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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

For some, such as 48-year-old Meriam Brode, a basket weaver and spinner, changes for rural women are coming slowly, sometimes achingly so. One sister-in-law, she said, refuses to learn how to drive, preferring to rely on her husband and sons. Another must be in the kitchen every afternoon by 3:30 so that she can have supper ready when her husband gets home from his factory job.

"We're so isolated out here that it's tough to break out of the old ways," said Mrs. Brode, who moved here as a young bride.

"But women have access to the media, and they see the differences that have occurred in other places, and they are demanding the same rights themselves. But it's hard.

"I have allowed myself to be held back a bit because it's easier for my marriage to survive. I have a college education and my husband doesn't, so I downplay that side of me. I know it's not right, but it's family harmony. At least I have one thing those before me did not -- awareness, and it is an awareness that is turning into energy."

Southeastern Ohio

Thousands of people will attend the 28th annual Ohio Pumpkin Festival in Barnesville this weekend, and many of them will head directly for the food booth at Main Street United Methodist Church, whose churchwomen are known far and wide for their bean soup, corn bread and homemade pies.

This year, visitors will be disappointed. For the first time in two decades, the church's chief fund-raiser has been canceled.

"We're getting too old to put it on. We've got problems with our legs or our backs," said Verna Kaiser, 70. "We all got something wrong with us, and there's no young ones to take our place."

"Needs change as times change," explained Carolyn Wilson, a 4-H Club agent for the Ohio State University Cooperative Extension Service.

Last year, 4-H began a program for Guernsey County fifth-graders called "Adjusting to Family Change," a classroom workshop and after-school support group to help the rural children understand divorce better. Sixty percent of the students come from blended or single-parent families.

The county 4-H also sponsors a program called "Keys for Kids," a safety-education workshop for children of working parents who go home after school to empty houses. And two years ago, the Guernsey County Homemakers Council began supplementing its newsletter for young homemakers with special editions for working women and single parents.

In a pattern that is being played out in many economically depressed rural areas, men are traveling farther and farther to their jobs -- sometimes turning into weekend fathers -- while their wives, many new to the workplace, take minimum-wage jobs closer to home as secretaries, clerks and fast-food employees.

"The way things are, it's hard to make a living anymore," said 35-year-old Ann Wershing, who took a part-time job last spring as an orthodontist's assistant to bolster her family's income. Her husband, Gary, is a self-employed carpenter and blacksmith.

Sharon Miller, 48, principal of Brook Elementary School, said, "At one time, rural women stayed in one place and did one thing. They were caretakers and wives. Perhaps people aren't as satisfied as they once were to stay out of the mainstream.

"I see my own friends doing things they never dreamed of when they were younger. Many more women are trying to do a career and raise children. The changes, the changes -- they are all around us."

Ivanhoe, Va.

It's easy to look at what Ivanhoe doesn't have: no restaurant, no school, no store. There's not even a sidewalk. Many of the houses are so rickety, they look as if they're ready to roll right down the hill. Some still don't have indoor plumbing.

But this Appalachian village of 600, nestled among the Blue Ridge Mountains, does have Maxine Waller, whose sheer force of will seems to have kept the community from death's grip.

As president of the Ivanhoe Civic League, Mrs. Waller has mobilized a corps of determined women who have brought tiny Ivanhoe back from the precipice through fund-raisers, letter-writing campaigns and political maneuvering.

Most of the women have gotten their high school equivalencies jTC the past few years through the league, whose headquarters serves as a satellite campus for a regional college as well as a community hall and an after-school gathering place for children.

"I don't think the community would have survived without the women being real active," said Mrs. Waller, who as a child learned at the family dinner table that men eat first.

"It don't matter if it takes two hours or two years, they just want to get the job done. They are just go-ahead-and-do-it people."

A few years ago, one husband came in and threw his wife's high school textbooks at Mrs. Waller. "She never came back, but they're so many that did," she said.

When she was asked six years ago to head the league, Mrs. Waller declined, saying, "It would take a man or somebody with an education."

But "I found out being a woman was OK," said Mrs. Waller, who got her high school equivalency in 1988. "We are all of us here examples of women taking control of our own lives. When one of us gets tired, the other stands up.

"Is there recognition in our community that it's the women that's doing this? No," she said, tapping her heart, "just inside."

Southern Pennsylvania

When Kim Miller opened Hometown Hotdogs in downtown Waynesburg a year and a half ago, congratulatory comments from customers included: "Isn't it nice of your husband to open this for you?" and "Oh, were you bored being a housewife?"

Ms. Miller, who started driving a farm tractor at the age of 8, financed the modest restaurant herself on a side street near the courthouse in this borough of 4,200. She has no husband but will marry in October.

"I am going to be a farmer's wife," she said. "We've sat down and talked about our roles as husband and wife, as friends, as parents. I am now -- and will continue to be -- a businesswoman.

"I could never be the little woman who stays home, does the laundry and begs her husband for money. I see us as full partners."

Along the back roads of southern Pennsylvania, where people tend to plan their futures from porch swings, job counselor Kate Thompson is holding self-help workshops for rural women on self-esteem and assertiveness.

"These are communities that haven't changed with modernization and high technology," she said. "It's difficult to break some of the bonds. But you're beginning to see women who are starting to realize their own worth and their potential. It's empowering."

For 41-year-old Diane Wright, who has never lived in a community of more than a few hundred people, her recent divorce meant moving from her home into a 15-year-old trailer and taking her first-ever job as a baker.

"I just wanted to be a person," said Ms. Wright, who is quietly trying to organize a women's support group. "I never gave myself a chance to be a person. The day I left my husband, I felt this tremendous relief. It was over.

"I think you can really overcome anything if you want to," she said. "For me, the biggest thing has been working. Even if it only means $4.50 an hour and no benefits, it's something I'm doing for myself. I was the first in my community to go out on my own, but I won't be the last.

"You watch," she said. "I think there's going to be a lot of us."

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