Women in the Grange


Women in the Grange


Bethel Historical Society






Full Text

Women in the Grange

By Jean F. Hankins

The following article is based on a paper delivered in September 2008 at the Bethel Historical Society’s conference on the Grange. Jean F. Hankins, of Otisfield, Maine, is an independent scholar, active in the Otisfield Historical Society. A graduate of Tufts University and the University of Indiana, she holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Connecticut. From her extensive research, Mrs. Hankins concludes that, despite the Grange’s pioneering role in granting women equal rights within the Order, its most influential members were more often male, a pattern that continues into the 21st century.

When the National Grange was founded in 1867, it made history by admitting women on an equal footing with men. It was the first national organization of its type to do so. To put this in historical perspective, it was not until 1920, after decades of agitation, that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, finally giving women the right to vote. For individual women, the founding of the Grange was important not historically, but on a personal level. Be- cause its basic purpose over the years was to improve the lives of America’s farmers and their families, the Grange has had a strong social and intellectual impact and has changed the lives of many rural American women. Women members have given back in full measure, contributing substantially to the Grange’s success. Before discussing these two related issues— what the Grange did for women and what women did for the Grange—it may be wise to look at just how equal the Grange women really were.

In 1903, thirty-six years after Oliver Hudson Kelley first conceived of the Grange, Susan B. Anthony stated that she could always recognize a “Grange woman as far off as she could see her, because of her air of feeling herself as good as a man.” In fact, women’s equality was never as simple as that. It was, after all, the male organizers of the Grange who established the women’s role in the first place. While the founders believed that the participation of women was essential, they also believed in separate spheres for the two sexes. Grange founder Kelley followed the advice of his niece, Caroline Hall, to include women on an equal footing with men because he believed they would make meetings more attractive and pleasant. Kelley was convinced, however, that women should restrict their activities to the home or an extension of the home; he insisted that outdoor work stifled development of women’s higher qualities. The Reverend Aaron Grosh, another Grange founder, reflected the male attitude of the day when he stated that the woman member would raise the standards with her “gentle influence, her innate tact in all matters of good taste and propriety, her instinctive perceptions of righteousness and parity.”

In short, the Grange founders placed woman on a pedestal and expected her to stay there. The founders went so far as to create four new officers which only women could hold—those of Ceres, Pomona, Flora, and Lady Assistant Steward. They may have assumed that men alone could hold the more responsible Grange offices, the duties of which, in the words of Aaron Grosh, “would probably render them undesirable to the [female] sex.” Oliver Kelley himself echoed this same attitude when he stated that women liked the Grange because “it was like a fancy dress party.” But some women Grangers did not agree. Cordelia Atkeson complained in 1901 that there was no reason for her to report as Ceres because the office had given her nothing to do, and a Connecticut woman complained about the three Lady Graces who “sit in distressing dignity, like so many wax-figures.” The idea that men and women were equal but separate was rein- forced by the design of separate ceremonies for degrees for men and women, a practice that continued until 1889.

Although Eliza Gifford, an early feminist, in 1894 called the Grange the “greatest equality club the world has ever known, women Grangers made slow progress in attaining true equal status in leadership positions. In California, for example, it was ruled in 1873 that any woman could run for office in the State Grange, but it was three more years before any woman candidate emerged. On the local level, the first woman master of a subordinate Grange was Flora Kimball, elected Master of Howard County (Indiana) Grange in 1877. Slowly, a few women did begin to hold state Grange offices, some of them moving up on their husband’s coat-tails. From 1881-86, for example, Sallie Back was Lecturer for the Indiana State Grange. But not until 1895 did any woman become Master of a State Grange, and until the twentieth century, never did more than seven women hold the top Grange offices in any one year. National prominence for women came ever more slowly. A year later, the first woman became a member of the National Executive Committee, and two years later, in 1897, the first woman was elected Lecturer of the National Grange.

All-women Degree team, Excelsior Grange #5
Poland, Maine

The slow movement of women into leadership suggests that Grange women were traditionalists. Historian Donald Marti points out that as late as l978, women seemed stuck in the separate sphere. He states that most Grange women were content to leave the farm problems to the men, and, as one Indiana Grange woman put it, their activities consisted “mostly of contests in sewing, crocheting, needlework and baking.” However, as the examples above show, during the 1980s women’s leadership role in the Grange expanded rapidly, doubtless due to an increase in better educated women members and “overall changes in the attitude of the general population.” Writing near the end of the twentieth century, Marti commented that “the boundary between women’s and men’s spheres, which Grange women could always cross at some points, is now more permeable than ever.”

Turning to one of the questions we began with: Historically, what did women members do for the Grange? We have already mentioned the founders’ belief that women’s “gentle influence” would contribute decorum to Grange meetings. In addition to elevating the social tone of Grange meetings, Grange women contributed in four ways: They did much of the routine work of the subordinate Granges; they contributed far more than their share to Grange publications, and increasingly, as speakers on the local level; they assumed leadership of Juvenile Granges, Committees on Women’s Work, and Household Economy Committees; and they moved the agenda of the Grange toward educational and social goals.

Beginning with Caroline Hall, Kelley’s niece, who served as her uncle’s record-keeping assistant and secretary, women did much of the Order’s routine work. In 1880 a California Granger commented that “one lady is equal to six men and a span of horses.” From the outset, women “cleaned Grange halls, devised entertainments, often planned entire programs and prepared meals.” These tasks might be viewed as an ex- tension of the traditional homemaker’s sphere; the set- ting was different, but the work was much the same. As we have already noted, women were slow to move into the top positions, but they were especially apt to assume the offices of secretary and lecturers of subordinate Granges. Historian Donald Marti points out that in 1888 Connecticut had sixty-one subordinate Granges, but only one had a woman master. However, women served as secretaries in five, and in just over half of those sixty-one, women served as lecturers, with the important responsibility of planning programs. By 1901, according to another historian, women held most lecturer’s positions in local Granges. In this capacity, women helped “mold the policy and activity of the Grange.”

In addition to serving as Grange secretaries, lecturers, and librarians, early women members exercised their literary and oratorical skills in Grange publications and subordinate meetings. In 1898 one male observer noted, with some surprise, that “hundreds of thousands of women” were writing and speaking publicly. The voice of the average farm woman was being heard from one end of America to the other. While much of their literary production was unremarkable, consisting largely of formulae poems and essays categorized as “literary entertainment,” occasionally women also presented more substantial papers and led discussions at State Grange meetings.

The Grange women, then, were not silent, and state and local Granges soon moved to give their women members a special podium by creating new committees. Formal specialization of men’s and women’s spheres on the state level began in the 1880s when the Massachusetts State Grange established two women’s committees—one on household economy and the other on home entertainment and amusements. Other states copied this pattern. Ironically, these new committees, which created a wider space between men and women’s spheres, seem also to have been a springboard for women who wished to widen the Grange agenda, and they provided a means of doing so. In Maine, for example, where the Grange was flourishing, the State Grange established a Household Economy Committee in 1886 which merged a few years later with a Committee on Women’s Work. This group, particularly active between 1890 and 1910, promoted causes which might be considered especially relevant to women. They successfully advocated such reforms as adding music to the curriculum in public schools, the organization of juvenile Granges, well-ordered householders, good nutrition, shrewd clothing purchases, and the proper administration of medicine. The Maine Women’s Committee also reached out into the com- munity to help the needy, most notably with a $500 donation to build a Grange cottage for orphans at the Good Will Farm in Fairfield.

So far we have not mentioned the extent to which the early Grange as a national organization sought economic reforms like regulation of railroads and curtailment of monopolies. Nor have we mentioned the retail stores and buyers’ cooperatives which the local Granges established. Although these matters must have been of interest to rural women, they fell largely into the sphere of men and, thus, are beyond the scope of this discussion. As many historians have pointed out, the effort of the Grangers in the early years to achieve radical economic reforms yielded in the 1880s to increasing emphasis on educational and social goals, teaching the farmer and his family how to better their lives through new agricultural techniques, household economies, more pleasant homes, healthier lifestyles, and stronger community life.

But what did the Grange do for the rural woman? Asking this question, of course, implies a double standard. Donald Marti and other historians have preferred to use the term “mutuality” to describe the different areas of interest to rural men and women. “Men and women farmers,” he wrote, “have regularly crossed the boundary separating their spheres to share work and social enjoyments.” The Grange helped rural women most fundamentally by moving them out of their customary role, that is, by ending their social isolation and getting them out of the house. According to the author of a dissertation on the Maine Grange, “No one benefitted from [the Grange] more than the farmers’ wives whose lot was much more drab and dull than their husbands’ and who had less opportunity to mingle and mix.” Henry Dunnack’s 1928 book on rural life in Maine goes a bit further: “The Grange may be called the liberator of the American farmer’s wife.” “Altho frequently stated,” he continues, “the fact that farm women are more prone to insanity than any other class” is not well known. Dunnack believed that the cause of this insanity was women’s social isolation, a viewpoint echoed by American writers such as Hamlin Garland whose fiction shows farm women “distorted with work and child-bearing.”

Although Dunnack’s comments on women’s mental health seem exaggerated, it was undoubtedly true that farm women welcomed the chance to “mingle and mix.” A second benefit was that the Grange gave women an opportunity to use their minds. For some women, the Grange became a center of adult education which found expression also in the women’s club movement, started in 1868, and the popular Chautauqua lectures that began soon after. Women’s clubs and Chautauquas were less likely to be found in rural areas and probably attracted a more sophisticated audience. The appeal of the Grange programs for women was their practical focus on domestic and farming issues.

If Granges provided adult education for women, the educational process worked in two directions as the women in turn became educators. Grange historians have suggested that it was no coincidence that many women Grange leaders were former school teachers, who, following the rules of the day, resigned their professional positions when they married. The Grange gave them not just a social outlet and a chance to learn new techniques of household economy, but also an intellectual opportunity, a chance for self-expression. As Donald Marti puts it, “They understood the pedagogical role. Sometimes they explained or protested their own problems, but they more generally tried to teach the less fortunate how to live thoughtful, gracious, and satisfying lives. During their years in the Grange, some of these women acquired new organizational skills and experience in writing and public speaking on a broad range of topics.

The intellectual benefit occasionally led to the political. Eventually a few Grange women used their new- found voices outside of the domestic sphere to urge new reforms never considered by the founders. The important one was the woman’s right to vote. The Rev. Aaron Grosh had assumed that for women the Grange would be an extension of the home, a sanctuary from the hurly-burly of the public sphere. He was not alone. One male Grange member from South Carolina went so far as to call the women’s movement of the day “a political abortion . . . the mere mention of . . . which would bring the blush of shame to every pure woman’s cheek. Many believed that women should exercise their political views only through the influence they exerted on the male voters in their families, and it is hardly surprising to find that the earliest Grange positions on the issue were “cautious, negative, or downright hostile.” Nevertheless, such nay-sayers could not deny the early history of the Grange and the insistence of the founders on equal membership for men and women. Persistently, from 1874 on, both men and women Grangers argued that woman’s suffrage was simply a valid expression of the principle of equality on which the Grange had been founded.

The question of a woman’s right to vote became linked closely to the temperance issue, especially after the organization of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874. Many Grange women joined the WCTU, thus broaching the issue with male Grangers and, in doing so, broadening the base of the movement. Although the WCTU included members from towns and cities as well as rural areas, the typical WCTU member was, like the Grange, middle class, Protestant, and somewhat progressive. The two causes became further joined by the argument that the only way to enact prohibition was by giving women the vote. For example, in 1886 the Michigan Grange said that the “alcohol problem was so bad that women should be allowed to vote on prohibition. With the leadership of several state Granges like that in California, the National Grange cautiously edged towards support of female suffrage. In 1881, the New York and Indiana State Granges endorsed the right of women to vote. During the decades following, women Grange members managed to keep the issue alive at both the subordinate (local) and state levels. Only in 1916, just four years before the ratification of the 19th amendment, did the National Grange platform endorse women’s suffrage.

Grange women were also interested in public education on all levels. Starting in the 1870s, they lobbied hard for domestic science instruction and vocational training for women in the new state agricultural colleges. The Grange women also pushed hard on the state and local levels for educational reforms. For some, these reforms included raising the schools’ moral tone and inculcating patriotism; others lobbied for more basic reforms in the curriculum and the educational systems. In Maine, for example, women Grangers took the lead in promoting uniform text- books in Maine public schools, the abolition of the district school system with its one-room schools, and increased funding for the agricultural college in Orono.

Just who were these women Grangers we have been talking about? Without question, the most prominent was Caroline Hall, who first proposed the idea that women should be admitted as members on an equal basis with men. A former teacher, she worked for years as an assistant to her uncle, Grange founder Oliver Hudson Kelly. Always in the shadows, she ex- celled at the detail work he avoided. It was she who kept the records and conducted the correspondence between the far-flung Grange leaders that was so necessary for keeping the fledgling organization alive. So important was Caroline Hall to the success of the Grange that in 1892 the National Grange decreed that she be recognized as an equal to the Seven Founders. Unfortunately this belated recognition has been largely forgotten; Grange historians continue to praise the Seven Founders, all of whom were male, and make only cursory mention of Caroline Hall.

Bernice H. Noyes (1906-1972) was elected in 1943 as the first woman Master of Alder River Grange # 145 in East Bethel. She was also a charter member of the Bethel Historical Society. Other women who served as Master of Bethel Granges were Bertha Mundt, who assumed the position of Pleasant Valley #136 Master in West Bethel in 1933 and served until 1937. Olive Head also became Master of Pleasant Valley seven years later in 1945. The earliest instance of a woman heading up a Grange organization in Bethel was Bertha Grover Valentine, who became Master of Bethel Grange #56 at Bethel Hill in 1906—thirteen years before women acquired the right to vote on the national level. Three years later, another woman, Gipsey Barker, assumed the same office at Bethel Grange.

Over the years a large number of Grange women have ignored or overcome such inconsistent and careless treatment. The following brief sketches focus on three strong Grange women whose personal goals differed considerably. First, there was Eliza C. Gifford, who lived in Chautauqua County, New York, and was one of the hardest-working lobbyists for women’s rights. She taught school for seven years before marrying a farmer at the age of twenty-two and raising six children. Gifford and her husband were charter members of their local Grange. She served as Master of both the Subordinate Grange and the Pomona (county) Grange, wrote for Grange publications, and participated in State and National Grange meetings. Also a member of the WCTU, in 1881 she first pro- posed an equal suffrage resolution to the New York State Grange, and for over twenty years she persistently renewed her efforts for its passage.

Second, Sarah Baird came from Vermont, but moved to Minneapolis at the age of fourteen. She graduated from a normal school in 1860, taught school for five years, and then married. The Bairds were early mem- bers of the local Grange, which Sarah Baird hoped would “elevate, educate, and build up the Farmer to a standard that may be recognized as a fit person for the first society, which he now stands far beneath.” Her major concern was always with the promise of the Grange to enrich farmers’ and farm women’s lives. Sarah Baird spoke and wrote for the local Grange pa- per, and she served as Master of the local Grange. She then advanced to serve as Master of the Minnesota Grange, a position she held for seventeen years, be- coming the first Master of a State Grange.

Grange songbook compiled by Caroline Hall

Finally, closer to home and probably more typical of the thousands of women members of the Grange, there is Ruth Wiley of North Warren, Maine, to whom Stan Howe dedicated his book on the Maine Grange. Born in 1906, Ruth Wiley attended local schools and, like so many other Grange women leaders, attended normal school and taught school before her marriage in 1926. The mother of eleven children, she must have found the Grange not only a liberating social outlet, but also a forum for asserting her individuality. She joined White Oak Grange as a teenager and served in many offices, including that of Master. She was active in Pomona and the State Grange, was a member of National Grange, and served for many years on the State Committee on Women’s Activities.

These brief sketches of Grange women illustrate changes in how women have contributed to and benefitted from the Grange in the years since 1867. They also demonstrate the farsighted wisdom of the eight founders of the Order in admitting women members on an equal basis with men. From the start, Grange women have responded by cooking, sewing, lecturing, recording, organizing, and presiding, making the Grange not only a more decorous place, but also a more enlightening forum for rural families. As they have given, they have received; the Grange has re- warded its women members with a wide variety of social, intellectual, educational, and political opportunities. Grange women have moved increasingly into positions where they were never expected to go. Over the years, Caroline Hall’s insistence on equal status for women has worked well. Simply put, women have been good for the Grange, and the Grange has been good for women.

Further reading:
Henry E. Dunnack, Rural Life in Maine (Augusta, ME: C. E. Nash, 1928)
Charles M. Gardner, The Grange: Friend of the Farmer, 1867-1947 (Washington, DC: The National Grange, 1949)
S. Carleton Guptill, The Grange in Maine from 1874-1940 (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Maine, 1973)
David H. Howard, People, Pride, and Progress (Washington, DC: National Grange, 1992)
Stanley Russell Howe, “A Fair Field and No Favor”: A Concise History of the Maine State Grange (Augusta: Maine State Grange, 1994)
Donald B. Marti, Women of the Grange: Mutuality and Sisterhood in Rural America, 1866- 1920 (New York: Greenwood, 1991)
Thomas N. Woods, Knights of the Plow: Oliver H. Kelley and the Origins of the Grange in Republican Ideology (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1991)