Along back roads, women's voices come to fore Silent partner role of past is dying

September 29, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac

In a quiet revolution in the nation's countryside, rural women have begun to recast their lives and their communities and, in making those changes, are significantly reshaping the culture of rural America.

From the hollows of Appalachia to the prairies of the Midwest, up the country and down, rural women are becoming community and family leaders in ways unfamiliar to them, creating new traditions while losing some of the old ones.

The movement has no name, but it does have a voice -- lots of voices.

"I know the strength of the women, and without that strength, I don't think this community would survive," said Maxine Waller, a 42-year-old community organizer from an Appalachian village in southwestern Virginia, one stop in a recent trip that included nearly three dozen interviews with women in rural sections of Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania. "It's as though we've been asleep," Mrs. Waller said. "And now we're awake. I knowed we could do it."

Pushed into the labor force out of economic necessity, many country women are finding the workplace to be their pathway to self-expression, determining their own fates and a kind of spiritual liberation.

No longer content to serve as silent partner as the economy topples around them, rural women are becoming active in areas such as economic and community development, and they are running for political office.

"Some people said a woman couldn't win. No one said a woman couldn't run," noted 51-year-old Brenda Butscher, who did both last November when she became the first female county commissioner elected in Maryland's Garrett County.

As women join the work force, child-care centers have begun to proliferate across the countryside. And women's support groups are cropping up.

Traditional "women's work" -- the potluck suppers that are the bread and butter of fire halls and churches -- has gone by the wayside in many communities because women no longer have as much time for volunteer activities. In recognition of women's shifting role, Farm Wife magazine recently changed its name to Country Woman.

"It's as though a piece of rural life is slipping away," said 26-year-old Kim Miller, a businesswoman from southern Pennsylvania who will marry her farmer fiance next month. "Even as I embrace a contemporary role, I mourn the loss of some of our traditions."

Not since the prairie days of the 19th century, according to rural sociologists and cultural anthropologists, have country women been so tested.

And the changes have not come without pain. The rural family, mythologized as strong, stable and safe from the ills of urban society, is fragmenting and growing ever poorer.

A recently published U.S. Department of Agriculture survey reports that the number of rural children not living with both parents nearly doubled from 1960 to 1988, to 25 percent from 14 percent.

Demographic changes in the family structure accounted for 60 percent of the increase in poverty among rural children in the 1980s. Yet, an all-time high of 51 percent of rural women work.

"We are the shock absorbers," said Cornelia Flora, a rural sociologist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va.

"Women have assumed that if something has to be done, we'll do it. It is not that feminists are running out into the countryside, demonstrating what people can do. It's women doing what they have to do.

"This isn't a matter of, 'Oh, gee, isn't it wonderful that these women are becoming fulfilled,' " said Ms. Flora, who has studied rural women for nearly two decades. "These women are holding their communities together. They're holding this country together. This is one for the history books."

Garrett County, Md.

When the maples begin to turn red on Betty and Leslie Guard's dairy farm, it is time to harvest corn for silage, plant winter barley and do some fall plowing. It's a rhythm that the Guards have kept time to since they fell in love doing the do-si-do at a Saturday night square dance 46 years ago.

In this westernmost corner of Maryland, where the mountains top out at more than 3,000 feet, the 65-year-old Mrs. Guard sets the timer on her microwave oven for store-bought vegetable lasagna, which will be lunch today for Mr. Guard while she drives to Cumberland, 45 miles to the east, to visit her stockbroker.

"All around me, I see women taking more interest in what's going on around us, politically and economically," said Mrs. Guard, who in 1979 became the first woman on the board of directors of the region's rural electric cooperative.

"We aren't hicks or backwoods people because we live in the country, and every time I leave my house I try to break that mythology."

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