Gender and Midwestern History

The entire premise of this blog is: Doing Women’s History in the American Midwest. Yet I spend a lot of time wondering whether regional identity really matters when thinking about gender identity. In 1978, at the dawn of women’s historiography, historian D’Ann Campbell thought so, at least in the American West. Others have argued that the forces of gender shape our political, social, and economic existence without much regard for geography. So what is behind my Midwest to the tagline?  

The question of region first emerged while writing my MA thesis and I developed an intense desire to argue that farm women in Iowa somehow mattered well beyond state boundaries. Looking for a quick answer, I asked historian Dorothy Schweider to explain the intersections of Midwestern identity and gender. It was winter. We were sitting in her living room, sipping tea and munching on cookies, and I anticipated a profound, easy-to-replicate response. She had, after all, contributed an essay on women and extension work in Murphy and Venet’s Midwestern Women: Work, Community, and Leadership at the Crossroads (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997). She sighed and said she didn’t know. The authors and editors in the aforementioned volume endlessly debated the issue but ultimately failed to make a convincing argument for Midwestern distinctiveness. The region was too geographically diverse, while class and race wildly complicated definitions of womanhood. Though the essays were sound, she said, the book itself was a disaster.

As always, Dorothy encouraged me to think further on the subject.

I recently revisited Midwestern Women and found that Dorothy was right. The essays don’t stick together or fully engage the existing (for 1997) historiography on Midwestern identity. On the other hand, Murphy and Venet made some very forward-looking suggestions for future research, including conceiving of the region as a borderlands. Most significantly, in the forward historian Glinda Riley echoed Dorothy’s assessment but noted that the strength of the volume was in simply “establishing the details and experiences of women’s lives.”

In other words, the collection of essays says of historians and historical women alike, “We’re here. We exist.”

And that’s why I put …in the Midwest on the tagline. The problem is less one of pinpointing a distinctive regional identity, and more one of convincing the broader historical research community that interesting things happened here. With gender, there are tremendous opportunities to flesh out the big national narratives that Americans tend to like. For example, we assume that women’s movements originated in coastal, urban centers and slowly moved to more peripheral, predominately rural regions (where conservative women promptly rejected radical ideas). But emerging research tells a much more complicated, nuanced story. One of my favorites is Anna L. Bostwick Flaming’s 2013 article in the Annals of Iowa titled “Opening Doors for Iowa Women: Gender, Politics, and the Displaced Homemaker.” Flaming describes how women in Mason City, Iowa embraced femnism on their own terms and adapted the movement for the needs of the local community. Flaming’s focus may be very localized, but she hints that we ought to learn more about the nature of Second Wave feminism not by exploring the writings of national leaders, but by considering lived experiences.

Similarly, in the conclusions to Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America (Temple University Press, 2013)Colin R. Johnson describes a sting operation in Mansfield, Ohio during the 1960s to identify men having sex with other men in a public restroom. He found that the response of law enforcement and city officials was mediated by personal relationships. Johnson effectively argued – throughout the book, that such stories disrupt our narratives in this history of sexuality, and queer culture as a distinctly urban, coastal phenomenon.

This can easily be applied to nearly any time period, and is especially effective when the studies focus fully synthesize local activities with explorations of how local actors internalized and dealt with broader debates, national leaders, and forces well beyond their control.

Americans love the idea of “the Heartland.” Yesterday, the New York Times published this interactive story asking readers to define America’s “Heartland.” You can see how your answers match up and learn about the competing and often conflicting perceptions of what is typically deemed “fly-over country.” As an academic type, I like the twelve-state definition of the Midwest, but even that can be unruly. So I’ll leave you here to explore further and perhaps, like me, spend the next decade pondering the issue of region.

Sources:

Anna L. Bostwick Flaming, “Opening Doors for Iowa Women: Gender, Politics, and the Displaced Homemaker, 1977-1983,” Annals of Iowa 72, no. 3 (Summer 2013), 238-273.

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