Rural Literacies and The Rural Womyn Zone

By Jane Lane

This Sustainable Rural Living section of  the Rural Womyn Zone website is in the process of being updated after a couple of years of neglect during what I call “my cancer year” and the year after it, while I regained my energy, my focus, and ability to do more than one thing at a time.

During that time, three women,  Kim Donehower B.A. Ph.D, Charlotte Hogg B.A. M.A. Ph.D., and Eileen E. Schell B.A. M.A. Ph.D., published a book called Rural Literacies which addresses one of the intersections that is most interesting to me —  place (rural), gender, and public memory. How do we see women in rural America? This is the reason for Rural Womyn Zone.

I first had a chance to get on the Internet at the office at the family farm. I could hardly wait to look for information about other rural women doing things that I was doing – working on a family farm, and working around women’s and social issues. What a disappointment it was for me to discover that there were organizations for rural women in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Third World Countries, but none in the United States. There were local and regional organizations, and some of the big agricultural entities had created what looked like no more than auxiliaries for the women, who were relegated to separate forums where they discussed recipes and children, not the financial and agricultural management of the farms, for example.

If we thought the United States was so advanced that it didn’t need any movements or organizations that focused on rural women’s issues, then why were we still being treated as second class citizens?

Women were doing hard work on farms, but didn’t own the land. If they were married and their name was on the property, the United States didn’t count them as a farmer or owner of the farm, because it only counted one owner per farm, and it counted the husband, not the wife.

I contacted some of the larger “global” women’s organizations that were active in Third World Countries to see what they might offer in the United States, and was told that they did not work in the U.S. What was the assumption? That rural women in this country did not have any of the problems – access to land ownership, protection of water resources, ability to grow healthy food, involvement in planning rural communities, access to women’s reproductive health services, exposure to pesticides and other chemicals, chemical-based agriculture, lack of social capital, access to justice for victims of gender-based violence, access to credit, isolation from services, etc. — that rural women did elsewhere?

So when I was coming up with names for the web site that would become the Rural Womyn Zone, I first called it the Third-And-A-Half-World because it seemed that no one knew we even existed. Or that the problems existed.

At that time, I was reading about people who settled in North Dakota, and how it was understood that the sons would inherit the land, and the daughters would find husbands. How prevalent was this, outside of North Dakota? No woman had ever served as a county commissioner where I lived; so throughout the development of this area, no woman’s perspective was ever considered. The county commissioners appoint members to several boards and other commissions that essentially run the services in a multi-county rural area. Men were appointed to positions that impacted long-range planning and development and women were appointed to the bookmobile board. There was no woman on the city council, and when it became legally inaccessible, the comfortable old brick Carnegie-style library was abandoned, and there was discussion of building a metal building – similar to the implement dealership and the machine shed on the farm – to house the new library on an empty lot out at the outskirts of town where there were no sidewalks.

These are examples of what I believe happens when women’s vision, voices, and needs aren’t considered in community planning. Women aren’t making the news, they are quietly serving their communities, so their voices aren’t recorded, their stories are lost, and younger women who look for mentors and models are left with the prevailing masculinized versions of what it means to be a female in a rural setting – – the entrenched gender roles that complete the vicious circle.

The Rural Womyn Zone was created to build a safe online community where rural women could help each other fulfill their visions in the rural spaces where they lived, and to add their women’s voices to the public memory, as the book, Rural Literacies, describes The Rural Womyn Zone:

. . . The Rural Womyn Zone (RWZ) is a technological network that seeks to critically educate rural women. The RWZ describes itself as a “grass-roots international network of rural women which started using the Internet in 1997 to provide information, outreach, support and a networking base for rural women and their nonprofit organizations and grass roots activities” (“First Chance Project). The RWZ also seeks to “publish news and information for rural women and by rural women” and help rural women utilize technology, make connections with other rural women, and access news and other resources. Through providing access to resources that would take rural women hours to amass on their own, the RWZ demonstrates one way technology can endorse and support literacy and education can be a critical, public pedagogy of place. Despite the expense and unavailability of Internet technology, particularly high-speed access, for some rural citizens, the site explains its intention as an on-line space to gather:

One challenge faced by scholars involves how to avoid colonizing the voices of rural women, and how instead to seriously face and understand the different contexts of women’s lives. . . .Feminist theorists. . .remain caught in a bind. We call for marginalized groups of women to enable subjects to speak for themselves, but we realize that the academic and literary worlds are closed or alien to many of these women. (Carolyn Sachs, qtd. in “Why RWZ is Online”.)

The RWZ stands out from other examples in that it begins from the assumption that dominant ideologies in mainstream rural culture and the United States more broadly are to be questioned and examined: it begins from a position of decolonization . . .

. .the RWZ remains inclusive to those who may not hold the same ideologies: “You do not have to identify with the women’s movement or with feminism in order to belong to this group. But the (Ruralwomyn Email List) assumes the validity of the women’s movement and explores the gap between feminism and rural women’s experience.”  Its decolonization goals are also clear on the home page in its emphasis on political action, featuring news articles . . .such as. . . .“It’s a Long, Long Way to Towanda, Kansas: The Price of Neglecting Rural America.”

The book goes on to describe the Rural Womyn Zone as “a rich and vibrant resource for rural women that facilitates discussion and analysis of a host of issues . . . In and of itself, it serves as a kind of critical, public pedagogy and scrutinizes various rural issues to highlight power and privilege.”

And, as a detractor to the idea that Wendell Berry is the final authority on agrarianism and The Great Plains, I was surprised and delighted to read, “What might it look like to read essays by RWZ contributors alongside memoirs from the Paxton women and also Wendell Berry, for example? How much richer could conversations about place become for students and researchers when the issues these women attend to conjoin those traditionally associated with agrarianist writing?”

My cup runneth over. When I started the Rural Womyn Zone web site, I said we rural women had been “hollering out the back door into the night.” It was like Judy Blunt said in her book Breaking Clean, “you can yell and scream out here until you’re purple in the face, and nobody will hear you, even if they are listening.” To know that feminists and academics are hearing the voices of the many women of substance that make up the Rural Womyn Zone over these years, is completely fulfilling to me.

I am so glad that when my focus and energy returned, I found this book. I only wish I could personally thank the authors for what they wrote.

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