Women’s 1930s rural life glimpsed through their letters, but self-censorship meant not all was revealed | #socialmedia

Throughout the 1930s, rural women found their own social support networks through letter writing.

Contributing to The Weekly Times’ Women’s Information Bureau, which was edited by “Miranda”, the letters detailed life on the farm for women, shared tips and tricks of motherhood, and allowed contributors to ask others for help.

The page worked much like today’s social media forums.

Latrobe University senior history lecturer Ruth Ford became fascinated by the letters when she came across them while researching another project.

“I was just completely captivated by them because they talked about everything: farm work, ploughing, milking cows,” Dr Ford said.

The Women’s Information Bureau was a safe space for rural women in the 1930s.(ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

“I got lured into reading letters for a very long time.”

Reality not as it seemed

Through her research, Dr Ford began investigating the women behind the letters through piecing their words together and working with local historians.

Eventually she discovered that the women’s letters didn’t paint the exact picture of the lives they were living.

“Because some of the women were regular contributors over 10 years, they would let little bits of information slip; it might’ve been the names of their children or where they lived,” she said.

The letters give a glimpse into women’s issues and rural life in the 1930s, but not the whole picture.(ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

“One of the regular contributors depicted herself as Heather and a mother of nine children, a grazier’s wife, on a property between Swan Hill, Deniliquin and Hay.

“But, of course, what you get from that is the things she chose not to reveal in her letters.”

In this case, Heather was Violet Nesbitt.

“But then I did more digging and I found out she was actually the housekeeper, caring for the six children of this widower and then married her employer. And then you do a bit more digging and find out she was actually a deserted wife who then got divorced.

“There’s this whole kind of scandal because divorce for anyone in the 1930s was really taboo.

“Behind the image of the grazier’s wife with nine children, there’s a whole story that shows the struggle women had at that time,” Dr Ford said.

Dr Ford pored over letters, photos and documents to track down the women’s stories.(ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Rural life in the 1930s

The column began in The Weekly Times in 1931 and Dr Ford said Miranda made it clear some topics were not up for discussion, such as family limitation; what we know as contraception.

“Then, there’s the self-censorship of women. They wrote about their children and maybe getting children to eat or do jobs,” she said.

“But they didn’t write about bodily experiences of birth or breastfeeding or labour. Women were withholding what they saw appropriate for publication.”

But what Dr Ford found, was the letters showcased a yearning for connection and these women managed to find it; though not in the way we know it today.

“But I think what’s similar is the emotional support they provided through this form of writing letters.

“The women’s voices come through so strongly. We hear their voices and their perspective of what it was like being a rural woman.”

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