Listener Call 3

The hosts talk with a listener about the challenges faced by rural women.

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**This transcript comes from an early broadcast of this show. There may be small differences between the audio above and the text.**

PETER: Ed, Brian, we got a call from far out back in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania– a farm. And we’ve got Melissa on the line. Melissa, welcome to BackStory.

MELISSA: Well, thanks. Hello. I was thinking about the whole independent farm family thing, and then I was thinking about how much time my children and I spend on the internet and texting. And I was wondering– back in the day when the federal government was giving out land out West to entice people to move there, that resulted in a lot of really isolated farm families and a lot of women who had no other women to talk to. They had no support network.

So I was wondering if the government at any level ever thought that that would be a problem or ever realized that it was a problem. Did they do any kind of outreach to try to help farm families in general and farm women in particular keep it together?

PETER: We’re talking about the mental health of farm families. We’re going to quiz you about yours shortly, but we have Ed on the line from the 19th century.

ED: Well, in the 19th century, long before the government identified it as a problem, farm families themselves did. And kidding aside, they identified exactly what you’re talking about, Melissa– that loneliness, especially for women, was very real with child rearing, childbearing. You get married. You’re a man. You ask your young wife to go with you to the frontier, and you’re asking her to leave the primary support network of her mother and sisters and friends who people have traditionally relied upon to help them bring new life into the world. Then, once the babies are born, there’s nobody to help out with them and no one that you trust as family. Everybody’s a stranger.

So in the 1870s– it took that long, as people were settling, especially in the West– to form the Grange, which was basically farmer self-help. And you still have Grange Halls around up there in Pennsylvania?

MELISSA: One or two. Not a whole bunch. Well, they’re a holdover from the 19th century, and the whole idea was that this is self-help for farmers on the psychological front, basically. You get together and swap tips about how to grow the latest crops and fertilizer and so forth, but a large part of it, too, would be to basically have fellowship.

PETER: And I think that business about the Grange is really interesting, because women played a very important role in the Grange movement, because it served functions far beyond market functions or improving agriculture. We were forging new forms of community, and that’s what happened in rural America. And it’s partly because rural Americans have dominated state legislatures and have used their power in government to get the government to work for them in order to forge connections.

You talk about text, Melissa. Well, people in the 18th and 19th century, as the frontier expanded, had the advantage of the post office, which followed them wherever they went. You couldn’t be a farmer if you weren’t linked or connected to markets, so farmers pioneer new forms of social communication. So in many ways, we think of farmers as throwbacks, as archaic figures from the past– a living museum is a modern farm. No, far from it. These have been right on the edge of developing new ways of communicating, connecting, especially in Brian’s century, the 20th century.

BRIAN: Yeah, well, the most important service in the 20th century are roads. And what did farmers want? They wanted roads, not only to get their crops to market, but so that they could meet with each other. So they could get to church. So that they could connect with each other. And those roads– we take them for granted today, but they are just so crucial to the social life of those farmers.

PETER: Melissa, we haven’t really addressed your problem with therapy. And of course, we can provide some of that now, here, on BackStory. But–

MELISSA: Well, hang on. How long is this show?

PETER: So tell us now, how do women form– do they form?– the kind of networks we’re talking about? Do they compensate for isolation? How do you compensate for isolation?

MELISSA: Well, I am umbilically attached to the internet. I’m a freelance copywriter, actually, so I have an office on the back of the house. And so literally, I’ve gone for half a week, sometimes, without ever leaving the hill. And I can see where if you couldn’t talk to anyone in that time, it could start to set you off a little bit.

Well, the other comment that you made that resonated a lot with me is about roads. And because our roads used to be so bad all the time, I really appreciated the fact that the world used to be covered with nothing but dirt roads and how lucky we were that the state runs a plow down the highway, and so I can get the kids to school in the wintertime. We don’t farm for a living. We farm on the side. And it is frustrating.

And almost every project you get into, at some point, there’s some morning in January where it’s dark and it’s five degrees out, and you think to yourself, I know why everyone got the farm as fast as they could. So having someplace to turn to– turning to radio for information and entertainment, turning to the internet because there’s lots of blogs and advice-sharing out there by farm people, to find out what to do with your broken hog panel when you have to get the kids to school in 10 minutes and you’ve got a lot of animals to keep in. And just being able to indulge in the basic human need to complain.

PETER: Well, Melissa, you should call often. We’re here for you. OK?

MELISSA: Well, thank you very much. I enjoyed it.

PETER: All right. It’s been wonderful talking to you.

BRIAN: Thank you, Melissa.

MELISSA: Bye-bye.

PETER: Bye-bye.


BRIAN: And that is where we’re going to have to leave things for today, but as always, there’s plenty more for you explore online. Pay us a visit at to see the articles and books that shaped today’s show. You can also find all our past shows there, along with a link to our free podcasts.

PETER: Once again, that’s at We’re also on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jessie Dukes, Jess Engebretson, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Tony Field. Emily Charnock is our researcher and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Special thanks today to Elizabeth Clemens and the White Rock Conservancy.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History made everyday.


FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.