Rural Woman Zone
was an online community connecting women living in rural places in the United States and elsewhere. It included a website with updated news and original materials, three monitored member-only email lists – Ruralwomyn, our primary meeting place, Ruralconnect, for women working with domestic violence and sexual assault victim service programs, and Edum, (Editors Don’t Understand Me) for writers. A dedicated chat room was for Saturday informal chats, games, and formal meetings of the board of directors, which was implemented when we applied for nonprofit status for First Chance Project, which helped rural women have access to Internet technology.
What the Internet was like when we started
When we started organizing in the 90s, there was little information online that was specific to rural women in the U.S. Most organizational efforts focusing on rural women were limited to Third World countries. There were some rural women’s organizations in Canada and Australia, including their annual Rural Women’s Award program. The implication was that rural women in the United States had been absorbed into the dominant culture in a developed country and had no unique problems or goals in common to unite them.
The reality is that yet today, rural women in the U.S.
- face health disparities and are dying at a higher rate than women in urban areas and this problem has become worse, not better.
- lack access to reproductive health services, prenatal care and obstetric services even in places where there are local hospitals.
- have high rates of substance abuse and lack access to rehabilitation services and treatment.
- need access to justice and support services for victims of gender-based violence including domestic violence and sexual assault.
- face food deserts and chemical-based agricultural systems which create the need for locally grown and healthy foods, resources for working small farms, access to clean water and freedom from exposure to pesticides and other chemicals.
- live in places where men dominate local governing boards, planning commissions, and other decision-making bodies.
- lack access to land ownership and credit,
- and particularly if they are single, often lack social capital.
Not a contradiction in terms
Notably absent from resources and information available on the Internet was any rural feminist perspective. “Rural feminism” seemed to be a contradiction in terms. But many of the fundamental problems faced by rural women can be tied to entrenched patriarchal systems and conservative political and religious perspectives.
We didn’t ask that women who joined the community label themselves as feminist, but anti-feminist, anti-womanist sentiment was not a part of the discourse.
We rose to meet this challenge
One challenge faced by scholars involved how to avoid colonizing the voices of rural women, and how instead to seriously face and understand the different contexts of rural women’s lives…. Feminist theorists… are caught in a bind. We call for marginalized groups of women to add their perspectives to feminist discourse and practice in order to enable subjects to speak for themselves, but we realize that the academic and literary worlds are closed or alien to many of these women.
— Carolyn Sachs, Gendered Fields: Rural Women,Agriculture, and Environment
The body of work available to the public on the website attracted the interest of academics and others as a source of research.
In the beginning
Rural Womyn Zone began when one woman dairy farmer had insomnia and woke up every morning at 3 a.m. and decided to teach herself coding and take her mission to connect rural women online. The goal was to provide a meeting place for rural women who would never be able to meet in person but needed a larger community to connect the micro and the macro: what was their individual experience in their small towns with gender-based oppressions, domestic violence, sexual assault, community organizing around these and other issues, what were the particular local challenges, political and social and how were they confronted, what were the basic needs for rural women and how were they addressed. It would envelope a wide range of issues including healthy food, sustainable food systems and markets; access to reproductive and other health care, prenatal care and birthing; furthering education and accessing community and junior colleges; child care and employment; and developing real time programs in real communities to help women struggling with these problems.
We published the first bilingual (English/Spanish) online directory of resources for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and published Marie De Santis’ Women’s Justice Center/Centro de Justicia Para Mujeres until the organization developed their own comprehensive website.
We provided professional training for domestic violence and sexual assault victim advocates.
And it was most of all a community gathering space for women who wanted friendly connections with like-minded women. We called the town Towanda, and we had a virtual coffee shop and other “stores” and businesses, including a radio station, KFEM. Long-term friendships developed over the years. We invented a virtual and then a real time quilt that we sent out when women were going through hard times and grief, a sign of community comfort. We had a photo albums to share pictures of our homes, gardens and farms with each other.
The creativity of the community enhanced the website and our individual lives in our separate real time spaces. It lasted for many years, while lives and technology changed- more rural women had Internet access, although we still lag in having access to high speed Internet; social media and apps replaced our email lists and chat rooms. Many of us are still here, connected on social media and in other ways. Some of us who became our deepest friends and mentors have passed on. Susan, Shirley, Marie. And we still miss them. We wouldn’t have missed Rural Womyn Zone for the world.