"What to Do With Our Girls": Prescriptive literature and the girl problem in the rural Midwest, 1865-1900

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Kleinschmidt, Rachel
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Pamela Riney-Kehrberg
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The Department of History seeks to provide students with a knowledge of historical themes and events, an understanding of past cultures and social organizations, and also knowledge of how the past pertains to the present.

The Department of History was formed in 1969 from the division of the Department of History, Government, and Philosophy.

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For women of the Midwest in the late nineteenth century, the teenage and young adult years provided opportunities for women to explore options for work, education, socializing, and marriage, but within the strictly controlled boundaries of the lifestyle of farm daughter and helper. The prevalence of teaching jobs in rural schools, as well as opportunities for socialization, such as church, temperance societies, and other community activities, provided a range of activities acceptable for young women to partake. Social prescriptions and parental guidance influenced the expectations of how a young woman should act, yet these women worked within and without of these boundaries to forge a lifestyle of their own.

Prescriptive literature, including etiquette advice manuals and articles in newspapers and farm journals, pushed young women in many different directions related to their lifestyle and attitude. Advice authors expected girls to conform to an urban, middle-class definition of womanhood, which defined women as caretakers of the home and family. This definition could not encompass the realities of life on the farm, where women and girls were productive members of the farming household. Rural advice attempted to take this position into account, but these writers worried more about the potential for farm girls to leave the farm. None of the prescriptive literature could accurately assess the position of rural daughters, as the unique aspects of farm life, and the differences between farm families' material circumstances, made generalizations about girls difficult.

Girls on the farm had serious responsibilities within their families, but still acted as young, single women. The tension between roles as productive members of the farming household and roles as job seekers, socialites, and potential marriage partners provided a space where single women in rural families both provided for the family and community and found ways to maintain social lives that may not have fit within the social prescriptions. The diaries of four young women in rural Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin from the years 1865 to 1894 provide contrasting examples of how young, unmarried rural women negotiated the societal prescriptions for women's behavior in the context of the farm home.

Tue Jan 01 00:00:00 UTC 2013