Purdue University Graduate School
StephensDissertation_Final.pdf (1.26 MB)

Unusual Archives and Unconventional Autobiographies: Interpreting the Experience of Rural Women, 1940-1985

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posted on 2019-01-17, 14:25 authored by Abby L. StephensAbby L. Stephens
This study analyzes eleven collections created, saved, and preserved by rural Iowa women, during the middle of the twentieth-century to interpret change in the experience of rural American women, and consider their role in the preservation of historical evidence. Analysis of privately-held and institutional collections of calendars, journals, scrapbooks, notebooks, and club meeting records provides details of farm life, rural communities in transition, and the way collection creators conceptualized and enacted the identity of rural womanhood. In making decisions about which events to write down in a journal or clip-and-save from the local newspaper, these women “performed archivalness” in preserving their experience for family and community members and scholars.
The women who created the collections considered in this study experienced a rural landscape altered by the continuation and aftermath of agricultural specialization, mechanization, and capital consolidation. These changes altered rural community systems, economies, and institutions reshaping the experience of rural womanhood, as women upheld and adjusted the norms and values that defined the rural way of life. This study takes a three-part approach to considering the eleven collections as case studies. Chapter two analyzes five of the collections as unconventional forms of autobiographical writing, finding that nowhere else were women truer to themselves and their experiences than in their daily writing. In journals or on calendars, these women wrote their life stories by recording the daily details of work, motherhood, and marriage, and occasionally providing subtle commentary on local and national events. Changes in women’s work, education, responsibilities in marriage and motherhood, and involvement in public life and civic affairs happened in gradual and rapid ways during the middle of the twentieth-century. The third chapter in this study analyzes the collections of three women who used their writing to document, prescribe, and promote notions of rural womanhood during this time of change. Chapter four provides a meditation on the relationship between evidence and history by examining the ways in which three women performed archivalness in creating their collections. Consideration of the means by which the collections have been saved, provides insight into the importance of everyday individuals in the preservation of historical evidence.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • American Studies

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Dr. Susan Curtis

Additional Committee Member 2

Dr. Kristina Bross

Additional Committee Member 3

Dr. Nancy Gabin

Additional Committee Member 4

Dr. Bill Mullen

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