural American culture, there is a continued oversimplification, rural shaming, and elitist perspective of urban women towards their rural women counterparts.
Traditionally, rural crafts and skills are trendy to adopt. Knitting on the train is cool and posting about your homemade bread and preserves gives you proverbial kick-ass points. Talk about a rural farmwife and most folks will mention how nice her quaint lifestyle is or how enchanting it must be to live and work on a farm. Even worse is how these rural women are all portrayed in movies as simple, often comical overweight caricatures who are kind to a flaw, but aren't very intelligent.
On the other side of the spectrum, I've heard folks refer to farmwives as oppressed or backwards for not choosing careers of their own. I've heard how these rural women must feel like they can never be equals to men.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, rural women are intelligent, giving badasses.
Long before urban women were burning their bras in the second wave of feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, rural women — rural farmwives in particular — were living lives of mutual cooperation and respect with their husbands. In short, on a successful farm, men and women had equal value. Though their chores were often divided, both ends of the work were considered crucial to the complete operation of the farm. Women operated their gardens, chicken houses, and dairies. They raised the children and preserved food and put meals on the table three times a day.
Of course, there was inequity in some families and to say that all women felt equal to men would be inaccurate and far-reaching. But I guarantee you that my grandmother and her friends and my mother and her friends didn't feel devalued for the life choices they made. Rather, they existed in a world of competent actions they accomplished in their daily tasks.
Rural women are not simpletons. They either don't have the time to sit in contemplation on existential topics or they are too polite to overreach their opinions on someone else. But let's get one thing straight — they do give a damn what is happening. They just often operate on an local level to see the changes they want made in the world.
They may not give to starving children in Africa, but they'll be damned if they let a struggling neighbor go without a meal or not give them bushels of fresh produce. There is a culture of giving among these women that, though unaccounted for, stitches together their communities and teaches compassion and kindness. When my aunt and uncle's house burned down two years ago, neighbors showed up with clothes, checks, food, and sympathy. These are not rich people and they did it when no one was looking because that it is how it is done.
Please don't think if they don't respond quickly to your questions or don't have quippy sarcastic things to say about global issues, that these women aren't intelligent. They only have so much bandwidth to give and putting food on the table and doing their farm work takes precedence over your conversation.
Next time that you're on a country drive and pass a nice looking farmstead, don't think nostalgically about how quaint that lifestyle is. Instead, start thinking about how badass the woman must be to keep a farm looking like that and raising children besides.
Perhaps you stop at a diner and are crabby about the service. Take a closer look and you'll see that your old waitress is talking to a friend wearing farm boots. They are paying attention to each other because it might be the only time they have to help hold each other together on the tough days, just like meeting your friends for coffee at a local cafe. The only difference is that these woman often don't have the luxury of free time, so they get it while they can, even if one of them is at work.
If you go to a farm estate auction and see older women clinging to each other, don't haggle down for that turn-of-the-century tea set or butter churn in front of them, because you never know if that belonged to their mother or aunt or dear friend. Their family, for whatever reason, couldn't hold on to the farm anymore. Somewhere in that auction crowd is a grieving family and they deserve your support and your kindness.
My urban sisters, I implore you to think of these things the next time you churn your butter at home or put up your yearly supply of preserves or drive aggressively down rural roads. Think to these women as the tough-as-shit women that kept alive the tradition of canning and quilting and knitting and gardening while their counterparts helped forge equal rights in schools, government, and the workplace.
This is the best way you can look out for them because I promise a good rural woman will always look out for you.