This article is part of our recent focus on “Rural Women: The Feminine Genius in the Countryside,” , which is the subject of our Fall 2015 magazine. To pre-order your copy, visit our online store.
When I worked as a campus minister eight years ago at St. Cloud State University, it brought me into direct contact with many young women who had been raised in rural communities and were taking the leap into a state university. These young women showed great interest in our ‘Women’s Spirituality” program. They wanted a place to gather and share their experiences and we wanted them to feel nurtured in the process. So we gave them a home-cooked meal and some time to talk, learn, pray and silently reflect on issues that were affecting their lives. We wanted to feed their mind, body and spirit.
This is where I begin in answering the question of how women in rural areas are doing. I want to base this reflection, first of all, in the knowledge that each woman is created in the image and likeness of God and is created good. When speaking about any human being, isn’t this where we as Catholic Christians always are to begin? Often, though, we begin noting things like ethnicity, race, age, body-type, facial appearance, dress, or perceived economic status. Our critical eye leads us to a judgment, rather than a spiritual realization. We need our souls and our hearts engaged. I invite us to take a soul-and-heart approach in our exploration of the topic of women in rural areas.
As a child, growing up on a farm, I learned at a young age that I wasn’t as good as the kids who came from the local town. You see, they got to play with each other almost every day, while, as a farm kid, I worked and played at home. My ties to my family and extended family were very strong, but my connection with the outside world was limited. I also soon learned that some kids had really nice clothes and mine were fine, but not the quality or quantity of theirs. This formed my earliest self-concept.
Later in life, I noted that this same kind of perception of not being “as good as” didn’t just apply to how I felt about myself as a youth, but characterizes the way many people see those who come from rural America. It is a very subtle judgment, but very real. Add gender discrimination, and we have a backdrop for our conversation about women in rural areas.
There hasn’t been much research done specifically on rural women, but we know that though rural America represents 75% of the national landmass, it is home to only 22.8% of U.S. women aged 18 years and older. This plays out in rural communities in two seemingly contradictory ways; a great sense of isolation and, at the same time, an “everyone knows everyone else’s business” way of life. Although close-knit ties and a certain detachment from the hyper-intensity of life in the city can be blessings, they can also combine to create challenging circumstances, for women in particular.
For example, in the case of domestic violence and rape, the person a victim often needs to report to may also be someone who knows her assailant personally. This causes many crimes to go unreported. Health services, including mental health services, are often not available, especially for those women unable to travel long distances or afford transportation costs. This list goes on as we speak about people wanting help in cases of poverty and chemical abuse. Studies also show that the gender pay gap and limited educational opportunities present obstacles for rural women to live a full and dignified life. It’s easy to read this litany of challenges and be discouraged.
But there is another side to the story, as Doug Scott, the Rural Life Coordinator for Catholic Charities in our diocese, reminded me. “The gifts women bring to rural life are many. Small businesses that are the lifeblood of rural communities are overwhelmingly owned and operated by women. Our schools, both Catholic and public, have a predominance of women faculty and staff. Faith formation leaders and teachers most often are the moms and grandmothers of the community. Service clubs and civic groups are dominated by ladies. In many farm families, women and men both have ‘day jobs’ and both take turns doing chores, driving tractor and so on. This happens in spite of all the unique challenges rural women face.”
Doug’s statement shows both the gifts women bring to rural life and the challenge they face there. Pointing to an added layer for women living in poverty, Maria Shriver writes in the introduction to the annual report on Women in America, “These are women who are already doing it all — working hard, providing, parenting, and care-giving. They’re doing it all, yet they and their families can’t prosper.”
Still, rural women persevere. “The average farmer’s wife is one of the most patient and overworked women of the time,” said my colleague JoAnn Braegelman, who also focuses on rural life for Catholic Charities. This piece of wisdom was something JoAnn had heard when she was growing up, but she also believes it accurately describes rural women in 2015.
“I see it in their ability to be compassionate caregivers, leaders in the community and producers of goods and of change. I also see rural women as having a great capacity to build community in many different ways, whether it is in their family, schools, churches or neighborhoods. The predominance of women as volunteers in any area is obvious. I think that women, in general, are more attune to the needs of others and so take it upon themselves to help or provide the care that is lacking in the area. That could be within their own family, for friends, neighbors or in the community somehow.”
It appears to me that, though rural women are facing greater stressors than their counterparts in cities and suburbs, they also are gifted with hearts that reach out and care for the needs of their communities. It is easy for women, in current conditions, not to recognize, utilize and celebrate the abundance of ‘Spirit’ power they have to transform the situations of others, just by their God-given compassion, wisdom and love. Pope Francis tells us that not only must the voice of women be listened to, but that it must also be given weight and authority. It is time! Much needs to be done to shape rural communities and to build God’s kingdom, and our women, in spite of the many challenges that face them, are leading the way.
Kathy Langer is the Director of Social Concerns for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn.