Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"feminization of the rural economy"

That line caught my attention as I was listening to NPR's "All Things Considered" during my drive time this evening. Two of my favorite topics -- women and rurality -- right there in the same story, indeed, the same phrase. Once I got focused on the story, I was intrigued to learn it was about Tajikistan and the phenomenon of vast numbers of men there migrating to Russia for work. Apparently one-seventh of the population regularly works outside the country, often returning home during the winter, when construction work ceases for a time. As an expert on the region explained, among other consequences, this leaves Tajik farms run and operated by women.

Coincidentally, just today, I was browsing through a book called Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South, about the role rural Southern women have played in U.S. agriculture since the turn of the 20th Century. Author LuAnn Jones observes how these women's critical roles have been overlooked by scholars who have relegated rural women to the margins, focusing instead on those who abandoned the farm for tobacco factory or textile work.

Jones's book was a reminder of my own family stories. During the Dust Bowl era, my maternal grandfather often left the family's rural Northwest Arkansas farm for months at a time for paid work in Kansas City or California. Meanwhile, my grandmother kept the farm and raised the kids. As Jones argues, these contributions by rural women have been rarely studied and mostly forgotten.

Today, Tajik women had their moment in the spotlight, albeit thousands of miles away in the United States. But are their contributions to Tajik society, their roles as solo parents and their sustenance of Tajik agriculture, acknowledged in their own land? And will they be remembered there?

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