It’s the morning of the final day of the Rural Women’s Studies Association conference in Athens, Ohio. It’s been a really engaging conference and the calibre of work has been very good. I attended several excellent historical sessions, as well as some really good contemporary sessions. The conference, organized around the theme of Thriving and Surviving, has offered many different dimensions of ordinary women’s struggles to be seen and heard.
Several of the panels also had me thinking about situating Bell’s story, of how women’s positions often articulate strength and resilience in ways that appear feminist and assertive. We would never categorise them this way, but we still need frameworks for articulating such activities. For example, Linda Little, in her 2015 novel Grist, reimagines Bell as a kind of proto-feminist. Though never announcing her character explicitly in that way, she none the less tells a clear tale of a woman who was acting independently, deliberately taking on conventionally male roles and being facilitated in all this by other independent women.
A panel discussion on contemporary Appalachian feminisms reminded me that Bell’s actions, like the actions these contemporary activist academics were describing, were not feminist actions, but quite ordinary forms of practice that embodied a combination of active resistance and the conventional common sense of women.
What occurred to me over the course of the conference is that Bell’s method, and her sisters’ methods in particular, facilitated my own. When Bell and James Barry’s marriage began to crumble after 1867, Bell’s sisters and supporters organized themselves effectively to allow Bell to retreat to her parent’s home. A steady stream of sisters and friends circulated through the local community and the Barry household providing cooking, cleaning, shopping and other basic domestic-material needs.
Their struggles, their efforts to carry Bell through her difficult and sometimes abusive marriage, give us a clear sense of a kind of feminist practice in a context few would imagine as feminist. Their actions were small, and utterly conventional in a 19th-century rural domestic setting, but they open a window on an effective network of women’s resistance in practice.
Every day that Barry grumbled about his wife’s absences, her actions were facilitated, quite deliberately, by conscious female mobilization. These instances are when I as an historian saw Bell: when she, or her sisters, either confronted or confounded her husband’s expectations and needs. These actions were rarely the centre of his diary, but they often merited mention. I can see Bell because of their concerted actions to offer their sister a place of refuge.
Their method enabled my method.