My 2020 Synthesis: Empathy and Survival through the Lens of Pandemic Research

by Ashton Reynolds

Summer 2020 Combined Planning Meeting for Class of Covid and Voices of SMU Oral History Projects


This past summer, I served as a Project Manager for the Class of COVID Oral History Project.  This project was initially conceived to record and document the feelings, thoughts, and actions of students graduating from SMU in the COVID disrupted 2020 spring semester.  Additionally, we were interested in how the faculty and staff who assisted those students navigated the unexpected trials and hurdles brought on by COVID.  However, not long into June, it became clear that this project represented more than our participants’ reflections of the spring semester.  Our project found itself in the midst of a pandemic that would extend past the spring and be met with the largest civil unrest since the Civil Rights Movement.  The Class of COVID project was indelibly shaped by the history it sought to record.

Naturally, the necessary resource for an oral history project is people to interview.  Our team took a multifaceted approach to identifying possible interviewees.  We contacted the appropriate university office for a list of graduating students.  In addition to that, we contacted individual departments within the various colleges of the university for assistance in identifying graduating students they felt might be interested in participating in our project.  Finally, and with perhaps the most success, we reached out to people within our own academic and social circles at SMU to interview. These people not only provided us with fruitful interviews about their own lives and experiences; they also made beneficial suggestions for other interviewees.

Because of the pandemic, all of our interviews were conducted via Zoom.  Once the interviews were recorded into Zoom, we uploaded them into a transcription software program called Otter.  Once Otter returned the transcripts to us, we then proofread the transcript for accuracy. After our initial edit of the transcripts, we sent them to another team member to review.  When the transcript was fully vetted, it was then added into Box along with its pertinent information and metadata to be archived in the SMU archives.  In order to facilitate the most truthful answers to our questions, our team agreed to embargo each interview for 16 years, with confidential access limited to SMU students and faculty conducting applicable research.

Approach to Ethics

I approached Class of COVID from both ethical and historical perspectives.  My grant from the Maguire Center not only necessitated an ethical approach but gave me license to pursue an investigation of present events and people’s responses to them as a trained historian.  While historians work in the past, the impetus of our investigations is very much based in the present.  Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes in Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History that the past itself is only the past because of its relation to the present.

The past exists “over there” only because we are “here.”  Pastness, events that we conceive of as before our time, are less a reality and more a position of our conception.  We remember and consider events of the past from the values and concerns of the current moment. As a historian and a person who has grown increasingly concerned with our present ethical considerations in light of the pandemic, our work caused me to wonder about the vitality of our project overtime. I wondered if future societies would revisit our research as an ethical framework for evaluating what they perceived as the past.

Line of Questioning

We wanted our line of questioning to be as objective as possible in order to gain clear and honest answers from interview participants.  We did not want our interviewees to answer our questions in ways that suited our preferences.  Instead, we wanted honest and unvarnished information.  In this vein, we chose a tone of inquiry that avoided confrontation. However, we did ask one question that was more direct – and possibly jarring – than the others. We wondered,

“What do you think your responsibilities are as a human during the pandemic?”

We ended the interview with this question. And although it was asked with no motives for emotional disruption, the very nature of the question makes presumptions about the validity of personal responsibility during a crisis, which could possibly prompt internal/and or external conflict. The answer to this question goes beyond a simple reaction. Interviewees must delve into introspection about what humanity means to them and their place within the community of humanity. Arguably, it is impossible for one to express individual humanity apart from community.

                                                                                 Historical PerspectiveAs a history PhD student, I spent the summer conducting research for my dissertation as I simultaneously worked on Class of Covid.  As I considered the answer to our question about human responsibility, I considered the way this question is considered within the academic discipline of history.  For example, as I read Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, I was struck by the way Christopher Columbus evaluated the indigenous peoples he encountered as not fully human until they adopted Christianity and paid some type of penance. The idea of penance was used to justify Columbus’ decision to enslave them.

Simultaneously, I read Benjamin Park’s Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier which describes the struggles of the Mormons to be seen as human both in light of the Missouri Executive Order 44, also known as the Mormon Extermination Order, and their struggle to thrive as a marginalized group in a democratic system that privileged the majority.  Previous research for my MA thesis examined the ways in which African American Baptists and Methodists during Reconstruction in Texas refused to accept less-than-human offerings of fellowship from white church members and chose instead to form their own church bodies where they could express the full dignity of their humanity.

These examples of ways in which people have used power to objectify and degrade others have caused me to believe that times of trial do not bring out the best in societies.  I used to be more optimistic, but I am less sure as I study history and live through our current times.  Conversely, my research with Class of COVID has led me to conclude that many, if not most people, are very concerned with personal ethics.  Certainly, our interviewees do not want to get the virus.

But through our interviews, I noticed that the overwhelming pattern was that the safety of others dominated our participants’ concern. This leads me to ponder whether the personal ethics that guide the individual will guide society as a whole. Will individual responsibility translate into public virtue? I believe there is a disconnect between the personal ethics of individuals and the communal ethics instituted by institutions, organizations, and governments.  Granted, our Covid project presents only a small sample of people. But it is clear that the personal ethics of people who prioritize the welfare of others often isn’t visible in the goals of the larger bodies these individuals comprise.

This does not mean that institutions, organizations, and governments are completely devoid of an ethical framework to care for the wellbeing of the people who are affected by their decisions.  I do think, however, that fully considering the humanity of the individuals that comprise these larger groups complicate how institutions attain their goals and needs.  This is a well-worn historical pattern and not new to the COVID-19 era.  For example, although the First Amendment guarantees religious freedom, there was once fear that Mormon’s threatened to upset the balance of political power in the expanding United States because of their reputation for operating in political solidarity.

Another example is the refusal of white churches in Texas and across the South to grant African Americans full membership within their congregations, despite the progress of the 13th, 14th, and 15 amendments. African-Americans were functionally abandoned by white congregants and the Republican party in the name of “healing the nation.”  This leaves me pondering, why do institutions, organizations, and governments eschew the creativity and courage to accomplish their goals and needs in an ethical manner that considers the full humanity of the individuals without whom they could not exist?

“Greater Good”

The answer must be that institutions, in contrast to many of the individuals we interviewed for Class of COVID, make their ethical decisions based on institutional survival which allows great latitude in sacrificing the individuals who comprise them under the banner of ensuring the “greater good.”  What is insidious about the “greater good” is how easily it becomes a neat default for institutions and their leaders to avoid the hard work of creativity and compassion.  The “greater good” is a salve to the conscience of institutions and their leaders that is unavailable to rank and file individuals that comprise the institutions.

Individuals must confront their humanity, one way or the other.  They can choose to eschew empathy and the action that derives from it, but they run the risk of rightly being judged inhumane for it.  Institutions and their leaders on the other hand can look at the faceless, story-less individual and jettison their wellbeing or association.  Here we recognize that the “greater good” does not equate to “greater majority.”  The “greater good” is the idea of the institution, paradoxically, not the individuals who comprise it.

Too often we look to the past for motivation for our ethical structures of the present.  If we take Trouillot at his word and view the past not as something of substance, but a position dependent on the present, then we can reorient the source of our ethics where it belongs, in the present.  Historical justifications, after all, are really simply dressed-up present desires.  If institutions do one thing well, it is the positive creation of their own history.  Their histories tend to emphasize the accomplishments and trials of the institution, drawing in the histories of individuals that serve the institution’s interests, as needed.  While this is a good historical approach for institutional survival and promotion, it is a poor approach for confronting ethical challenges brought on by events like pandemics.  It develops institutional glory, which is at best useless when confronting ethical challenges, and sometimes it is much worse.

Institutions must eschew institutional glory for institutional empathy.  To accomplish this, institutions – be they government, university, religious body, or corporation — must accept the notion of the past as a concept relative to our present reality.  With this mentality, the histories of the individual are not subsumed, or even redacted, to the history of the institution, but become pertinent and visible as a crucial part of the institution.  Once his/her history is accepted, the individual’s present realities and worth become undeniable.  Thus, the institution truly acts in its own benefit, as it becomes fully aware that it only exists through the individuals who comprise it.  Empathy is then the derivative of institutional history and not the illusion of glory.





12 Things I’ve Learned as a Ph.D. Student

SMU history graduate student Tim Seiter recently wrote an insightful and witty  article for INSIDE HIGHER ED discussing what it’s really like to be a PhD student and shares what he’s learned along the way.

To read, click here.

From Rejected to Accepted: Learning from Mistakes and Setting Yourself Up for Success

By Andrew Klumpp

One of the things no one told me about graduate school when I started was exactly how much rejection I would face as a graduate student. The application process to graduate school probably should have indicated that the academy includes a fair amount of rejection, but I’m not sure that I really understood that until I started the process of really putting myself out there for fellowships, conferences, and jobs.

Social media and departmental websites make it easy to witness our colleagues’ successes. When someone receives a prestigious grant, their name and picture, deservedly, show up on the department website. When conferences make decisions about accepted papers/panels, I often find out first from enthusiastic announcements on Twitter before I even have time to check my own inbox.

Conversely, people infrequently announce their rejections from fellowships, jobs, or conferences.

I’ve been fortunate enough over the past four years to receive my fair share of acceptance emails, and on occasion, I’ve even announced my delight on social media; however, a big part of my process of receiving more acceptances has involved learning from plenty of rejection.

I used to keep all of my deadlines in my head and just presumed that I wouldn’t forget any of them. Vaguely, I knew when conference proposals were due and which fellowships might apply to my research interests. I had a bit of success that way, but I also got my share of rejections. I occasionally missed a deadline because it came up more quickly than I anticipated or failed to pull a panel together in time because I didn’t start my work putting it together soon enough. My first few years as a grad student, I learned some of these lessons the hard way, through rejection and the occasional missed opportunity.

I don’t mind be open about those early struggles, failures, and rejections, though. First of all, I’ve learned and changed as I’ve developed as a scholar. Secondly, I recognize that this is part of the process of my learning as a graduate student and good preparation for future efforts to navigate the academic world.

So, what have I learned from all of this?

1) Keep a Spreadsheet

In light of the lessons I’ve learned, I do things differently now. Every August I sit down to prepare an excel sheet to keep track of all upcoming conference, fellowship, and job deadlines for the academic year. This year, as a fourth-year student, I knew I’d spend a lot of my time in the classroom, in the archives, and writing my dissertation, but I didn’t want to lose sight of the many opportunities that would come my way. Missing a few deadlines earlier in my career or being rejected because I knew I didn’t allot the appropriate amount of time to an application taught me a lesson. Knowing the importance of these applications forced me to set myself up to maximize my opportunities for success.

During this process, I also take time to scour fellowship announcements, research library grants, and a variety of other sources of support for graduate students. If I find something that looks like it will apply to my work, I enter it into my spreadsheet, copy the website into the appropriate line, and insert the due date. Most of these opportunities occur annually, so I can find them at any time of the year, and by doing much of the legwork ahead of time, funding opportunities are less likely to sneak up on me. Sure, things come up unexpectedly, but when they do, I put them in the spreadsheet and continue with the process.

With all of that information collected, I can arrange my spreadsheet by due date and pace my work appropriately without the fear of missing an important deadline.

2) Start Conference Planning Early

Plenty of rejections have also taught me quite a bit about the process of putting together panels for conferences. Most crucially, I’ve learned to start earlier rather than later. Sometimes things come together last minute, but I’ve often found more success when I started early. It takes work to put together a dynamic panel and as a graduate student, that meant leaning on my contacts in the field, sending emails to folks I’d never met, and in at least one instance, turning to Twitter to fill a last minute vacancy. It’s work that takes time. An important part of getting your work out there is the process of presenting at conferences, but coordinating between scholars, particularly over email, is something done best with plenty of time to spare.

When setting up a panel, it’s also important to know who you are and pay attention to creating panels that represent the diversity of voices in the field. That’s been hard sometimes, especially because as a graduate student many of my closest colleagues are other graduate students. I know of panels of graduate students that have been accepted at some conferences, but your odds always improve if you are able to folks at diverse points in their career—the same goes for representing all other forms of diversity working in the field. With a bit of time and chutzpah, you can often secure established scholars for a panel. In fact, I’ve often been surprised by how gracious, kind, and encouraging these folks are when approached about panel opportunities.

3) Don’t let fear of rejection stop you.

Rejection can be very hard, and with every letter or email I get, there’s a tinge of disappointment. But I’ve learned not to be afraid of it. More than once in the past year alone, I’ve been happily surprised because I took the time to apply for fellowships or ask well-known scholars to participate in a panel I was developing.

When I look back on my 2018-2019 spreadsheet, it’s a mixed bag. I still got plenty of rejections, but I also met almost every single one of my deadlines with time to spare. At the end of the day though, it was my most successful year by far, particularly for fellowships and panel and paper proposals.

By taking the lessons I learned from rejections earlier in my career, I received three wonderful research grants for the coming year from the Van Raalte Institute in Holland, Michigan, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the New-York Historical Society in New York City. I also managed to snag a small dissertation completion fellowship, which will certainly ease the stress of writing next year and a few conference travel grants. This year, I’ll also have the opportunity to present my work in a variety of contexts, including on panels that I organized at the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Academy of Religion.

Since I started graduate school four years ago, I’ve been rejected a lot. Those rejections have often been difficult, disappointing, or frustrating, but they’ve also been instructive. I’ve learned that rejection is a part of the process. The system I’ve developed isn’t perfect and it certainly doesn’t stop me from getting rejected. Ultimately, though, it works for me. It helped me, as a fourth year Ph.D. candidate, look back at 2018-2019 academic calendar as one filled with both instructive rejections and also plenty of acceptances.

Teaching Texas History: Connecting State and Local History to the World

By Kyle B. Carpenter

During this past Spring semester, I assisted Dr. Brian Franklin with his survey course on Texas history. It was an excellent experience. The guidance Dr. Franklin imparted was invaluable. He is a model for how to lead a fun and engaging historical survey. Not only did I gain valuable skills from his example, but his willingness to allow me to lead discussion sections and give lectures in class gave me a head start for when I go to create my own syllabi on Texas history. Through Dr. Franklin’s lectures and guidance, as well as my own research in building lectures and discussion exercises, I came to the unequivocal understanding that regional history is global history. I also found that functionally, regional histories offer broad appeal to students through their recognizability and clear demonstration the historian’s craft. Teaching Texas history has offered me an even more positive perspective of regional history than I previously had.

Throughout its history, Texas has been a transnational space. Prior to European contact, indigenous groups migrated into and out of the region competing for trade, space, and natural resources. European attempts to settle Texas created even more contestation over the region as the Spanish and French entered into the already complicated competition over territory. After Mexico gained its independence, the new nation attempted to open Texas for the Atlantic World. Through the empresario system, Mexico contracted with independent agents to promote migration to Texas from Europe and North America. Ultimately, the empresario system drew in thousands of Anglo-Americans from the U.S. South who rebelled against Mexico in order to maintain their own notions of Jacksonian democracy and African chattel slavery. They established the Republic of Texas which became a hotbed of international intrigue and diplomacy that drew in the English, French, United States, and several German principalities. Those diplomatic struggles, particularly over the issues of the cotton trade and African chattel slavery, continued after Texas annexation to the United States and re-engulfed the Atlantic World during the U.S. Civil War. Transnational contestation in Texas remained unceasing.[1]

By the twentieth century, Texas became a place where global conflicts played out. The confluence of the Mexican Revolution, increasing ethnic violence, and the Zimmerman Telegram pushed Texans to support the U.S. entering World War I. Oil speculations and the rising oil and gas economy in Texas helped dictate world economies and American foreign policy. Furthermore, the United States fought portions of the Cold War through Texas. Texas Instruments contributed to U.S. military technology to help build a vast American nuclear arsenal. Religious leaders based in Texas, like Billy Graham, developed theologies to combat Soviet atheism. The world moved in and out of this one region in the middle of North America.[2]

In all of these examples showing how Texas was tied to the globe, teaching Texas history allows for various historical perspectives. Not only can one teach the subject from the points of view of Spain, Mexico, England, the Soviet Union or OPEC, Texas history promotes indigenous, African American, Mexican American, and various gendered perspectives. There is something in this regional history for everyone. Students can certainly find something to latch onto, something meaningful to them.

“Karte von Texas entworfen nach den Vermessungen, welche in den Acten der General-Land-Office der Republic liegen bis zum Jahr 1839 von Richard S. Hunt & Jesse F. Randel”. Map courtesy Dorothy Sloan-Rare Books, Austin, Texas

Even though Texas history is global, it remains a regional history with a limited geographic space that allows students a greater ability for analytical development and to better understand the historian’s craft. Dr. Franklin demonstrated this perfectly through a newspaper project that each student submitted individually. The assignment took place in stages and encouraged students to interact with primary sources throughout the semester. Students chose two separate Texas newspapers within a 3-month period between 1850-1877. They read four editions of each newspaper within their chosen timeframe and identified four topics that stood out to them as either being particularly significant or just interesting. Finally, they drew out the topic that they found most engaging and wrote a final report based on their primary sources and select secondary sources. Students wrote about a vast array of topics from slavery, to the Civil War, to railroad development, to border conflicts, to fashion. I thought the newspaper project a wonderful exercise for students to grasp the significance of Texas history and to learn how historians develop ideas.

I gained so much essential experience in my assistantship with Dr. Franklin. He included me in the early design phase of the course where we discussed possible readings and assignments for the students. We shared in the grading and student advisement. He also generously shared his lecture slides and notes when I got stuck on how best to frame a lecture. Perhaps most importantly, I learned in Dr. Franklin’s course how to construct a survey on a regional history that draws out its global implications.

[1] Randolph B. Campbell, Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, Third edition (New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018); Randolph B Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009); Jesús F. de la Teja, Paula Mitchell Marks, and Ronnie C. Tyler, Texas: Crossroads of North America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2004); David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

[2] Patricia Bernstein, The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006); H. G Bissinger, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream. (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2015). Campbell, Gone to Texas; de la Teja, et. al, Texas: Crossroads of North America.

Graduate Student Professional Development at SMU and Greater DFW

By Kyle B. Carpenter

When I first entered graduate school, one of the last things from my mind was how to develop as a professional historian. I was worried about classes, keeping up with the readings, trying to maintain some semblance of a family life, etc. However, during my first semester it became apparent that participating in professional development outside the classroom was one of the most important activities to build my career in academia. I came to see that conferences, outside speakers, interdisciplinary events, and numerous other occasions help graduate students to learn from other scholars how the craft works. These events all help young historians make important contacts both within and outside their field that can pay dividends in the future. Even historians have to network. It can seem overwhelming, though. How can one totally swamped grad student keep up in the classroom and do all this stuff? Travel can seem totally out of the question as it would take way too much out of necessary reading time, therefore I thought it would be helpful to put together a brief and wholly unexhaustive overview of some the most accessible professional development events at SMU and in DFW.

At SMU, the Clements Center for Southwest Studies offers a variety of resources to build professional historians. The center brings in a group of four fellows of very high academic standing every year and each one gives a free public talk about their research. Further, their offices are located right on SMU’s campus in Dallas Hall where graduate students can pick their brains or just get to know them. The Clements Center also puts on an evening lecture series that hosts some of the best scholars from across the world. Additionally, the center organizes annual symposia of scholars who focus on the Southwest and borderlands who get together and produce a book of essays that relate to given theme. Last year, the “Understanding Global Migration” symposium delivered a two-day public event where scholars of world migrations shared their research.

For those interested in topics outside the Southwest and borderlands, there are similar academic centers located throughout SMU. Anyone interested in politics should definitely check out the Tower Center. The SMU Cox School of Business has the O’Neil Center which often has events about contemporary and historical economic issues. Finally, the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute produces several lecture series and fellowship opportunities for graduate students across campus.

SMU also offers resources for graduate students to become better teachers and to achieve funding for research. The Center for Teaching Excellence has multiple programs, workshops, and even a symposium designed to aid new and seasoned faculty in becoming more effective instructors in both the physical and online classroom. The Office of National Fellowships and Awards guides graduate students to the often-complicated processes of applying for scholarships and funding opportunities. In addition to their comprehensive online guides, the office also provides services to review grant applications so that you submit the best possible application to get the research funding you need.

If you want to meet some outstanding scholars in the DFW area and get out of the SMU bubble, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Most conveniently DASH (Dallas Area Society of Historians) meets monthly in locations at SMU and at TCU in Fort Worth. The organization draws in historians at all levels of the profession, from full professors down to graduate students, that allows for a comfortable atmosphere to socialize and present research. It really is a wonderful way to meet local historians, make connections, and learn how our craft is practiced at the highest level. Additionally, for those interested in religious history should attend the annual conferences of the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies in Irving, Texas every March.  Their annual meeting marks a great way to interact with scholars across disciplines in religious studies. DASH and SWCRS make up two excellent local organizations to network and develop professionally.

Another great organization that is inviting and provides an excellent setting for professional development is the Transatlantic History Student Organization at UTA. Not only is THSO a great organization to meet other graduate students at neighboring universities, they host an annual graduate student conference that draws in grad students from all over the country. Their annual conference is a highly professional event that is well organized and allows for young, inexperienced historians to get their feet wet to learn how history conferences work. Whether you want to present a paper or just attend to get the conference experience without having to travel, THSO’s annual event remains a fantastic resource for grad students in DFW.

Obviously, this brief blog post is not an exhaustive list of all the professional development opportunities in DFW. These organizations and opportunities are the those I know about or have experienced first-hand. Those I have experienced have all not only helped me become a better scholar but taught me some of the most important aspects that go into being a professional academic. For those who read this and have additional suggestions, please contribute in the comments.

Women at Work in Agriculture: Discovering a New Field

By Jonathan Angulo

In Professor Ariel Ron’s Graduate Colloquium,
U.S. History, 1812-1877, I wrote a historiographical paper on the early development of agriculture in California. Since I wanted to broaden my understanding of U.S. agriculture, I knew that I wanted to continue to research themes that related to agriculture in forthcoming courses. Thus, I met with Professor Crista DeLuzio on a September evening to discuss my intentions for her fall colloquium on U.S. History from 1877-1929. In her office, we discussed my research interests, which helped me choose a topic for my historiographical assignment. During our conversation, I realized that I wanted to study women’s role in agricultural labor during the decades surrounding the twentieth century. I presented my idea to Professor DeLuzio and she approved my topic. As the semester progressed, I found only a handful of books and articles that addressed the subject in depth. Historians, of this field, raised questions about women’s role in agriculture. For example, what was the role of African American women in agriculture? How did women affect family farms? How did women’s labor differ throughout the United States? How did women perform agricultural labor alongside their husbands and sons? Ultimately, I was surprised to find that there are few works that discusses women’s role in agricultural labor from 1870-1920.

Marion Barthelme’s Women in the Texas Populist Movement: Letters to the Southern Mercuryreveals the speeches, essays, and letters women wrote to the influential Southern Mercury. The Farmers’ Alliance recognized the Southern Mercury’s significance in advancing policies of the Populist Movement. In her work, Bartheleme publishes the original documents, so readers can understand how women felt about everyday experiences. Women wrote letters that discussed themes such as: politics, farm life, women’s suffrage, education, clothing, temperance, as well as other matters. Through government advancements of the nuclear family, women were often characterized as individuals who focused on the nurture of their households. However, Texan women worked outside of their homes by helping men in fields and pastures. Women collected goods in gardens and pastures to exchange them for necessary commodities. During periods of economic downturns, however, women continued to financially struggle. While they kept on working in and outside of the home, their work did not bring them the financial security they needed. Thus, through Barthelme’s work, I was able to observe one trend of women in agricultural labor.[i]

From Mary Neth’s Preserving the Family Farm: Women, Community, and the Foundations of Agribusiness in the Midwest, 1900-1940, I learned about women’s agricultural labor in a different region. Neth acknowledges the gender inequalities that existed even in most cooperative family farms; however, men, women, and children cast aside such inequalities to preserve their farms as agribusiness grew in the Midwest. While historians have characterized such instances as opportunities for women’s resistance, Neth argues that Midwestern women put their families before themselves. By participating in field labor and family care, women created commodities such as poultry flocks and eggs for their families as well as the market. Also, young boys and girls dug and planted potatoes, picked berries, and set tobacco. Families utilized these subsistence mechanisms to stabilize their household budgets, so they would not be bought off by agribusiness agents. Neth describes how certain commodities required women’s labor. For example, in Wisconsin, mothers and daughters gathered tobacco. Since farmers could not afford to employ many laborers, all family members often worked together in tobacco fields. Thus, families kept some of their purchasing power by not hiring additional labor. Women’s work in pastures and field was clear. In times of government surveys of agricultural production, however, women reported that they only helped in production. Therefore, women’s full participation in agricultural production was unintentionally overlooked.[ii]

By the turn of the twentieth century, women’s role in agricultural labor significantly increased during World War I. Cecilia Gowdy Wygant’s Cultivating Victory: The Woman’s Land Army and the Victory Garden Movement examines British and American women’s role in agricultural labor during both World Wars. Wygant argues that between 1900 and 1950 both British and American governments utilized images of agrarian women as symbols of nationalism which questioned their roles in farming and gardening. Once the U.S. joined the Allies in World War I, the federal government created the Women’s Land Army of America (WLAA). The WLAA trained women, so they could serve as agricultural workers. Women’s groups and college campuses created agricultural training programs for women with the WLAA’s help. For example, the University of Virginia taught women how to plow, harrow, till land, and prepare land by horse-drawn plows. Women who completed the training were known as “farmerettes.” Through such endeavors, women contributed to the war effort by producing food for their respective nations. More importantly, women’s strong participation in agricultural labor reinterpreted women’s role in agriculture as well as society. For example, the WLAA recommended better labor standards for agricultural laborers. They advocated for better cleanliness in living quarters to protect workers and the food supply. Also, the group called for improved boarding, compensation, and working conditions when they were employed. Women used these organizations to change some of the unfair practices in agriculture. While they were not always successful, their activism altered perceptions of normal agricultural practices such as conditions of living quarters.

While these were not the only books I reviewed for my historiographical paper about women’s role in agricultural labor during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, they were the most influential. I learned a great deal from this assignment. However, I concluded there are still many questions that should be addressed about this topic. What was the role of women in agricultural labor in regions such as the Southwest or the Southeast? Did these roles vary by ethnic groups? How did women’s roles change through their participation in agricultural labor? While I have not solely focused on such questions, I will continue to observe how the scholarship has changed. As my research continues, I may be able to answer some of these questions in the future.[iii]

[i]Marion K. Barthelme, Women in the Texas Populist Movement Letters to the Southern Mercury (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1997), 3,4,7,12, 14, & 17.

[ii]Mary Neth, Preserving the Family Farm: Women, Community, and the Foundations of Agribusiness in the Midwest, 1900-1940(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 2,7, 12, 19, 20, 21, 23, 31,39.

[iii]Cecilia Gowdy-Wygant, Cultivating Victory: The Women’s Land Army and the Victory Garden Movement (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), 4,8,11,31,32,44,51-53, & 63.