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Close Encounters with Oral History: Uncovering Women’s History

In our third and final blog post, we present the historical interpretations of the Iowa Township Project, concluding ten years of diligent research and analysis. Interspersed throughout this post are stories from Grinnellians who grew up during the Great Depression. They reflect on their own experiences and the stories of their parents and grandparents. For context about Grinnell and the project in general, check out our first post, “Land, Census, and the Digital Humanities: The Iowa Township Project.” To learn more about our data, read our previous post, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Data Collection.”

“We were never hungry. Raised all of our own food. We had livestock, we had a big garden, had an orchard. My mother canned every year. We butchered all the time. Your meat—there was no refrigeration, of course, in those days. And I can remember, when we butchered, you butchered three or four hogs at one time. We had our own smokehouse. You’d cure the ham and you’d grind and stuff your own sausage and then you’d put the sausage down in big twenty gallon crocks covered with lard. And that’s the way you kept it down in the basement, just covered with that lard. That’s why my cholesterol is so high today. You wanted some sausage, you’d go down and dig it out of that old lard crock, you know, and cook it.”

Everett Armstrong
Be a Live One and Come to Grinnell, IA

Interstate 80 cuts Iowa in half.  Part of the Interstate Highway System, spearheaded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, passes just a few miles south of Grinnell, Iowa. At exit 182, the view is the same as the rest of Iowa: fields sprawling as far as the eye can see and the occasional pockets of trees surrounding them.  It’s impossible to say why these trees were planted: maybe as a result of FDR’s tree belt plan or maybe they already existed when the farmers arrived. History exists if you know how and where to look for it.

Broyles Farm in Winter

When you drive into Grinnell, you pass a mix of new and old buildings, repurposed factories, and construction.  Some of the houses are original, some were torn down and rebuilt, reflecting the continual growth of Grinnell.  Eventually you reach the college, another mix of old and new.  Who built these buildings?  Who moved and built their lives here?  A trip to the Grinnell Historical Museum might shed some light on the town founders, but what about the average man?  What about the women?

You can imagine Grinnellian women were tough, especially in the beginning.  The idea of Grinnell itself began as a flag where two railroads crossed.  While we can’t be sure exactly what life was like, we know from other settlers in Iowa that life was tough.  Both men and women wrote journals, keeping track of everything they did.  Women in particular were meticulous when describing their culinary endeavors far away from the comforts back east.  Men, on the other hand, wrote romanticized versions of women’s work, “which indicated little of the difficulty of accomplishing that work, [they] presented women’s culinary efforts as an example of women’s nurturing role” (on the indescribable care devolving upon a housewife 186-187 Midwestern women). Women also wrote about men’s work, particularly when they did it themselves, however women often devalued their own contribution. When they “were in the fields, they usually referred to their efforts as help rather than actual work” (Open country, Iowa 64). Eventually as Grinnell and Iowa were settled, new opportunities for work opened, and women did not have to remain on the farm.

Family portrait, Guernsey, Iowa

How do we know that women began taking jobs outside of their family farms? Through oral history, an underrated tool that reflects not only the circumstances of the speaker but also their opinions.  It also shows what hasn’t been recorded in official documents.  This is particularly interesting in Grinnell, Iowa, where several people interviewed for the “Voices from the Past: The Depression and World War II Oral History Project” recalled women working at the glove factory.  If we check our collection of US Census records, we find that 14 female heads of household out of 11,213 household entries worked at the Glove Factory.  It seems that despite the oral history, women working at the glove factory was the exception not the rule.  Even if we expand the selection to just female heads of household, the proportion of women working outside the home is still low: only 664 out of 11,213 had jobs.  Similar to what other historians have discovered, there is a consistent devaluing of women’s economic contributions.

“Well, they worked at the glove factory, making gloves, at a sewing machine place upstairs at the glove factory. And of course women clerked in stores. And that’s about it.”

Dorothy Lannom

Fun Fact Blurb: In 1910, enumerators were told to count women as farm laborers if they helped actively in the fields for their husband or son.  This led to a dramatic increase nation wide of women reported as having jobs.  This was then dropped in the 1920 census.[1]

“She was just the mother and the housekeeper.”

Everett Armstrong (on his mother role)

It’s no surprise that the US Census pays so little attention to women’s work.  Firstly, our time period occupies a unique space in Census History, notably the shift between the household census and the individual census.[2]  The household census reflects the idea of the “Family Economy” meaning the family or household as a whole is what is contributing to the economy, not individuals.[3]  While this technical period of Census taking ended in 1840, it can still be seen through the early decades of our time period, where relationships between members of households were not recorded nor were children recorded going to school.[4]  Secondly, some scholars have suggested that new immigrants to America held a stigma against their wives and daughters working in the fields because of the connection it had to the Old World.  It was perceived that being able to not have your wife and daughters work on the farm was a sign of prosperity.  Not only did this occur for immigrants, in the mid nineteenth century there was a revival of the cult of domesticity that encouraged women to be viewed as dependents.[5] Regardless, as sad as it is to have so many women have their professions listed as “None” or “Keeping House,” we work with what we’ve got.

“Mother did everything in sight—cleaned house, cooked, gardened, disciplined a little kid, raised money for people who wanted to go to college.”

Marian Dunham

To better understand what kind of women’s work was recorded in the census, we looked more closely at the data of the 664 women who were reported as having jobs.  In the transcription, job titles were written word for word as they were listed in the census, meaning several types of work can be condensed under the same title or the same job category.  Figure 1 shows the types of jobs reportedly possessed by Grinnellian Women.  The jobs include white collar work, meaning they worked in an office and those who worked as seamstresses either out of a shop, their home, or the Glove Factory.  The ‘Other’ category encompasses women who were landladies, ran boarding houses, or had income that came in a non-traditional format.  Women who were nurses or assistants to someone in the medical profession fall under “Health” and women who were reported as owning a farm or being a farmer fall under “Farm.”  Women working in “Education” were teachers and women under “Domestic” worked as servants, cooks, housekeepers, or washerwomen.

Types of Jobs of Women’s Work

Another point of interest is Marital Status.  Are these women married, widowed, or single?  This status can give us insight into what type of economic situation the women are coming from.  Are they supporting themselves? Family members?  Or are they pooling their wages with their husbands?

Marital Status of Working Women

Similar to marital status, it matters to see if these were women living alone, with family members, or if they had boarders.

Household Makeup of Working Women

In conclusion, the work that women did outside of the home was an extension of their domestic work at home, such as domestic labor, working with children, or healthcare. They appeared to have gone into work to further support their families either in marriage or after the death of their husband. Despite these findings, a majority of women who lived in Grinnell were reported as doing no work. This does not lead us to believe that they sat around and did nothing, but rather had their voices extinguished due to prevailing societal, cultural, and economic ideas at the time.

While this series of blog posts has focused on the Iowa Township Project and in particular the work of Katie Orsund, we would like to remind the reader that data is for everyone. Katie chose to focus on Women’s History, but that does not limit this data in anyway. The Iowa Township Project is available for use for many interests including ecological research, local history, genealogical interests, and more. We encourage you to look around and see the history of your own town and what stories it tells.

Thank you.

[1] Nancy Folbre and Marjorie Abel, “Women’s Work and Women’s Households: Gender Bias in the U.S. Census,” Social Research 125, (1989),552.

[2] Kenneth J. Winkle, “The United States and Community History,” The History Teacher 28, no.1 (November 1994), 90.

[3] Heather L. Ross & Isabel V. Sawhill, “The Family as Economic Unit,” The Wilson Quarterly 1, no. 2, (Winter 1977): 84-88. [1] Winkle, “The United States,” 90.

[4] Winkle, “The United States,” 90.

[5] Nancy Folbre, “The Unproductive Housewife: Her Evolution in Nineteenth-Century Economic Thought,” Signs 16, no.3 (Spring 1991), 464.

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