Not Only a Farmer’s Wife: Searching for Rural Women

Not Only a Farmer’s Wife: Searching for Rural Women

Sara E. Morris

Associate Content Development Librarian, University of Kansas


I got excited when a student sought my help researching contemporary women farmers two years ago. I work as a librarian at the University of Kansas, and it isn’t every day that a patron’s research needs align with my scholarly interests. When the student and I got to work, it became apparent this was not going to be easy.  After many failed searches we determined that current writers did not refer to them as “women farmers” or “female farmers” or “farmer’s wives”—scholars and journalists simply refer to them as farmer(s). As a historian of rural and farm women, I like so many other scholars who have argued for the recognition of women’s contributions to agriculture, this experience left me both happy and frustrated.

After this meeting and some sessions at the Agricultural History Society annual meeting I decided to look into whether changing perceptions concerning rural women might affect how we should research them. After all, three generations of scholars have argued that women have always been far more than just wives on farms, and feminism has also altered perceptions about women and occupations. I did some investigating and learned that these factors do influence how we should search using both subject headings and keywords.

Subject Headings

Although most people today search using keywords, subject headings are still a valuable tool. These human assigned categories have guided library users since the days of the card catalog and remain an excellent starting point to find library materials. A subject heading from a book that has already been identified as useful should direct a user to similar works. However, users must know that this is not as perfect as it seems.  Librarians have argued for subject headings to be updated to reflect social and cultural changes. For example, in the 1980s subject headings changed from “Farmers, Women” to “Women farmers” and from “Farm women” to “Women in Agriculture.”  Both are examples of how feminism influenced subject headings. Hooray! However, because libraries do not retrospectively update subject headings, older ones are left unchanged. Consequently, using subject headings from new books won’t necessarily find old ones and vice versa.

To demonstrate this problem, I turn to a classic in the field of rural women’s studies, Margaret Jarman Hagood’s Mothers of the South: Portraiture of the White Tenant Farm Woman. Based on her 1937 doctoral dissertation, this monograph has been published multiple times. As the WorldCat subject headings listed below indicate, the terms used with each edition are not the same. Only two subject terms are used for all the versions, “Sharecropping” and “Southern States.”


Understanding how the same book might be described differently is important for researchers concerned with the past. It could be completely possible to use these subject headings and never learn that there were newer/older versions of this book. This is not good. Consequently this reinforces that to be good researchers we must be exhaustive and use the same critical thinking skills we use to contemplate our topics for research. I’d also like to note that this blog belongs to the Rural Women’s Studies Association and a keyword search in WorldCat for rural women would not even retrieve this book.

Text Mining to Help Identify Keywords

Keywords have become the most common way to search. For example, googling is keyword searching and it is also the mechanism used to retrieve results in digital archives. While this is a great way to search and is revealing new information, it only works if the researcher utilizes appropriate words and executes a good search. I always tell students that they must think about what sources they are searching, who wrote them, and what words/terms they would have used to refer to the subject/topic they are looking for. This also requires an acknowledgement that these can change overtime.

Google Ngram is a free and easy way to text mine and determine which words/terms were used most frequently at a specific time. Ngram searches the text of all the materials included in Google Books and indicates on a graph how many times the word or phrase appears. It is important to note that there are many weaknesses to this tool—for example, we don’t know what materials make up the Google Books corpus—but it is a great way to learn some basic information. Because it is so easy to use, it is a great way to teach undergraduates about word usage.  In an effort to have a better understanding of word usage related to rural women I made a list of various terms used to describe them. (Note, I didn’t include variants of slavery or sharecropping here because they were outliers in earlier searches.)


The initial search included all the terms and publications dating from 1800 to 2000. Rural women skewed the results due to its frequent use since the 1970s.


Two hundred years of data did not provide very much useful information. So to get a better idea of useful terms, I removed “Rural women” and “Rural woman” and limited the time frame to the nineteenth century. This new search demonstrated that “Farmers’ Wives” would be the best search term for the later portion of the century with “Farmer’s Wife” in a close second.


The twentieth century demonstrates significant change in word use. During the first half of the century “Farmers’ Wives” continued to be used the most. But note that the term “Country Women” was used frequently throughout this fifty year period as well.



The latter half of the twentieth century reveals a huge shift. The most obvious, as pointed out in the first graph, was the use of rural women. However, when that term is removed it is possible to see a really important change. As scholars of rural women we know that farm women, country women, rural women, whatever term you’d like to use did farm work and in one way or another have always been farmers. However, the term farmer is gendered and it implies male. Yet, during the last fifty years of the twentieth century the use of farmer with words like women or female has increased significantly.



These are just two different ways that demonstrate how word usage affects how we search for both secondary and primary sources. For scholars how have worked towards a better understanding of women’s contributions to rural life, these are welcomed changes.  However, if we don’t recognize or remember this when we are looking for information, it is possible to miss out on important sources.  Happy Researching!

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