The women who came before us – The Rural Diary Archive

This post is the second in the series ‘The women who came before us’. AWN members were asked to write a tribute to their mothers, the women who came before us, and brought us this far, as a thank you for everything they’ve contributed in celebration of Mother Days. This post was written by a member of the leadership team in collaboration with Jodey Nurse-Gupta.

During a recent visit with my Mom, we happened upon a diary from 1948 that was written by my Grandma.  The daily entries gave evidence of a caring, kind, and determined woman who brought a sense of humour to situations, a love of family, and a deep faith to each day. It was heartwarming to read about my teenage Mom and her family’s life on the farm.  My Mom’s mother passed away when my Mom was under two years of age and the Grandma that I knew, and the woman who authored the diary, married my grandfather and became my Mom’s step-mom. I recently read that Mom’s mother was also a loving and kind woman who was held in high esteem in the community too. I am thankful for the generations of women in my family, and that Mother’s Day is a time to reflect on this blessing.

So often we think of “grandma’s generation” in a romantic, cookie jar filling, apron wearing way. But these women knew what grit was, they knew how to hold their own, they knew how to face the toughest of situations and somehow find courage and grace to deal with it.  They were the ultimate “get it done” generation.  No doubt they had days when they felt overwhelmed – when the well ran dry, when their brood of children were sick, when the weather ruined their hours of field labour, when the need of a female shoulder to cry on was miles away.  They were motivated by circumstance and their influence was strong and secure.

Diaries provide a unique window into previous generations.  They recorded, among other things, the daily weather, family joys and sorrows, community events, and farming details. The founder and project director of the Rural Diary Archive, Dr. Catharine Anne Wilson of the University of Guelph, has created a website that currently contains the diaries of almost 140 diarists from rural Ontario. The diaries range from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the postwar period, and many more diaries will be added to the collection in the future. The Rural Diary Archive actively works to secure diaries and transcribe them through the efforts of online volunteers. The website provides information about the project and will hopefully encourage you to help transcribe some of the rural and farm women’s diaries in the collection.  Dr. Wilson’s passion for diaries started with the discovery of her great, great grandmother’s diary, and as she notes in a piece written for the Rural Women’s Studies Association, “Nothing brings you closer to rural women’s daily life in the past than reading an old diary.”

Jodey Nurse-Gupta, an AWN member, a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Guelph, the Co-coordinator of the Rural History Roundtable, and a member of the Rural Diary Archive team, has studied the roles of women in agriculture and is completing a dissertation about women’s involvement in Ontario agricultural societies and fairs from 1846 to 1979. When I asked her what she has learned about the history of farm women, she explained how farm women were incredibly important to the social, cultural, and economic fabric of their societies. She noted that, historically, Canadian farm women’s work such as tending to the sick, providing childcare, sewing, cooking, preserving foodstuff, dairying, and seasonal field work was necessary for a farm family’s success. Beyond providing for the family, however, Jodey explained that farm women were also committed to serving their community, and through that service they were often empowered. “Often this service – whether as members of the local agricultural society or another community organization – empowered rural women by giving them a degree of social authority in their communities. Fairs were important events because they showcased women’s work. Whether they were exhibiting bread and butter, fancywork, or livestock, women who competed at fairs took advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate their individual talents and achievements, and publicly show how the things they made or what they did contributed to their families’ and communities’ well-being.” Jodey cites examples of how women’s dairy produce exhibits illustrated women’s importance to the dairy industry in the nineteenth century, or how their participation in agricultural societies in the twentieth century – first simply as “Lady Directors,” but later in a number of different roles – confirmed the need for women’s expertise and leadership. Such participation provided an argument for why women’s work on farms was important, and how their knowledge and leadership could translate into other opportunities for women in agriculture. We owe a great debt to the women who paved the way by participating in early agricultural organizations.

Jodey has much more to share and I have asked her to provide AWN with several upcoming blogs. She graciously said “Yes!” so watch for her upcoming blog features later this year.

It will soon be Mother’s Day, a time to honour the women who mothered us.  A time, as well, to honour the generations of women in our families and their role in our families, farms and communities.

For more about rural history projects and events at the University of Guelph, visit https://www.uoguelph.ca/history/ruralhistory

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